CEO, Interview

Interview Series: Sam Allen, CEO, Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust

In our latest interview we speak with Sam Allen, CEO at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust who takes us through her journey from NHS receptionist to CEO.

We chat to Sam ahead of a presentation she will be delivering at the upcoming Mental Health Recovery Summit, supported by HTN. We hear some of the key themes around mental health recovery planning ahead of the session.

We also talk about technology, learnings, challenges and advice for aspiring CEOs.

Can you tell me about yourself?

I’ve been the CEO here for three and a half years, we are a mental health and learning disability provider based in Sussex, and provide some services in Hampshire. It is a real privilege to be a CEO in the NHS, it is also challenging but a really rewarding job.

How did you become a CEO?

I was fortunate enough 5 years ago to get onto the second cohort of what the NHS calls the aspiring chief executives programme; it was a programme developed recognising that there needed to be some development and support for people moving into chief executive positions.

When you decide you want to be a CEO in the NHS, you have to decide which area you want to work in and I think for me the obvious choice was mental health as it is very close to my heart.

Mental health leaders have some really strong skills around partnership working so quite often our organisations are complex and diverse. We have 5,000 staff delivering services over 102 sites and it is different than walking into the main entrance of a big hospital.

It is a great job to have and wonderful to be able to do that in the community where you live.

Could you take me through the past few years in terms of your organisation’s digital maturity and the role of technology this year?

2 years ago, we were fortunate to become a Fast Follower through the Global Digital Exemplar programme, so we’ve had some significant investment into our digital services. When Covid hit, we were pretty well placed from an infrastructure perspective to adopt and scale up the use of digital consultations and other tools we needed.

I think the success of the response was a blend between the digital capabilities in the organisation and the passion that our digital teams have, coupled with really strong clinical leadership and a clear vision. They very quickly developed a vision which was anybody should be able to request a digital consultation and any clinician should be able to offer one.

The teams were just absolutely outstanding in those early days and most of them were working remotely themselves. With really strong clinical buy in, we went from only just introducing online consultations, doing 15 per week, to over 30,000 digital consultations.

We actually had a small number of our workforce, who for a variety of reasons, were in other parts of the world and they’ve been able to carry on working; it is like we have a global workforce now delivering care and support, which has really pricked our imaginations – do they have to be in an office in Sussex or an NHS building to deliver everything?

Having said that, we are learning a lot through this and you need a blended offering as digital isn’t right for everybody all of the time, absolutely not. It really is essential we maintain face to face services. I think also through the recovery phase for mental health, that is one of our big challenges alongside the acute sector in restoring services that are face to face, but equally not going back to before the pandemic because we’ve learnt to do things so much differently.

Are there any key learnings that you would like to mention?

Having a really clear and simple vision and freeing up your teams with a commission to make that happen.

In an odd way, at a time when everyone has tried to pull together with a focus on keeping patients safe and keeping services open, we have discovered so much hidden talent across the organisation. It has been a real eye opener where people have shone in new and different ways. If you can get everybody aligned around a core purpose, teams can be so effective and the real potential that exists right across the organisation can be highlighted.

Could you give me some key points of what you will be discussing at the Mental Health Summit with Draper & Dash?

One of the things I want to tease out is what recovery means for mental health during Covid-19.

Quite often, one of the things you can experience in health care is a hierarchy and from a mental health perspective, what role are we playing, what are our key challenges, what have we learnt and where do we need to think differently.

One of the things we’ve really learned over the past several months that absolutely apply, is the way we do things moving into the future; not losing that learning.

We are absolutely in the thick of recovery from the first few months, but all the evidence tells us that actually the on-going demand for mental health is going to continue for some time to come, particularly with economic stress. We were incredibly resourceful and resilient as leaders, but one of the key things we need to think about in terms of the economic downturn, the EU exit and the impact of that in the new year, is the mental health and wellbeing of our communities. Recovery can get us really focused in on our own services, but as leaders, we need to think about how are we going to look and work with our communities and other partners, employers, community organisations, local authorities and the broader work we are going to have to do to head off what could be an ongoing increasing demand on our services.

We are essentially facing the challenge of two pandemics: the impact of the virus and fallout of that on communities. We need to be thinking about the next one to three years.

What role has data played to you as a leader and your colleagues in the past 6 months?

Data is everything; how can you have a single version of the truth really moving away from dealing with anecdotes and dealing with data but also looking at data over time. Data has driven a lot of actions we’ve taken in response to the virus; workforce, patient, historical data, to do some sort of predictive analysis around demand. Data is increasingly featuring, you can’t do your job well without good data, but you need to be able to turn good data into good information to support decision making. Mental Health is a catch all terms for many different pathways of care and we don’t always articulate that right across the sector and in our health and care systems.

What advice would you give to current and aspiring CEOs?

Do your homework, go and have some conversations. It is a great job but make sure you build your support networks and your peer support networks, because it can be a really lonely job sometimes as well.

Again one of the great things over the last several months is that it has really brought to the fore peer support networks; as a CEO you really need to be looking up and out and not just across the health service but across the industry and other sectors and make sure you have good support networks there.

Is there a technology solution that has been really important to your organisation over the past 6 months?

We have a growing number of peer support workers in our organisation and they do amazing work; they lead our recovery college which has now gone digital and our peer support workers through GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar.

One of the things we have really seen is the importance of digital inclusion and there is definitely exclusion, so at a time where we all think everybody has a device, there are some people that don’t and some that struggle to use devices; it is really important we support them. The banking and utilities sector have done a lot of work here and we need to learn from them.

The other thing we have been doing during Covid is a result of our being such a disparate organisation with staff all over the place, we had an objective of developing our own staff app, and actually we launched that during Covid. Our app has been downloaded over a thousand times by our staff and it has all of our webcasts, news, and staff can access payslips. The top 5 things we heard that staff wanted, we have delivered through our app. Finding new ways to communicate with all staff is vital – not everyone is sat behind a computer and nor do we want them to be!