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Sector Insights

by Suhail Mirza


Healthcare Leadership: Valerie Michie

Can interims managers, business leaders and other professionals use their function-specific or transferrable skills and experience across different sectors? In this post Suhail Mirza talks to Huntercombe Group chief executive Valerie Michie about how leadership experience in other sectors can help transform healthcare.

Huntercombe is one of the UK’s leading specialist healthcare providers and focuses on three core market segments; child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), specialist brain injury and adult mental health and learning disabilities. Its services are designed to provide the best care and recovery for patients across England and Scotland in 37 hospitals and units that work in partnership with the NHS and Local authorities

Leadership Skills Are Transferable Across Different Sectors

Valerie Michie has been chief executive of Huntercombe Group since August 2014. And although her name is well known in the healthcare sector – prior to joining Huntercombe she was managing director of Serco Health – the majority of her professional career has been spent outside of healthcare; something which she believes has been particularly valuable when it comes to leading the company.

‘I qualified as a chartered accountant with KPMG in the late 1990’s and spent the first few years of my professional career working with some of the most well-known businesses in Scotland, such as Polaroid and Diageo. But I realised that I wanted to have more in-depth impact on businesses and then spent several years as a management consultant with KPMG and worked in varied industries, including in Europe with Airbus who were forming one European company and working on the A380 programme which was at inception stage,’ she said.

She then joined industry and worked for Alfred McAlpine Business Services, where she led a number of functions including HR and business development - eventually becoming chief operating officer. The business had a turnover of £60m when she joined which had grown to £600m when she left to join Serco.

The archetypal portrait of a leader in healthcare is often based on a long and distinguished career in services for patients but Ms Michie is firmly of the view that leadership skills are transferable across sectors and into healthcare.

‘My decade or so at KPMG permitted me to become comfortable firstly with what makes businesses work and how they make money, which is critical to being successful as a leader. The current focus on balancing budgets within the NHS demonstrates the point. In addition, being involved in creating and executing strategic visions, across a number of sectors, as both a management consultant and chief operating officer at McAlpine have proved invaluable in my move into healthcare.’

She is passionate about the potential value expertise from other sectors can bring to healthcare.

‘The report chaired by Sir Robert Naylor last year highlighted the need for more clinical leaders. I would add that those who have led successful businesses in other sectors can bring a fresh perspective and rigour that can help effect the transformation needed in healthcare.’

As managing director at Serco Health, Ms Michie was responsible for a £450m business with 7,000 employees. At the time, the company was involved in a range of service offerings including occupational health, community healthcare and prison healthcare. In addition to having the opportunity to do business in international healthcare markets such as the Middle East, US and Australia, the role enabled her to develop her leadership skills.

‘I found that I loved and continue to love healthcare even though it remains by far the most challenging arena in which I have worked. There is an inspiring sense of purpose and commitment to values across those who work within it. When you understand the tangible impact you have on the quality of people’s lives it is hard not to have an intrinsic motivation to give your best,’ she said.

She has drawn on this business leadership experience in her role at Huntercombe, where two of her most important initiatives since being appointed CEO in 2014 have been to define a clear strategy and deliver change across its staff involvement.

‘Huntercombe has some 20 years of experience within specialist services and part of my experience in strategy was deciding what to focus on. At Serco I helped focus us on the most value adding segments of the market and so we exited some markets. It is vital you understand your focus and what you are best at.

‘At Huntercombe, colleagues defined our core mission, which is to nurture the world one person at a time and let that lead our thinking about all aspects of what we do. We have also focused on being a specialist niche provider focused on highly complex inpatient services and devote energy to enhancing our market leading delivery of care in areas like CAMHS and ABI services,’ she said.

However, this thinking has also led the company to develop patient-centric care pathways.

‘In the main, healthcare organisations are better organised to meet their own needs and that of regulators and commissioners. We forced ourselves, as we aligned strategic focus, to understand “moments of truth” that mark the patient pathway from the moment they first have a problem. We have re-designed our services to address these as part of a commitment to an evidence based and outcome focused service provision.’

Equally vital has been a change programme aimed at improving staff engagement.

‘Our staff clearly wanted to make a difference to the patient experience but healthcare has a myriad group of forces that impact this ranging from regulatory requirements to a highly politicised environment. In 2014, our staff engagement was largely more positive than NHS counterparts but using more comprehensive tools we discovered under this global picture there were areas of variability,’ she said.

Enacting change is always a challenge and scholars such as Gary Hamel and David Garvin stress the importance of challenging orthodoxies and the status quo in an organisation.

‘We ensured feedback from staff was supported by senior management and we took steps to make changes ranging from making new appointments to ensuring our culture of recognition and reward is the best we can make it. Organisations sometimes forget how valued a sincere ‘thank you’ can be by staff undertaking demanding work. Our aim was to unlock the pride within our staff who have embedded our person-centred vision,’ Ms Michie added.

The results have been dramatic and in 2015, the company’s employee engagement score placed it in the top 14% of healthcare organisations.

Ms Michie remains confident about the opportunities in the mental health sector and Huntercombe’s leading role in it.

‘It is gratifying to see that the talk of parity of esteem between mental and physical health is taking more of a centre stage in the healthcare narrative in the press and also within government. The private sector’s long partnership with the NHS offers a chance, provided the narrative is supported by adequate levels of funding, to truly deliver the individually tailored care services that patients and their families rightly expect.’ she said.

Alium Partners are interested to hear from individuals who have used their experience across different sectors, or have used interim managers for their transferable skills. What are the pros and cons of engaging individuals with no sector experience to take on a challenging role in an unknown sector? Please shares your thoughts on this, or the subjects raised in the above post, using the comments box below.

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About the Author

Suhail Mirza

Suhail brings a unique level of insight and business experience to the challenging health and health care market. This insight and Alium's ability to source the best people this industry and wider will help enable the many changes needed across this industry. Suhail works with leading healthcare providers across both the NHS and private health market, delivering the right experts and team resources by accessing our comprehensive health talent pool.

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