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Career Planning with NHS NSS CEO Mary Morgan

23 May 2021
Ewan Anderson

Do you have ambitions on that top job, but you're not sure how to get there?

What sort of career planning does it take to set you on the path to success?

Knowing where to start is not easy, especially when you're considering the next five to ten years of your career. 

As we discussed in our career development article, being prepared is crucial.

So we took the opportunity to chat with the inspiring and vastly experienced Mary Morgan, new CEO of NHS National Services Scotland. As an executive coach herself, she has some wonderful insight into building your career and ensuring you fulfil your potential.

Listen to the interview or have a read through the full transcript.

Career Planning with Mary Morgan, CEO NHS National Services Scotland 

Full Transcript

Ewan Anderson:

Hi, and welcome again to our new series. We're doing a series of podcasts here to understand how to progress your career. Everybody has ambitions to take their career to varying levels. So we want it to speak to key people who really understand about developing your career, and today we are joined by Mary Morgan. Who's the Director of Strategy, Performance and Service Transformation at NHS National Services Scotland. So we're going to chat a little bit today about preparation, planning, managing your career, and how you can really secure that job that really inspires you.

So Mary, do you want to give us a little bit of an introduction to yourself and your career today?

Mary Morgan:

Okay. Thank you very much.

I started in nursing at NHS in 1982 as a student nurse, and then spent 14 years as a frontline nurse, delivering care as a staff nurse, and then subsequently as a ward sister. So I became a manager and I think it's important, at that point although I was a certified nurse, I took the opportunity to add to my qualifications and did an HNC and management because I felt that I wanted to have some theory to back up my ward management skills. And I progressed to doing a degree in service sector management. That was before the times that nurses actually required pre-qualification.

I then moved in more formally to management. So starting with nursing management and then into general management and through a succession of organizational changes had opportunities presented to change my role, add to my portfolio, have different experiences, and do different things.

There came then a time when I was seeking something entirely different. I had applied for a promoted post and was unsuccessful, being shortlisted. But it just so happened that a recruitment agency that was doing the recruitment said, actually, although you didn't get that, maybe there's something else that might suit you for a national organization. And I was successful in securing a post in direction of health protection, Scotland in 2008, I was there for three years and then became the director of the Scottish blood transfusion service before moving into my current role as a more general and widely influencing role across the whole of NHS national services, Scotland as a Director of Strategy, Performance and Service Transmission. And also as the Deputy Chief Executive, which is my current role before I will move into the Chief Executive NHS NSS in April.

What is the first step on your leadership journey?

Ewan Anderson:

So I suppose that takes me onto my next question or a slight tangent here, if you've just saved it and you've got a goal set, what's the first thing, what should you do? Is it layout some objectives, timeline, a skills assessment. What do you think is a good first step?

Mary Morgan:

So I think all of those are true. I spent quite a lot of time, I'm very interested in the requirements and what roles come along within the health service and beyond. So one of the things that I'll do as I'm thinking about what might take my interest and what might be really exciting is to look at roles and job descriptions that become available and go through those and look at what skills are they looking at and what are the qualities that are being asked for and do the organizations or, do the sector fit with my values and the way that I want to be and the way that I want to operate. And that's a really good way of helping one to guide your development opportunities and what you might like.

For example. So as an example, and in my career, I identified, I really didn't understand the rule of a board on the rule of governance at that level. And as part of my personal development planning with my then Chief Executive, we agreed that it would be a good idea for me to do some non-executive direction in a trustee or a charitable organization, which I have also taken up. And I felt that gave me the opportunity. Yes to give something back and to input to a charitable organization as a non-executive director trustee. But it also gave me the experience of board-level governance and looking at organizations from a different angle.

Should You Volunteer For A Board?

Ewan Anderson:

Should you take an opportunity to look for volunteer roles? And as you mentioned, it is about giving something back, but you get to really understand the function of a board and understand that process. And it's quite important that for a leader isn't it?

Mary Morgan:

Well, yes, I think it is if you want to be leading as an executive and a board level, I think it's really important that people should understand how organizations work and how they go together.

There are other ways of course, that people can achieve that. So certainly in the public sector, I don't know, by the private sector, but within the public sector, many of the board's meetings, many of the governance meetings will be held in public. And so it's a good thing to be able to go and observe and to listen particularly if one has some connection or if there's an item on the agenda that's going to be discussed, that might be relevant to your area of working. But even for relatively junior staff, you know, as a ward sister, I started in a board meeting just to observe, just to understand how does what I do have any bearing on the wider impact of the NHS or of my organization at the time. And I learned lots from it, you know.

As a leader, should you develop your softer skills?

Ewan Anderson:

Just thinking about it, so we've taken that first step we've decided, right. You know, I really want to progress my career. In terms of leadership, should there be a bit of a focus on developing softer skills or do you continue to improve your technical skills? Or is it a mix of both?

Mary Morgan:

Again, there's no magic bullet. It is a mix of both. It's about understanding. Well, understanding emotional intelligence. So have I got an insight into what my behaviours like and how they impact. Understanding what one's own values are and do they fit with the organisation. Understanding the impact that you have on other people, and also being able to see and understand the impact that their behaviours and their responses will have then upon you. So I think that's really important.

It's always helpful to understand organisational culture, organisational strategy, and how things are done around here and whether or not that fits with how you would like to see things being done. But also in terms of leadership development. You know, a lot of it is about understanding self and understanding how you apply that and how you do the best inner values set with the people and the team are round about you how you engage with them.

How do you involve them in the decisions that they have, how to ask them for solutions that you might not be able to have, or come up with. And other thing is, is increasingly as you go through an organization, you might not have those technical expertise and technical skills. Your subject matter expertise becomes leadership and how to make sure that all those voices and the technical skills are brought to bear.

So it's useful to understand some of the technical ability and to have something that's aligned with it. It is quite a useful thing to understand a bit of the health service, or to understand a bit about nursing, if you're going to lead nursing and so on, but you can't cover all off. You have to know how to, how to motivate and engage other people. And to hear their points of view before deciding on a course of action.

Are leaders born or made?

Ewan Anderson:

The leadership part of this is quite interesting for a lot of people, actually. You know, there's a bit of a debate are leaders born or are they made. What're your thoughts on that? You know, is it possible? I don't want to scare people off. Is it possible for someone to develop into a good leader that perhaps doesn't have those skills just now?

Mary Morgan:

Yes. Always is, if people are prepared to learn. I definitely think that even if you're born with leadership ability and it's written in the stars and you know, you have it in your Chinese horoscope, that you're going to be a leader or a Chief Executive of the future. Actually, it's about your experiences and where do you want to go and achieving goals. And one of the things I think is really important is to be able to say, what role did I play in something, what have I done? How have I facilitated that? How have I made that happen? And to be able to reflect on examples of where you have made a difference in what you did. So that, whole competency framework type interview. You know, what was the situation? What was my plan? What did I actually do? What was the outcome and how did I reflect and where that came to. Having those examples is really quite important to grow leadership. Leadership, confidence, as well as leadership ability.

How important is a strong network as a leader?

Ewan Anderson:

Yeah. I suppose, one of the things with leadership is as you grow, you have to have those personal, those people's skills. Is it important to kind of develop a strong network as you grow as a leader?

Mary Morgan:

I think it's always good to have wide networks, as well as those people who are very close to you and will be honest and give you feedback.

It's for you to choose how you receive and how you act upon that on the feedback that is given to you. Very often, I know there're times in my life, when I've had feedback from people, I've chosen just to ignore it. And it's maybe been many years later that I kind of go, I get it, I suddenly understand where it's at. So some of it comes with maturity and providing the feedback is given with good intent, and there's no maliciousness in it. And it's given in such a way that can hear it and you listen to it. It is really important to have that.

I think wide networks are also important, and that Scotland is a relatively small country. The UK is a relatively small country. So, you know, people will always know each other and in some form or another, we'll get to hear about people. But it's also from a view about knowing who can help you with something. If there's a piece that you don't understand. I'm moving into a Chief Executive role now, and I'd realised that in the organization, I don't have a peer. That has just suddenly hit me. After I'd got through that, I thought, well, who is my peer? Because there is only one Chief Executive in an organization, and that is likewise that you almost, for somebody who's in a specialist role, a director of nursing, a medical director. There are only one of these roles. So how do you fathom out your peer group? And that has to be by creating good networks.

How important is inclusivity in leadership?

Ewan Anderson:

Talking about leadership and approaches. And you kind of touched on this before, but the inclusive style of leadership now is become really important. You know, making sure people feel part of the team. Is that quite an important approach and, and something you've adopted as you've taken on your leadership roles?

Mary Morgan:

Yeah, I'm very clear that whatever I have done, my role has been to make life easier for other people to deliver their job and deliver their roles. So I'm a firm believer and that they are in the organisation. Yes, it needs to be led, and that leadership for me is about setting culture, is about upholding the values, monitoring the performance. And I'm being a pivotal liaison role between stakeholders at a senior level and the organisation. But it really is about making life easier for those who are actually at the face-to-face, are at that point of interaction between stakeholders and service users to make their job easier, as best we can.

There are rules that need to be adhered to. One has got statutory requirements when it's required to do things by government and by more senior leaders. But fundamentally I work for the teams to make that happen. And I think the other point is that those are very often the people that have the solutions, that have the ideas about actually we could do things differently. And I've always listened to what people have to say in terms of the ideas that they come forward at, what would appear to be a more junior level within the organisation.

As a leader, should You get a Coach? 

Ewan Anderson:

The importance of having a coach. You kind of touched on it before, but, you know, as you move into senior roles, just getting that advice and support, because as you mentioned, a CEO or a senior level role was faceless or can be quite lonely, you know, is it important to try and get yourself a coach or engage with someone who might be able to help?

Mary Morgan:

Yeah, that works is important. I think that everybody has got inner capability and ability and they have an inner resilience, and there are times where times are tough or hard that you can't always see. You can't always see your way out of places. And what is helpful about coaching is that somebody can ask you those questions that you perhaps are not able to ask yourself, or others are not able to ask you. So if you're in a role, for example, like a Chief Executive role or a new director role that you feel quite lonely, you don't want to expose yourself. A coach has no vested interest in anything other than you and your success as an individual, and to help you to utilize your inner values and those two kits that you have available to you and the choices that you might have to make.

I should confess. I'm also an executive coach. Which I completed, well, almost a year ago now in terms of programming. So I'm very bought into coaching culture. I think that actually the time for coaching, for wellbeing, or coaching for career or coaching just for self-development, personal development is actually not necessarily when one has reached the more senior executive levels. It actually starts lower down.

When people are formulating the ideas of the development to help them understand where they may want to be, where do their preferences lie? Where do they, you know, what are their goals and ambitions? What do they need to get there? And what would be helpful in the toolkit and also what future support would they need? So I think that coaching culture. To me, it's about empowerment that empowers people to make decisions and to do their own thing. So I think coaching, having a coach is not necessarily so important, but a coaching culture, which is enabled and supported by people who have those skills is important. And at times, having a dedicated specific coach for periods of time is also important.

How do you handle rejection?

Ewan Anderson:

I suppose, to jump to the other side, you mentioned it yourself, how do you deal with rejection? We've all, we've all been knocked back at some point or other. And it can be hard for some people when you've set a plan, you've set a course you're aiming for and you're doing perhaps get it. Not everyone can achieve that top job. So, you know, certainly not in the first, the first attempt. Have you got some strategies for dealing with that failure and building yourself back up?

Mary Morgan:

Well, it's all, to me, it is all learning. But I think the first thing for me around applying for career opportunities is to make sure that you are adequately prepared and appropriately prepared for that opportunity. And that you have the examples that can demonstrate, not only do you have the intellect, and the will and the ambition to fulfil a role, but you can demonstrate the capability to fulfil a rule as well. So I think it's important that, as I said earlier, that if you go through a particular project or you achieve something that you notice, you reflect on it and think about what do you learn and what you've done better. So I think that's the first thing is getting through our process and understanding that your skills match what is required. Is really good.

You're right. I've always had a view that if you're not successful, it's not right for you. What's for you, doesn't go by you. And it opens the doors to have further conversations perhaps around learning, or perhaps about getting feedback. Perhaps I wasn't successful because I needed further development or it just so happened that I was not quite the right fit for what they were looking for in the organization at that particular time.

So I think it is about getting over the initial perhaps rejection and then thinking actually, do you know what let's move on to the next opportunity and see, can I be more prepared or perhaps that just wasn't the opportunity for me at this particular time,

Is it ever too late to start planning?

Ewan Anderson:

Just one last question. Is it ever too late to start that plan for the top job? You know, is it ever too late to say, right. Well, you know, I know you want to go for that job or do you need that legacy of experience, you know, or do you need that legacy of preparation?

Mary Morgan:

I think no, that's the best about opportunities that present anything. And you think to yourself "actually, I've got to put my hat in the ring for this." It's really exciting. It's an interesting thought because people are working longer, much longer now. So what has to lead to, what is it age? You know, the retirement age is pretty much 67 years old at the moment, and will it increase from that? So that, that even means if that means people the age of 55, 56 potentially have another long, you know, 10 years of a career within them. So, no, it is never too late.

I guess I would say it's also never too early to think about one's ambition and that learnings and opportunities I've had for learning and for personal development earlier in my career, I have sometimes not realized until very recently, so that's a good place to be. And I've also learned from mistakes. I think it's really important to have that kind of learning culture and to be able to say, do you know what? I didn't get that quite right. I would do it better or do it differently. It was the right thing to do at the right time, but actually reflecting on it I could have done that a little bit better. And sometimes that's cause of maturity and experience.

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Ewan Anderson
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