“People’s stories make a difference”: Angela Hillery CBE on how good communication leads to cultural transformation

Distilled Post Editorial Team

The NHS Executive Strategy Summit took place in London on 7th November, organised by Meet Health Events and Proud2bOps.  Distilled Post sat down with some of the operational leadership teams present at the event, including Angela Hillery CBE. Earlier in 2023, Angela was named the number one NHS Chief Executive in the country by the Health Service Journal.

Angela is in the unusual position of having operational oversight of two different NHS Trusts: the Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Trust and the Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust. At the NHS Executive Strategy Summit, a common theme that emerged in discussions was the complaint that across the NHS, different parts of the system are not ‘talking’ to each other to a sufficient degree, leading to worsening outcomes. Angela has a unique perspective on intersectional communication across the NHS: “we often contain ourselves within sectors or organisations… In my experience, the more we reach out and connect, the better. Often we use different language in different areas to describe the same thing.”

She referenced conversations surrounding discharge, which is relevant in the mental health, acute and community sectors; however these different areas separate out the conversation and report on it differently. Angela saw this as a key issue to address in solving wider problems facing the NHS; “If we can get people together across operations and acknowledge that often these are the same issues just manifested differently - the more we can get that understood in operational terms, the more we’ll get staff presenting solutions and crossing sectors.”

Complementing this aim for a greater sense of connectedness across systems is the burgeoning role that technology can play in achieving efficiency and better outcomes in healthcare. “I’m absolutely certain it’s going to be pivotal in terms of what the future looks like”, Angela said. An oft-mentioned topic at the Summit was the prospect of greater care in the community alleviating some of the burdens placed on the shoulders of NHS staff, and Angela was quick to acknowledge that technology was a vital component of implementing innovations such as virtual wards and intermediate care services.

However, she conceded that “people often underestimate the clinical behaviour change that’s needed and the change in integrated care pathways that’s required to really maximise the potential of those ideas”. She also saw communicating the mutual benefits of care in the community as essential: while there is a benefit to the NHS in terms of bed occupancy, less discussed is the potential for patients to benefit from being cared for from their own home, and empowering them to manage their own care. A huge part of all of this, Angela assessed, was convincing people of the “art of the possible”. From an operational leadership perspective, Angela wants to communicate these new ideas through visible promotion of success stories - “people’s stories make a difference to behaviour. It allows for emotional connection”.

Angela saw the NHS Executive Strategy as equally vital in improving the culture of operational leadership in the NHS. “It was really, really valuable… Often in the operations sector people are so busy that they’re not connecting as much as might be beneficial”. She identified that taking the time out of a busy schedule to reflect can lead to feelings of guilt amongst leadership teams, but that the act of doing so was invaluable. As she summarised, “operational colleagues need to plan for these moments. They need to plan time to connect with colleagues… They are drawn to the busyness of the day to day, but by taking the time out, I genuinely think they will improve their problem solving abilities and they’ll feel more supported.”