Opportunity in failure

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Navina Evans, chief executive of East London NHS Foundation Trust (ELFT) and a graduate of the Aspiring Chief Executive programme, discusses ways in which she has been able to seek out positive opportunities through challenging times.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in failure” said Angie, my executive assistant one day, when I was feeling a bit frustrated. This simple encouragement was such a ‘pick me up’.

There’s much wisdom and advice around about failure. ‘Failure is inevitable. Failure is part of growing, learning and developing. Fail fast, pick yourself up, and move on. Failure is integral to success.’ And so on.

But failure hurts, especially when it feels like we’re letting people down, despite doing our best and trying so hard. So it’s important that I – as CEO – can withstand the pain of failure and learn from it so that I can truly support many colleagues to do the same. Since promising to embed the Quality Improvement approach into the culture of ELFT, I see there’s been an increase in hope. This includes hope that failure can lead to something better and that we can all have control to demonstrate continuous improvement within existing resources.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) recently visited ELFT and I must confess that I was a little afraid. I am so proud of my colleagues and want to share all the great work that they do. I want to share their curiosity and determination to do better for those we serve. Their commitment and tenacity is awe inspiring. And I want everyone to know this. However I can’t help feeling afraid of letting colleagues, patients and carers down.

ELFT received a CQC rating of outstanding in August 2016. I remember feeling proud on behalf of the wonderful staff who work so hard under such difficult circumstances. I felt proud of the governors, members, patients and carers who made us believe we could do better.

After a few days, amidst celebrations, I was doing my ‘complaints review’ session. This made me feel more sad than usual because of the recent CQC rating. It brought home to me that, for some service users and staff, the experience of working with our Trust was far from ‘Outstanding’. We knew at the time and still do now, that there is so much to do, to improve, and to get right. Since then many service users, colleagues and partners act as critical friends, making me truly appreciate the meaning of the rating.

Whilst we do our best not to blame, I realise that being influenced by fear and guilt may be inevitable. I see many colleagues being quite harsh on themselves when things do not go well. Admitting failure or that a mistake has been made, asking for help, being open about the struggle is very important, as are the responses we receive to such admissions.

I have found that in doing so, a surprising number of offers of genuine help emerge. These come from varied and at times unexpected places. I for one will always say “Yes, please.”

Find out about the NHS Leadership Academy’s Aspiring Chief Executive programme here.