Following on from International Women’s Day, Amy Critchley, Commissioning Manager – Planned Care at NHS Gloucestershire CCG, shares what she has learnt on her leadership development journey.
There’s one word Amy Critchley uses more than any other when talking about her leadership style. That word is ‘compassion’. “I’ve always been compassionate in how I deal with people,” says the Gloucestershire CCG manager. “I very much believe in treating people how you’d like to be treated.”
It has long been a core value for Amy, who has worked her way up through the NHS from medical secretary to bed manager to various assistant general manager roles before landing her current job in the summer of 2021. But during the coronavirus pandemic, the importance of compassion and in particular self-compassion has become even more vital. “I went through a point when I was giving all of that compassion to everyone else,” she reflects. “I was listening to everyone else’s stress and frustration and there was nobody to listen to me. I had to learn to be compassionate to myself. It’s something I’d never even considered previously, but it has helped me professionally and personally.”
The intensity and stress of dealing with COVID-19 stretched many to breaking point, and Amy had to dig deep into her reserves of compassionate and humane leadership. “People did have outbursts with each other, but they weren’t angry at you. I had to learn not to take that away and not to take it personally,” she says. “I do think we need more compassion in the NHS. To me, compassion is about respecting each other, and we often don’t give each other enough respect for what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
She cites a survey she came across during a training course that found a large proportion of NHS workers don’t believe they have the time to be compassionate. This clearly appals her. “It doesn’t take me any longer to be compassionate with people. We need to really embed it. If we want to treat our patients as people, we also need to treat each other as people, as human beings, and we can struggle with that.”
Amy’s first NHS role as a medical secretary gave her a grounding in the importance of tuning into patient voice that she has carried through the rest of her career. “As a medical secretary, you’re the person who can give them the information and the support they need,” she says. “I’ve never forgotten what that feels like and how important the whole system working together is for that patient. It’s made me passionate about making sure we’re doing the right thing for patients, because we can – unconsciously – create a bit of distance between ourselves and patients, and the health landscape has got quite confusing for them.”
Coming into a leadership position from a secretary role, Amy believes she is living proof that anyone, and particularly women, can do anything they put their minds to. That’s not to say she hasn’t faced barriers during her career journey.
“Within the NHS, women are still seen as care providers – nurses or health care assistants for instance,” she says. “We need to do away with that stereotype. As a woman, I think I’ve dealt with more prejudices than a male counterpart might, having my career aspirations or qualifications questioned. We can still struggle to be taken seriously.”
In order to counteract that some female leaders or aspiring leaders might feel the need to emulate traditional ‘strong’ male leadership traits, such as being highly authoritarian, but not Amy. “I choose not to do that because that’s not an authentic version of me,” she explains. “I could walk into a room and be hugely powerful and shout at people, but that’s not going to give me any satisfaction and it’s not going to get the best out of the people that I lead.”
This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Break the Bias’. How does Amy think we can do that? Her answer has a neat clarity. “We break the bias by being ourselves. If you naturally fall into that character of being a brasher, louder leader, that’s fine. But we also need to normalise people like me, or other people, who are more than capable of being leaders.”
She also advocates being kind to ourselves and having self-belief, although she acknowledges this isn’t always easy – often especially so for women. Amy has only worked within the NHS for the past seven years and in that time has completed her undergraduate degree and a master’s degree, both through distance learning. “I’m pretty sure if you’d asked my schoolteachers, they wouldn’t have said that would be on the cards for me,” she laughs. “But I’ve done it. It’s a huge achievement and it’s not necessarily something anyone else needs to know about, but I can hold onto knowing that I’m capable of doing it. We all need more self-belief and the safety of knowing self-belief is OK.”
She puts much of her own self-belief down to the support she has encountered from various NHS colleagues, from the manager who encouraged her to go for a role above medical secretary to the matron who told her she was doing a good job during a particularly tough day as a bed manager. “We don’t praise people enough,” she says. “If I see someone doing something well, I make sure I say something. That matron probably doesn’t remember ever saying that, but it was significant to me, so I take it forward.” She takes the same approach to supporting others earlier in their careers, inspiring them about the varied opportunities and pathways available within the NHS.
Her advice to other women within the NHS is to never close themselves off to opportunity. “Keep a broad and open mind and don’t let anyone stop you,” she says with a smile. “No one has a right to stop me doing what I want to do professionally. The only person who ever has that right is me.”