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Big job, small office: how to spot a top manager


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Friday, 26 April 2013

Big job, small office: how to spot a top manager

Allison Pearson of the Daily Telegraph has never met an NHS manager. In a column whose main purpose is to suck up to nurses, she depicts managers as people who “skulk in their offices with luxuriant pot plants”.

Most NHS managers do not have offices with or without luxuriant plants, but gloomy partitioned spaces and euphemistically named “hot desks” in draughty cubbyholes. Even PCT chief executives generally had meagre quarters – something the size of a walk-in wardrobe considered the height of opulence. 

One PCT chief executive occupied a structure resembling a badly constructed garden shed, leading colleagues to suspect that he had built it himself over a weekend. 

If you Google Portakabin you will find that NHS trusts feature prominently in the company’s promotional literature. Oldbury and Smethwick PCT occupied a 72-unit complex of top of the range duplex modules.

St Martin’s Hospital in Kent turned to Portakabin to expand three busy wards and NHS Oldham commissioned the company to provide a primary care centre.

There are plenty of other NHS examples on the company’s website – so many that if some future government succeeds in closing the NHS, it will have the demise of a great provider of temporary buildings on its conscience – something for the secretary of state to think carefully about before embarking on further reforms.

As chief executive of Tower Hamlets PCT, Alwen Williams occupied a dingy office situated over an underground line. Guests had about 30 seconds to make their point before being interrupted by the rumble of a passing train. The uncongeniality of the surroundings may explain why Alwen’s meetings were short and why she had a reputation for getting things done. There were no luxuriant plants or other incentive for skulking in the office. 

As a rule, the success of an NHS chief executive is inversely proportionate to the size of his or her office. Those who inherit large offices usually convert them into walk-in centres or refuges for the homeless and move into the nearest cupboard. This demonstrates the selflessness and humility one would hope to find in a public servant, the attitude of someone whose priorities are the right way up. It marks them out for greatness.

Such managers will unfailingly usher you into their cramped accommodation, apologising for the state of the furniture or the lack of it, the absence of natural light and the presence of the primary care team “who have nowhere else to meet today” huddled round a flipchart in a corner. Any embarrassment is purely for your benefit, the shabbiness of the surroundings a sign of professional pride.

Their lesser colleagues can be identified by large, newly decorated spaces with air-conditioning, glass walls, panoramic views and tasteful furniture.  The occupant will be out of a job within the year, partly because their choice of office signals questionable judgment and partly because there is nowhere to hide when things go wrong. 

The inverted snobbery of the NHS is often mistaken for hardship by the media. The hospital that recently erected a tent to accommodate patients from its overflowing wards was not in distress but showing off. It would have been easier to build a new wing or send patients home, but this is not the NHS way. The chief executive of the trust in question probably lives in a small tent all year round – not as a matter of necessity but of choice.

All of which may serve as a salutary lesson to CCG leaders, the new breed of NHS manager, as they move into their offices. Fortunately for their career prospects, those tempted by the trappings of power will be thwarted by their pitiably small budgets. 

But if you spot a CCG accountable officer eyeing up luxuriant plants in the garden centre this weekend, do them a favour: call security and have them thrown out. They will thank you for it in the long run.

kirstie.clements@stgeorges.nhs.uk says:
Apr 26, 2013 04:56 PM
I'm shocked at these comments, I work in a London hospital and share my 8ft by 7ft office with another manager within my service. If we get up from our desks at the same time we end up in a battle of the chairs. As for luxuriant plants with no window or air con in our pokey office they usually within a few days. Myself and my "roomie" have let the staff we manage have the nice large offices with views of the outside world, as to increase motivation and morale. A window is probably the only perk of working in the NHS for most!
pam.swift@nhs.net says:
Apr 26, 2013 05:08 PM
The paragraph about the office under the underground brought back some wonderful memories of the MHHP meetings. As for the rest, I needed a laugh on a Friday afternoon!
les@wilki023.fsnet.co.uk says:
Apr 26, 2013 07:44 PM
If this is the level of topic reporting and debate, which is engineered just to provoke argument, it's time to close this network! With all that's going on in the NHS, there are important and worthwhile issues out there.
stephanie.clarke@cht.nhs.uk says:
Apr 27, 2013 03:10 PM
The comments are right, she has obviously not seen NHS offices, she has not seen unwindowed working areas, she has not seen small converted toilets, she has completely the wrong perception of NHS management accommodation. You may well think the reality of small acc. is inverted snobbery, I think not. It is the reality.
sarahbealey@damerham.demon.co.uk says:
Apr 28, 2013 03:17 PM
Loved this one and the irreverent tone too I'm afraid - rang very true and made me laugh. Many of the best leaders I've worked with over the years are those who outwardly and always put their needs into perspective against those of their staff. Sadly, in my experience of NHS management in general, those who show a bit of humanity, honesty and humility are also the ones who frequently seem to end up being out-politicked by the pot-planters! A good sense of humour also helps mark out the top bods in addition to their lack of office foliage - they are always ready to praise and smile.