Interview: Paul Denton, Deputy Company Secretary, North West Anglia NHS Foundation Trust

Winner of Governance Professional of the Year 2020

Paul Denton won Governance Professional of the Year at The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland 2020 Awards which was sponsored by Nasdaq Governance Solutions. He talks to us about his proudest moments and toughest challenges.

A valued team member undertaking a very challenging role in what is a particularly difficult time for the sector in which he works, Paul is our winner in this category with a strong nomination backed up by especially strong testimonials. Paul is passionate about what he does, ‘lives and breathes’ governance and offers both practical and emotional support to others. Particularly noteworthy was his work to develop the understanding and management of risk, including his efforts to raise awareness that responsibility for risk goes far beyond the board. He is, in many ways, a credit to the profession.

Why is this Governance Professional of the Year so important? This award celebrates that achievement and recognises those individuals, like Paul, who have made a positive and sustained contribution, who have gone above and beyond to encourage, support or even lead the adoption of effective governance. They may have built powerful relationships with a variety of stakeholders, or taken on a high-profile project that had a materially positive impact, or demonstrated significant leadership in the achievement of departmental and organisational objectives.

How does it feel to win?

This award came at a time in my life when I was starting to think about what comes next while also spending time reflecting on the past. While I was reflecting on the award, my thoughts kept returning to how everything we achieve in the Trust is driven by people working together. None of us really work in isolation (although at present it may feel like it). We are all part of a large team with a common goal ‘to deliver the best for our patients’. I have been very fortunate to work with staff across the organisation, and it never ceases to amaze me how staff continue to deliver the care that they do to both patients and colleagues.

How did it feel to be congratulated via the Nasdaq Tower in Times Square, NYC?

I must admit that seeing my picture on the Nasdaq Tower was probably one of the most surreal experiences!

How did you arrive in your current role, and why did you pursue a career in governance?

I didn’t choose a career in governance; it chose me. I worked as a medic in the Royal Air Force (RAF) for 23 years and was posted to the Ministry of Defence Hospital Unit (MDHU) at Peterborough. This unique posting, working alongside NHS colleagues, exposed me to working with a range of NHS professionals. After 18 months in the post, a job became available at a junior level in the Trust, and I decided to take the plunge and try a second career in the NHS. So six weeks after leaving the RAF I found myself working in the NHS having swapped my uniform for a shirt and tie.

What are the skills you need to perform your current role, and how have you developed these skills over the years?

I feel that the most important skill is communication. I was fortunate enough to have a set of transferable skills that I bought with me when I left the RAF. In addition, I have been lucky enough to undertake several operational roles as an Assistant General Manager and General Manager. These roles have helped me develop and extended my skill set.

Mentoring both clinical and non-clinical staff over the past seven years has provided me with the opportunity to help colleagues whilst allowing me to gain greater insight into the challenges they face.

The ability to multi-task is key. The requirement to juggle multiple priorities is fundamental. Collaboration with other people is also an important skill set. The ability to listen effectively is perhaps, one of the most important skills. Too often we hear what we want to hear. My approach is to listen, advise and guide. You need to be able to translate theory into appropriate frameworks for the organisation.

What advice would you have for aspiring governance professionals?

You need to be in sync with the heartbeat of the organisation. The board and committee meetings dictate this rhythm. This will enable you to plan and, when necessary, get ahead of the game.

Finally, an eye for detail and sound judgement when faced with conflicting issues is a key requirement.

What is your governance career highlight?

I would say that recently it’s been our work around risk management. As an organisation, we have achieved a significant amount of work in a relatively short period. We listened to and worked with colleagues across the organisation. Communication and translating theory into practice were critical to our success. Working with operational colleagues helped the team develop a more responsive risk management approach.

The judges said that your work on developing the understanding and management of risk was particularly noteworthy. How have you raised awareness that responsibility for risk goes far beyond the board?

Aligning board committees with risk was a key step in the process as was ‘buy-in’ from senior managers. Developing and communicating the link between Board discussions and operational delivery was key. A top-down, bottom-up approach, engaging with all stakeholders was fundamental. Identifying key groups of staff and developing bespoke training has helped to embed a strong risk culture in the organisation. We are still on a journey, but we have a clear understanding of what is involved and what we need to do.

What does good governance look like to you, and why is it so important?

Good governance is never a task complete. As the organisation evolves, so does governance as it strives to meet the demands of an ever-changing healthcare system. Good governance is inclusive. It involves listening, advising and guiding colleagues. It’s about the systems, processes and procedures that help steer an organisations direction of travel and its broader accountability.

An organisation without governance is like a train without a track. It lacks direction and the ability to get there. It’s important not only because of compliance with laws and regulation but because of our accountability to stakeholders and the communities we serve. It provides structure, purpose and accountability. It matures alongside the evolving organisation.

What is unique to governance in the NHS compared to corporate governance?

Hospitals are complex organisations with a myriad of both clinical and non-clinical professionals. Governance professionals need to lose the mantra of being ‘corporate’ entities. They need to engage with operational staff. Developing clear lines of communication alongside mutual understanding and respect clears the path for developing and embedding effective governance.

How do you feel governance has changed in the last ten years?

Perhaps the greatest changes have been in how organisations are scrutinised, both internally and externally.  Healthcare organisations are scrutinised by a host of organisations, both national and local.  However, this scrutiny mitigates against the risk of reduced accountability and organisationally-biased decision making.  Increased scrutiny ensures clear lines of accountability.  It ensures transparency in the way services are delivered whilst ensuring healthcare services remain accountable to the patients and public they serve.

Good governance is primarily about effective frameworks that deliver good quality healthcare services in an accountable, transparent and open way.  Good governance is not a quick fix, it evolves over time.

How has COVID-19 transformed your work this year?

Secretarial teams have had to learn to adapt. Agile working (often from home) whilst ensuring the delivery of agreed governance functions has been challenging. Virtual board and public meetings have all had their own unique challenges.

How has COVID-19 changed the mechanics of stakeholders?

Providing assurance during a pandemic has been challenging. There is no doubt that the organisation strives to deliver the very highest levels of care in very difficult and challenging circumstances.

The pandemic changed how effective governance was delivered. The organisation was agile enough to be ‘governance-light’. The focus is on ensuring key systems and processes is a place to deliver safe care. The organisation moved rapidly to a ‘command and control’ structure with key decisions allocated at the appropriate level.

What changes do you predict in the future for governance?

I think that governance professionals of the future will have to deal with increasingly complex regulatory frameworks which will encompass technological shifts as organisations become more dependent upon technological solutions and their impact on the workforce.

Nasdaq Governance Solutions are proud to be the headline sponsor for the 2020 Awards. The Chartered Governance Institute Awards ceremony is the largest event of its kind in the UK and the highlight of the governance social calendar. The shortlisted nominees reflect the very best achievement from across the governance community.

Nasdaq Governance Solutions’ trusted board portal technology, board engagement services and expert insights can help drive excellence and advance corporate governance practices. Nasdaq Boardvantage® is designed with intuitive interface and security features to meet the critical meeting and collaboration needs of boards, committees, and leadership teams. Consultative board assessments, digital board evaluations, directors’ and officers’ questionnaires and surveys are also available as alternatives to paper-based processes. In addition, the Nasdaq Center for Board Excellence provides in-depth research and insights for board members to exchange ideas and discover valuable resources.

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