Talent stories: Abi Harris, Executive Director of Strategic Planning, Cardiff and Vale University Health Board
Thursday, September 12th, 2019

In our #TalentStories series, we put some of Wales' most talented and successful executives under the spotlight, sharing their inspiring stories with you.

First up is Plymouth-born Abigail Harris, one of the very few people to have worked at director level in the NHS, local and central Government in Wales. We worked with Abigail as a client, recruiting Programme Director Ed Hunt into her team.

Abigail is responsible for strategic planning for Cardiff and Vale University Health Board, one of the largest NHS organisations in Europe. With a budget of £1.3 billion, a workforce of 14,500 and serving a population of 2.5 million, the health board is one of the best performing in Wales and regularly wins awards, commendations and research grants.

Abigail joined the UHB from Welsh Government where she was the Director of Strategy and Health and Social Care Integration in the Department of Health and Social Services. Before this, she spent four years in local government as the director with responsibility for social services, leisure, library, arts and adult learning services. Before her venture into local government, Abigail spent 17 years in senior positions in the NHS across south Wales, latterly as the Chief Executive of the Local Health Board in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Passionate about delivering better care through partnership working, Abigail holds a non-executive role on the Board of Social Care Wales and has a Masters degree in integrated care.

Here, she shares the story of her career to date.

Grab a cuppa - it's another interesting one, packed with plenty of helpful career advice.

Hi Abigail. Can you give us a potted history of your career journey to date?

I started my career in the NHS straight after graduating from Leeds University with a degree in Human Geography. My first job was as a planning officer with South Glamorgan Health Authority. It was at the time of a nationally-led health care strategy, and I was one of four graduates appointed to join the planning team.

I then joined the South Glamorgan Family Services Authority, where I learned all about the critical role played by primary care. Following a couple of other moves, I was appointed as the Commissioning Director for Merthyr. This post was created as part of the creation of Bro Taf Morgannwg Health Authority following the merger of four separate organisations.

It was in this role that I learned about the importance of partnership working, particularly with local authorities, the third sector and local communities. The next significant move was a secondment into Welsh Government during the first administration following the devolution vote. It was a great learning experience, working with Ministers and seeing how the interface between Government and the NHS worked.

My next move was taking up the role of Chief Executive of the Vale of Glamorgan Local Health Board following the abolition of health authorities. It was an excellent opportunity to look at population health and commission services with a focus on improving health. It was fantastic to build a new organisation from scratch and to appoint a team that was committed to driving improvements for the local population.

After six years there, I took a step into the world of local government as Corporate Director of Wellbeing in Bridgend County Borough Council. The portfolio for this role was highly varied. I was the statutory director of social services for a department that had been in special measures, so my priority was to work with staff to quickly deliver the necessary improvements.

I was also responsible for leisure services and led the process to secure an external, value-based partner to run those services.

Two final career moves brought me to where I am today. After four years in Bridgend, I was lucky to be appointed as Director of Strategy and Integration in the Department of Health and Social Services. During this time, I oversaw all new policy concerning primary care and place-based locality models of care. Eighteen months later, the Director of Strategic Planning role came up in Cardiff and Vale UHB. It felt like a brilliant opportunity to bring together all my learning and experience from several different positions.

I have now been here for nearly six years, and I feel like I am just beginning to get to grips with the role. It is a significant role with lots of challenges but massive opportunities to work with a brilliant team - and great partners - to transform the way we deliver care and support to people.

I have never really had a career plan; I have been fortunate enough to secure fantastic roles at the right time for me. Working at director level across NHS, local and central government is rare. I think that's because I've been prepared to take a risk with the jobs I've applied for.

 That's quite the career journey! What hurdles have you faced along the way?

I've learned a lot in every role I've had. I've learned the importance of making the right appointments when building a team – heart and head need to agree!

I have always valued the considerable support available from peer networks, formal and informal mentors and coaches. In all of my roles, I found that people are willing to help and offer advice. I have always tried to treat colleagues in the way I would like to be treated. When I've been treated in a way I didn't feel was right, I have reflected on why this might have been the case. Where appropriate, I have challenged this behaviour. There are several successes that I am proud of, and also things that didn't quite go to plan – but from which I have always learned.

Is there anyone you've encountered along the way that you are grateful to?

 I have had several inspirational bosses who enabled me to flourish. My first big break came when I was appointed as a Director of Commissioning. It was a big step up for me, but the CEO at the time felt I was worth the risk, and that set me on the right track in terms of my career in senior leadership.

 What is the biggest thing you have learned during your career to date?

I have learned that most people come to work to do a good job and that sometimes they need support to enable them to do this. I have also learned that it is OK to ask for help, and learning to say 'no' is also essential (although I am still working on this one!).

Building thinking time into the diary is crucial, but something we often struggle to do. Managing a packed diary can be one of the most difficult challenges. I use the framework of 'important and urgent', 'important but not urgent', 'urgent but not important' and 'not urgent or important' to help me prioritise. Of course, this can be difficult when others have a different view of what is important. 

We spend a lot of our life at work, so it is also essential to build good relationships with the people we work with and have fun.

What is your approach to work-life balance?

 It's really important to me. As a parent, being there for school runs and important events matters. I have always worked with bosses who have shared this view, which has enabled me to manage senior roles and parenthood. It is also vital that we keep our minds and bodies healthy, and as I turn 50 this year, I am trying to ensure that I build this into my week. I am lucky that my boss, Len Richards, is a real advocate of role-modelling being active and healthy – so every month there is a new challenge for the executive team. We are doing ‘Steptember’ as a team – across the organisation, teams are coming together to see which team can do the most steps in the month, so no pressure there then. I’ve dusted off the fitbit!

Who or what inspires you?

A boss who values everybody's contribution inspires me. I enjoy working with leaders who are prepared to be challenged and can make decisions. We sometimes put off decisions while waiting for more information to inform the decision, but actually, we often need to make risk-based decisions without complete information. I enjoy working in a team where the different contributions of all members are valued.

I am also inspired by the people who work in my teams. For me, one of the most important things in leadership is enabling people to do the very best they can in their role, and every day, I see the fantastic improvements our staff are making across the organisation.  

What is the best piece of career advice you've been given?

'Try not to worry so much’ – and when something hasn't gone according to plan, 'build a bridge and get over it'.

Use the strengths of the team to achieve high performance.

Also, the encouragement to apply for a role I wasn't sure about it – which turned out to be one of the best things I could have done.

What piece of career advice would you give to someone starting in your field today?

Trust in your abilities. Seek feedback on how you are doing, and take on board any areas of development that you identify. You have a long working life ahead of you – if you find yourself in a role you don't enjoy, learn from it, and don't stay too long. Keep learning and build a good network of peer support.

Look after yourself. I recharge my batteries by walking in beautiful countryside or at the beach, with family, friends and my whippet, Doris.   

What is your approach to continuous professional development?

You should never stop learning. The learning we do every day should be supplemented with opportunities for learning with others. This could be formal training and development, mentoring or coaching. For others, it's a case of getting to key conferences and seminars so you can keep your thinking fresh and open to new ideas.

Who do you look up to?

I admire many people for what they have achieved. At a recent staff recognition award event I met two inspirational young porters at University Hospital Wales who have trained as fire-fighters so they can participate in the rota when the air ambulance lands at the hospital. One of the women started working with us as a cleaner and is working her way up. It was inspirational to see how they have been supported to progress their careers and to hear how much they enjoy their work.

 In your experience of recruitment, what is the key thing when it comes to spotting – and retaining - talent?

Think clearly about what type of person you are looking for to join the team – sometimes people fall into the trap of appointing someone like themselves. Make sure you think about the skills and experience across the team. Can you take a risk and appoint someone for whom the job would be a development, or do you need someone who can hit the ground running? Keep an open mind – I have recently appointed to senior roles and brought in people with vast amounts of experience from other sectors.

Describe your dream job if money was no object.

I am fortunate to have a job that I really enjoy, working with a fabulous group of people. It is challenging but hugely rewarding, and I am in a team that works well together, using our collective strengths to bring the best out in everyone. I have also built a brilliant team who are hugely supportive and the next couple of years are going to be really exciting. So I’ve got plenty to keep me busy in my current role and it ticks all of the boxes at the moment.

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