Growing trust

Growing trust

Tenacious business leader Linda Pollard’s journey from fashion entrepreneur to the helm of the healthcare sector may have culminated in her toughest challenge yet, she tells Andrew Mernin over lunch in Leeds.

Linda Pollard has hotfooted it across town from a film set to meet BQ over lunch. She’s been under the camera’s glare for an upcoming event and also, perhaps, to support the NHS’s ongoing survival strategy.

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As the organisation looks to recover from heavy cutbacks and shape a prosperous future, marketing activity like film shoots serve to give the institution voice and empower staff.
And the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, which Pollard chairs, is also looking to come out fighting once its current turnaround is complete.

Despite previous roles Pollard has held – which cover global brands, major public sector bodies and high-growth entrepreneurial ventures – she says “last year was one of the toughest years I’ve worked through”.

The trust, which covers six hospitals and 15,000 staff, is currently £54m in debt. Alongside her fellow board members, a mighty task has been set to reduce deficit over the next two years and emerge in rude health beyond that. And she’s using every ounce of her vast private sector leadership experience to ensure this happens.

“There is this belief that the public sector is different from the private sector and never the twain shall meet,” she says. “What a load of rubbish. You structure an organisation like a business. I’m in a £1.2bn organisation here in Leeds, which is the equivalent of a FTSE 100 firm. Do I have bankers? Yes. Do I have shareholders? Yes, I’ve got patients and stakeholders. I’m also jumping through a lot more political hoops than a FTSE 100 firm would have to.

“The language of the board and the language of an organisation might change depending on the sector, but the basic business principles, whether it’s public or private, are absolutely the same.”

Pollard is confident that once the next two years of careful cost cutting and restructuring are done, the future is bright for Europe’s largest healthcare teaching authority.
“We’re forging ahead with our cost improvement programme, it’s a big task but we’ve also got big ambitions. We’re going to be the centre of excellence for the North for all our specialist services and we also want to be one of the best places in the UK to work and to be treated.”

Private sector firms will play an important role in the recovery of the trust, she says.
“Earlier this week I had 15 medi-tech companies coming in because I’d heard that many of them weren’t getting access to us as a provider. We explained technical details and the procurement system within the public sector and had a Q&A session. Often it’s not that we don’t want to work with them, it’s just that we don’t know about their widgets.

“If companies really are facing a closed-door situation, I would suggest they drop me or the CEO a line. There’s probably a very good reason. It’s probably not technical, but there might be some perfectly sensible reason. With some small organisations we can direct them towards universities and see if we can collaborate on some research together. Sometimes these medi-tech companies have very good ideas but they’re not getting to the door just because they need refinement.”

While busily building links with UK private sector firms, Pollard is also working to forge export ties to strengthen the trust’s commercial power.

Linda Polard02“We’ve got a really interesting international commercial proposition on the table and it’s growing and growing. We’ve got BIS and UKTI involved and contracts in places like Jordan and Egypt. They usually start off with the training of people, and then we can cross fertilise. For example, The King Hussein Cancer Centre in Jordan is the main cancer centre for the Middle East. We have the biggest cancer centre in the UK in Leeds so they know we are a centre of excellence and they want to be taught by us and also they want the same kit as us, which goes back to the medi-tech people.”

Pollard was appointed into her current NHS role in February last year, having previously been chair of NHS Leeds, NHS Airedale, Bradford and Leeds Primary Care Trust Cluster. In the education sector, previous roles have included pro chancellor/chairman of the University of Leeds and a board-member of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA).

And she has been an equally prolific chair in the corporate world too. Until recently she served as regional chair of Coutts Bank and, before it was scrapped, was Yorkshire Forward’s deputy chairman. Two years on from the abolishment of the regional development agency (RDA), she still feels passionately that they were the best model for the North of England.

“The RDAs in the North had just had enough time to become established and were getting to grips with European funding. When they were scrapped we had some really good pieces of work happening in the region and it had real ambition. We were putting Yorkshire on the map internationally and there were hundreds of things that we started that literally had nowhere to go after the ideas were scrapped. The local enterprise partnerships have had to start again city to city, not region to region. We now have cities vying against cities, which dissipates energy, whereas if you are all as one you are much stronger. Yorkshire is geographically the biggest county and we’ve got some massive urban areas with some real strength, but you need leadership and coordination, which is what we were beginning to grow with the RDAs. I would support any party that took us back to having some kind of regional structure,” she says.

Does talk from Whitehall about northern powerhouses and rebalancing the economy away from a London-centric model give her hope for the future?

“UK plc is only going to work when the regions are as active as London. You will always have London as the capital and that’s never going to change but if the regions are failing, then why on earth have we got regions all over Europe that do work. Why do we think we have to have a centrally run UK plc? You wouldn’t do it anywhere else.

“We are still a bit tribal in the North, but if it’s for the greater good and we are grown-up enough to say that we are getting left behind and we need a bigger voice, that is the only way to go forward. And I’m definitely convinced we need to hold our own transport budget,” she adds.

Regardless of politics or the funding models of the day, Pollard believes many large organisations can do much more internally to boost their competitiveness.

One approach which she has drawn from in virtually every board role she’s had, stems from her experience with German firms.

After setting up, growing and selling a multi-million pound high-end fashion retailer in her 20s, she founded a marketing firm.

Through this she won global sportswear giants Puma as a client. She worked with the German brand for seven years, travelling the world setting up conferences, exhibitions and shows. Working at board level with the business gave her what has proved to be an invaluable insight into successful leadership structure. In a previous role she’d also gained similar insight through work with BMW.

“German firms tend to have two-tiered boards. They have the main board and a management board which may include union representatives, chief engineers, partners and stakeholders that are contributing to the overall agenda.

“I’ve lost count of how many things I’ve chaired, but I’ve always had the same structure underneath. How do you reach huge groups of people working in a large organisation? You have to start by having really good communication. That’s where you need to have a tier of people filtering things through.

“The trouble is you’ve often get boards who think they know it all and have a top-down approach, which for me is a recipe for disaster. I think people are learning fast about how to communicate with your staff, stakeholders and partners, because nobody, whether you’re an individual or corporation, should ever work in isolation.”

Pollard also believes in the power of gender balanced boards. She is chair and a founding member of An Inspirational Journey, the Leeds-based organisation which encourages a business culture which enables the best talent to lead, regardless of gender.

“This isn’t about women, it’s actually a business decision. If we ignore well-educated women at the point where they might have a bit of a wobble in their careers, we are throwing away a massive amount of talent. We need to look at different ways of retaining them, perhaps by giving them some tools and support and carrying out constant succession planning in our own organisation because we need them in decision-making roles.

“We need a balance because we all need to be in it together. I always remember the CEO of Boots saying some time ago that ‘80% of our purchasers are women, so why wouldn’t we listen to them or have opinions from women about our products?’

“Mixed boards of very different. Women will think about things that perhaps male counterparts might not and are not frightened of asking what might seem an obvious question. I’m generalising because you do have some very good male dominated boards. But there is bit of a macho idea that ‘I’m going to be made to look a fool if I ask this’. Women are also very analytical in their approach. They have tenacity and they don’t always agree with everything.”

As an individual in business, Pollard says her ability to keep standards high is a major contributing factor to her success. And that success includes both an OBE and a CBE.

“Letting people down is a cardinal sin. The bar has always been high in all the organisations I’ve worked in. If something needs doing when you’re working, just do it. I’m also an eternal optimist. There is always a solution and I don’t see problems, I see challenges. Don’t ever give me problems, give me challenges.”

Pollard, who admits to being a workaholic, also credits her husband’s support for her success. “He’s always been massively supportive and he continues to be. There are times when you’re not there when you should be, and the demands on me seven days a week are there. He recognises that I’ve always got something in my sights to do and he knows I’m not going to change.”

Satisfaction guaranteed... for the fit and the flabby

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As a senior figure at the NHS, it was no surprise when Linda Pollard chose the healthiest main on the menu at Quebec’s in Leeds. Despite dining with a top bod from an institution battling to make the country less flabby, I shamefully plumped for classic fish and chips.
Fortunately what arrived was a cut above the greasy fare found elsewhere. And, the crisp batter and succulent haddock definitely had nutritional value – and tasted delicious. Chef had also strategically stacked the chips in a neat pile to disguise their volume from my health conscious guest. Linda’s tuna nicoise equally satisfied its devourer. Tuna steak cooked to perfection was accompanied by new potatoes, olives and Quebec’s homemade dressing. Unfortunately time was too tight for starters and dessert but there were plenty of options on offer, including Whitby smoked salmon to start and artisan cheeses to round off.
The 44-bedroomed venue, on Quebec Street, has plenty of interesting areas in which to unwind with food, drink or afternoon tea. The Porter’s Lodge offers light meals and sharing platters – and cocktails and parties if that’s your poison. Private dining for up to 30 people is accommodated at the hotel in the Oak Room or Conservatory. The hotel also does a roaring trade in weddings, baby showers and any other cause for celebration for up to 70 guests. 0113 244 8989