Clinical leadership case study: consultant clinical scientist and lead healthcare scientist

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Dr Jagjit Sethi, Clinical Director, Consultant Clinical Scientist and Lead Healthcare Scientist, Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, on becoming a clinical leader.

My journey

Current roles: Clinical Director (CD), Consultant Clinical Scientist (Audiology), Head of Hearing and Balance Services and Lead Healthcare Scientist for Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. National role as Past President for British Academy of Audiology and working with the NHS England Chief Scientific Officer on various projects.

My career started at the Royal London in Whitechapel and, as with most professionals in audiology, I just fell into it. The eldest child of a migrant family from India, we found ourselves orphaned at an early age, so after doing my A-levels, I left education to support my family. I always wanted to work in healthcare so when a job came up for a trainee medical technical officer (MTO) in audiology I thought, here’s a way in. I applied for it, thinking I would try it out for a year and then see what I really wanted to do. Over 30 years later, I am still in audiology! It has been a long journey, which has required being continuously inquisitive, tenacious and having a lot of fortuitous luck along the way.

My first role was as a trainee MTO at the Royal London with a salary of £3,000 per year where I gained my certificate in medical physics and physiological measurements. As with everything in the NHS, our jobs were reinvented and relabelled as physiological measurement technicians. Slowly, over time, I was promoted through the ranks eventually to Chief Audiologist for Neuro-Otology at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital, London. Working with leading clinical scientists and audio-vestibular physicians stimulated my thirst to expand my knowledge and skills further. So, I took voluntary redundancy to study for a master’s in audiological science and attained my Certificate of Audiological Competence. I travelled around the country learning from leading clinical scientists, eventually securing a job as Head of Clinical Audiology at Countess of Chester Hospital.

Over the next 11 years I developed my passion for quality improvement and honed my managerial and leadership skills. Not one for standing still for too long, alongside my day-time job I went on to attain a doctorate in audiology from NOVA South Eastern University, Florida. In 2008 I moved to Berkshire where, alongside my substantive role as Head of Service, I took on national roles including working with NHS England and the Royal College of Physicians to develop the United Kingdom Accreditation Service accreditation for Improving Quality in Physiological Services, being the Neurosensory Sciences Professional Lead for National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS), then President for British Academy of Audiology and now working with Chief Scientific Officer on Action Plan on Hearing Loss and Healthcare Science Patient Group Direction project. 

The turning point

It’s difficult to pinpoint one event and I’m not entirely sure I am there yet. The key has been gradual self-determination and grit. Part of the CD role is ensuring your profile and reputation continue to grow in the organisation; this is something that has not come naturally to me and I continue to work on it. It took me numerous attempts before I was fortunate to be given the CD role. While it is not a board role, I do have a voice at senior level and am able to inform decision-making.

There is a long journey ahead as I learn the executive language, way of working and cultures. It is important to develop relationships which go a long way in ensuring support at executive meetings. This can at times feel a bit like an MP canvasing to secure votes before the discussion has taken place. On reflection, I suppose it’s a bit like moving abroad; you need to learn the language and the local way of doing things if you want to be accepted!

Key barriers/challenges and how I worked through these

Traditional roles, such as nurse, doctor and more recently AHP, have supportive networks and well-trodden paths to executive roles; however, this is not yet well embedded for healthcare scientists. Quite often you can be overlooked and funnelled towards operational promotions. Despite having transferable skills and related evidence of my achievements, feedback from unsuccessful interviews was that I lacked breadth of experience and was too clinically focused.

How do you break the glass ceiling without opportunities? Since secondment opportunities were limited, I seized opportunities wherever they presented themselves. I took on additional roles both internally and outside the trust including working with the National School of Healthcare Science, project leading the trust’s five-year strategy refresh and other divisional-level projects. I then took on the presidency for my professional body, which led me to work with Chief Scientific Officer on the national stage. Despite gaining all these experiences, it still took a number of attempts at interview to become a CD: an indication of the need for perseverance and to continually seek development opportunities. 

Organisational support to make this happen

Prior to my CD role, several talent management conversations suggested I needed more breadth of strategic experience but unfortunately no opportunities were available internally, so I looked outside the organisation.

My top tips

  • Reflect on who you are and want to be. Know what’s truly important to you. Know your true potential and go for it.
  • Never give up trying, no matter the obstacles. If you want it badly enough you will get there. Just dare to dream, you never know it might just happen. 

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