‘Call me Linda’... health chief picks up litter and rolls up sleeves for £1bn task

Linda Pollard and Leeds General Infirmary, below.
Linda Pollard and Leeds General Infirmary, below.
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Linda Pollard now has one of the biggest jobs in Europe, let alone the UK. Katie Baldwin found out what makes her up to the challenges ahead.

SHE may oversee the running of the biggest hospitals trust on the continent, but that doesn’t mean she’s afraid of getting her hands dirty.

While on her frequent walkabouts around the five Leeds hospitals, Linda Pollard, the new chair of Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, isn’t above picking up litter from the ground if needs be.

“I always used to say ‘if I can pick up the litter when I’m walking around, then everybody can’,” she said.

She quickly adds that, in fact, she’s been very impressed about how tidy the sites are since starting her role earlier this year.

As chair of the vast organisation, the former businesswoman will have her work cut out.

Providing hospital care for the residents of Leeds, as well as an array of specialist services for people from across the region and further afield, is a massive task.

There’s the constant challenge of maintaining the quality of care whilst balancing the books financially.

And in the last few months, the pressure has been on even more than usual.

The temporary suspension of operations at the Leeds General Infirmary children’s heart surgery unit – already under threat through a national review – brought unprecedented intervention from the NHS nationally.

It also brought huge amounts of media attention to the city’s hospitals, which had not long ago been under the microscope over the Jimmy Savile scandal.

Despite the focus brought by the heart unit saga, she does not believe there is a need to rebuild the reputation of the hospital’s trust among the wider public over the cardiac surgery issue.

“I’m not sure we need to rebuild. I’m quite positive,” she said.

“The report came out and we did the right things at the right time. The scrutiny we have come under is quite exceptional.”

Mrs Pollard is also clear that hospital management did the right thing by suspending surgery – even though the mortality data which formed the main basis for the decision has now been shown to be wrong, while care was soon deemed good enough for operations to restart.

“The trust made the right decision to stand back and evaluate what the situation was. I think we have to stand by that,” she said, carefully.

“I think we have come out stronger because of that.”

In the meantime, she has been to the unit to visit staff, parents and patients, who she says have done a “fantastic job” in coping with the scrutiny they were 

Getting out and on to the wards is one of her main aims for her new role – and one of the ways she intends to work out where they need to make improvements.

“What I have to do is get out there and meet the people internally,” she said. “It’s not sitting in some ivory tower in this corridor.

“The best bit for me is when I’m out there. I’m doing a lot more walkabouts now, getting out and about and understanding what the real issues are.

“The challenges will come 
out for me from what I pick 
up and hear and physically see out there.”

Meeting staff and patients for her means turning up unannounced – often to their surprise – to get a flavour of what’s really going on.

Of course, as well as working with those on the ground in the hospitals, she must liaise with the main players in the NHS nationally and locally too.

With the heart surgery unit saga having turned increasingly bitter, at least outside the trust itself, is there a danger that relationships with NHS heads have been harmed?

She says not: “We have good relationships with all our partners. It’s my job, at the top of the organisation, to make sure those relationships work,” she said.

“That doesn’t mean that if you have a difference of opinion that it spoils the relationship.”

“You can have robust debate whether it’s in the NHS or the private sector where I’ve worked. It’s healthy, providing you come out stronger at the end of it.”

Thanks to her previous roles, Mrs Pollard already has a high profile in the Yorkshire health sector. She was chairman of NHS Leeds, the primary care trust (PCT) which had responsibility for planning and paying for healthcare before being disbanded at the start of April due to the NHS reforms.

Her tenure there had included heading a cluster of PCTs in West Yorkshire from 2011, in the run-up to the NHS changes.

Before that, she was a former chair of Bradford Hospitals, a mental health trust in the city and has held a range of other posts, including at the University of Leeds, Yorkshire Forward and previously at breast cancer centre The Haven. Mrs Pollard’s contribution to the community led to her being awarded an OBE in 2004.

However, her background is in business, having started out as an entrepreneur in her 20s and gone on to be involved with several successful businesses.

This vast experience is crucial in building what she says are vital relationships with the hospital’s partners.

“I’m not new to the NHS. If there needs to be a debate or a discussion, people know who I am,” she said.

“Anybody who has ever worked with me, ever, in the NHS or anywhere else, knows it is not a case of them and us.

“I would hope that in six or 12 months’ time, whether they are a porter or a surgeon or a senior consultant, everyone will know Linda. And it is ‘Linda’, by the way, it’s never ‘Chair’.

“It’s a very big, very complex organisation. It has nearly £1bn turnover, we have got 14,000 staff. As chair, the first thing you have to do is get out and actually reach people. “The challenge there is to understand the organisation and the individual departments in it, and equally the partners we work with.”

In terms of breaking down barriers between management and staff on the ground, she could have her work cut out.

The latest survey of Leeds hospitals workers found nearly half said they suffered stress at work.

Mrs Pollard, who is in her 60s, says that’s an inevitable consequence of the necessary changes in the NHS caused by a need to make more savings than ever before. She warns next year will be especially tough, financially.

But she adds: “You have to give people a voice by which they can connect better.

“When I’m out in meetings it’s about understanding what we could help with, small things that sometimes you can do.

“It’s just that people feel frustrated because they don’t feel they’ve got a voice.”

She knows Leeds hospitals have struggled to hit targets for patient care – and often as soon as one is under control, another goes awry.

“You have got to have some real understanding of what performance really means and holding people to account,” she said.

That also means taking a hard line on lapses in care.

“Everybody wants to come to work to do a good job. I don’t believe that anybody gets out of bed in a morning and thinks they want to make a mess of what they do,” she said.

“If bad behaviour or a lack of quality is spotted, that should be dealt with by zero tolerance completely.

“It only takes one person to fail and it chips away at what you are trying to do.

“We have got to make it completely the DNA of the place.”

In addition, though, she is determined that the hospital should ensure the leading services it provides are recognised.

“We have unbelievably excellent services right through this organisation,” she said.

“I am absolutely and utterly determined that we are going to shout about what we are really good at here.”

Curriculum Vitae

Educated: Bingley Grammar School

Lives: Hawksworth, near Guiseley, Leeds

Family: Married, three children, four grandchildren

Career: Started a ladies fashion retail firm and an international marketing company. Director in family automotive business. Roles at organisations including Yorkshire Forward and the Universities and Colleges and Employers Association. Pro-chancellor at the University of Leeds and a deputy lord lieutenant for West Yorkshire.