Suzanne Tracey – We Work Together
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos by Nick Hook
Imagine being responsible for 8000 employees and £500m annual turnover. Actually stop and try to imagine what that would be like. The complexity. The pressure. The responsibility. The capacity to make a difference. Then add on top of that the fact that the organisation which you run is the main NHS provider of healthcare in the region. If like me, you’ve just reached for your inhaler or the closest brown paper bag to hyper-ventilate into, then you have just experienced a small percentage of what it must be like to be Suzanne Tracey, Chief Executive of the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust and the Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust.
I recently had the utter delight of meeting Suzanne Tracey and her husband at a rugby game up at Sandy Park and I could quickly tell that, as well as the bubbly and friendly exterior, there was a sharpness and a nous to Suzanne that spoke of a career-long dedication to excellence and high-standards. So, I arranged to meet with Suzanne at the Royal Devon & Exeter (RD&E) hospital and, along with friend and photographer Nick Hook, arrived and sat in a waiting area whilst her previous meeting wrapped up.
I couldn’t help but feel the habitually learned sense of uncertainty that has come from many a GP or hospital visit. With a colourful medical history (and with three young children) let’s just say that I have had my fair share of hospital visits in my time. However, as soon as Suzanne popped her head around the door to welcome us, with a trademark beaming smile and glint in her eye, those feelings of uncertainty immediately evaporated – replaced with a feeling of safety and welcome. I didn’t tell her this, but Suzanne has a disarming inclusivity and warmth about her.
We took a stroll to her office and settled in for chat, initially navigating some professional small talk and setting the scene for our conversation. We shared some back-story about each of our organisations and noted some of the shared values between them. When I asked her to expand a little on her personal back-story, she commented,
“It won’t be a surprise to hear from my accent that I am not originally from Exeter. As it says on my coffee mug, I’m a Liver-Bird, born and bred in Liverpool. At the age of eighteen, I moved to South Wales to study at University and I achieved a degree in Business Studies. I had a fantastic placement year working with some businesses in South Wales but it became obvious that, in order to keep developing my career and keep moving forwards, I needed to specialise in a particular business discipline. So, I moved to the Midlands and trained as an Accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers.”
It was here that Suzanne’s career really took shape and her future trajectory was established. She enjoyed the world of accountancy but wanted to make her experience and skill set more well-rounded so, in 1993, she took a role working in the NHS to gain some public sector experience. Initially her intention had only been to spend a couple of years in the public sector but life has a funny way of chucking a few curveballs at you from time to time, doesn’t it!
Taking on her first Directorial position in 2004, Suzanne eventually joined the RD&E NHS Foundation Trust in 2008 as their Finance Director. A few years later, she took on the role of Deputy Chief Executive before, in 2016, her predecessor left and she took on the role of Chief Executive.
I asked Suzanne what it had been like working within the NHS for so long and to have worked her way up through the ranks, so to speak. She replied, enthusiastically,
“It’s funny really. I only intended to join the NHS for a year or two to gain some public sector experience. That was twenty-six years ago! Being in the NHS really gets under your skin. It’s an amazing place to be and I can’t imagine working anywhere else!”
More recently, about ten months ago, Suzanne was approached by the regulatory body for NHS organisations to ask if her Trust could provide management support to the Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust (NDHT). This plan made sense, as some of the challenges and strains on the NDHT were having a knock-on effect to the RD&E anyway. So, a collaborative partnership was formed allowing for a more joined-up approach to healthcare in North Devon and Suzanne became CEO of NDHT too.
Conversation paused at this point and I joked that Suzanne obviously didn’t have enough work on her plate already, hence the additional role. Fortunately, she found this funny. I think…
Conversation continued, around how success is measured in such a vast organisation. Suzanne explained,
“We have stringent targets set for us by government, particularly around waiting times for A&E Treatment, Operations, Cancer Treatment and Main Diagnostic Tests, amongst many. More broadly though, as CEO and the board, we are always keeping an eye on three key things – the safety and quality of our service, the access that people have to our services and how we make sure that we are financially sound.”
On the subject of finances, I was interested to find out how the publicly-funded organisation operates. Suzanne stated,
“We spend around £1.5m at the RD&E each day, which is an awful lot of money to be responsible for. Our desire is to provide the very best outcomes possible for that investment. One of my primary aims as CEO of this trust is to make our money work as hard as possible for us, to deliver the best possible standards and results for the people that we care for and the people that we employ.”
A bold and aspirational statement but one that I couldn’t help questioning a little deeper. I asked Suzanne what challenges the two NHS Trusts face and she calmly replied,
“I’d be lying if I said that we don’t face daily challenges doing what we do. Whether it is the public opinion of the NHS, the challenges of having services, staff and patients in remote locations, the complex worlds of funding and finance or dealing with issues surrounding the sheer scale of the NHS, there isn’t a day that goes by without a challenge or two. However, it is how we combat these challenges that makes the difference. It is incredible how far a ‘can-do’ attitude and a lot of hard work will get you!”.
“Whilst the NHS outperforms the state health provisions of many other countries, we understand that radical changes are necessary if the whole national system is to be clinically and financially sustainable. Even changing basic things like phone systems or internet connectivity is a highly complex task as systems and infrastructure within the NHS have to be uniform, scalable and suitable for all users. The scale and complexity of such projects is just mind-blowing. Add on top of that the constant challenges of attracting and retaining talent to your workforce – something that is becoming harder and harder in the NHS – and you can see how, at times, life can feel challenging in our line of work.”
On the flip-side, conversation turned to the multiple times that the NHS has provided significant, sometimes lifesaving, care to the three of us and our families. Nick and I shared stories of the births of our children, the care that we and our partners have received and the end of life care provided to relatives over the years. All of the tax which we will ever pay in our lifetimes will not be enough to say thank you for it.
Suzanne, with a look of pride on her face, exclaimed,
“Making the difference and achieving positive health outcomes for the people who use our services is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Knowing that the organisation which I run has saved lives, prevented death, improved quality of life or even quality of death fills me with a deep satisfaction. Organisationally, the same can be said for what we do. Our staff have dedicated their lives and careers to offering the very best to each and every person who they come across every day.”
This culture of kindness and teamwork came across clearly on a recent documentary filmed and aired on Channel 5 called The Secret Life of the Hospital, which followed staff from many different departments of the RD&E around for a few shifts. Suzanne stated,
“It is such a lovely piece of work to go back and watch. It makes me really proud!
The documentary also confirmed to Suzanne the importance of knowing her staff as well as possible and experiencing what the organisation looks and feels like from their perspective. She explained,
“I’ve found that if I go and ask people for their opinion, they will give me the answer that they think the CEO wants to hear. However, if I go and work alongside them, they soon forget who I am and give me a much more natural and candid answer. So, I have committed to working the odd shift here and there with people from different departments of the hospital, to gain first-hand experience of their roles and also draw alongside them in order to make more informed decisions about the structure and strategy of the organisation. For example, I recently worked a Friday night shift with our Security Team and, let me tell you, they do a remarkable job!”
Another area of care provision that I was interested to ask Suzanne about was that of mental health. There are numerous stats that I could throw at you to demonstrate the scale and increased complexity of requirements around mental health in the UK. However, none that I could find stopped me in my tracks more than the following – that one in four people in the UK are statistically proven to encounter a mental health issue for themselves every year. One in four. And, of course, that counts for both patients and staff in Suzanne’s organisation.
“The world of healthcare is so up and down. The feeling of making a positive difference is so powerfully positive, but the mental challenges of experiencing the sometimes-tragic nature of care cannot be underestimated for our staff and our patients alike. For our staff, I fully endorse the ethos that, whether relating to physical or mental health, it is vitally important that they care for themselves first and foremost so that they can then do the very best job possible caring for the people who use our services.”
As our conversation started to come into land, I asked Suzanne how she balances the strains and stresses of leading such a large organisation with having some important personal downtime. She replied,
“As you know Joff, we could work 24/7 and the work would never be done. So I have had to take stock and ask myself, as CEO, what tasks or roles can solely I perform and then delegate everything else to others who are able. For me that usually means that my tasks are centred around enabling and empowering others. I have a sort of bird’s eye view over the organisation which I use to connect dots and consider how individual decisions might affect other parts of the organisation.”
“I have also learned that I need to be a pragmatist in order to exist and function healthily within my role. My trains of thought and my strategic thinking are centred around three things – what can I change, what can I influence and what do I need to accept? When I answer those three questions in my own head, I often feel more peaceful and focused on the priorities and tasks at hand. Outside of work, I love watching the Exeter Chiefs, spending time with friends and making the most of the beautiful part of the world that we live in.”
Our time was almost up, so I asked Suzanne to synopsise her thoughts on leading such a vitally important local organisation. She summarised,
“Despite the challenges and what people might have you believe about the NHS, we make a meaningful difference to thousands of lives in this region every single day. I can’t tell you how satisfying that is for me as the leader of the organisation. With my background in finance, it has been fascinating for me to forge a career in the NHS and work out how to put our budgets to work. I’m not just here to make up the numbers and the point at which I know I’ll be ready to leave the RD&E is when I know that I am not adding value anymore and it is ready for someone else to come and give that input. At the moment though, I can’t see any sight of that as I am happy in my role and get good feedback from objective sources on my performance. I’m here to stay!”
With an exciting and challenging future ahead of her in her role, it is clear to me that Suzanne occupies a role that not many could perform. Balancing the weight and strain of such a role whilst remaining human, healthy and down to earth must be a tall order indeed. However, as I came away from my time with her I had the clear impression of having just spent an hour or so with someone who loves their job, who has a clear vision for a better future and who will work incredibly hard to achieve it. Suzanne Tracey is an inspiring woman indeed and one that, if I had ever pursued a career in healthcare, I would gladly follow.
Follow Suzanne Tracey @suztraceynhs on Twitter to keep track of her impressive journey.