Dr Claire Fuller has worked as a GP in Surrey for over 20 years.
However, her drive to deliver better patient care to a wider population landed her a job as Surrey Downs CCG clinical lead in 2013.
She maintained it until 2017, when she stepped into the shoes of the previous Surrey Heartlands Sustainability and Transformation Partnership (STP) lead as senior responsible officer for Surrey Heartlands Integrated Care System (ICS) – which was established in June 2017.
Her guidance helps to reform the care of over 850,000 people.
Q How did you become an ICS lead?
When the STP came about I created the Surrey Heartlands Clinical Academy [launched in May 2017], which is our clinical leadership model.
The academy is our mechanism for removing unwarranted variation from the system, to make sure our care is standardised across Surrey Heartlands. It’s very much about bringing together the change methodology, the leadership and making sure we have evaluation, research and innovation embedded in everything we do.
When our previous STP lead [Julia Ross] left, I applied to become the ICS lead.
Q What career challenges have you faced?
I have two boys and I have always enjoyed the work that I have done but the challenges have always been about finding ways of working and improving care that would fit around the requirements of bringing up a young family.
Working towards integration is really hard and it is only successful if you have strong relationships between organisations and individuals. Creating those relations takes a lot of time but unless you invest that time into those relationships you can’t progress and make change.
System working is all about relationships. In my role, I have no hierarchical power. We are not a statutory organisation as an ICS; change can only happen through influence and persuasion.
Q What are the key qualities of a leader?
The most important thing, as a system leader, is that you have no hierarchical power. You need to build relationships, be able to communicate effectively and be able to listen.
Q What are you most proud of in your career?
I am proud of my drive into a leadership role as opposed to remaining a GP. My ambition has always been to create a health and care system that doesn’t need me or people like me to navigate patients to get the best care.
The thing that always makes me most happy is when I hear of people in our health and care system saying ‘this happened, and I got brilliant care, and it worked really well’.
I am also proud of the various things we have achieved in Surrey Heartlands, the quality of care, the improvements that we have delivered and the work of our clinical academy.
One of the other things I am really proud of is the cultural shift that has happened here. Leaders are talking and thinking as a system, rather than talking in organisational terms and we have system ambitions and savings.
Q What advice would you give to women with other responsibilities who want to step into leadership roles?
I would say ‘Just do it. If somebody offers you a job, take it. Also, never apologise for having a family’.
When I was a CCG chair we would sometimes have evening meetings. I would always just say ‘I can’t make that meeting’ but never say I couldn’t make it because of my children.
And always prioritise the important family events – such as the assemblies, sports day, parents evening. Meetings can be rescheduled, or deputies sent.
Q What can the NHS do to help women step into leadership roles?
There is definitely more to be done around flexible working. I was able to cover leadership roles because I was given more flexibility when my children were younger.
When I was in my CCG role, our board at that time was largely white and male. To encourage greater diversity, we looked at the way we recruited our body government members. There are things you can do in how your construct job descriptions and job specifications, to make it more likely that women will apply.
Women often need more encouragement to apply, so I think women in more senior roles should act as mentors to encourage others to apply.