Talking leadership: Susie Perks-Baker on our Athena programme

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Susie Perks-Baker is a Senior Consultant in Leadership and Organisational Development at The King's Fund and Director of the Athena programme. We speak to Susie about how the programme has evolved to meet the needs of women leaders.

Why do you think there is still a need for a women-only leadership programme in health and care? What particular challenges are female leaders facing at the moment?

Despite the predominance of women working in the health and care sector and the multicultural population in the UK, women, and especially women from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, remain under-represented in NHS leadership roles. This mirrors the situation in the corporate sector – ‘the higher you go, the fewer you see’ (McKinsey 2015, 2016).

Over-working has become the norm for many in the health and care sector, and this makes progress to senior leadership positions more of a struggle for many women, who are often combining work with caring responsibilities. Leadership development is key to changing perceptions and attitudes and realising the benefits that greater diversity can bring.

On the Athena programme, we aim to provide a safe space that enables women to share and discuss the reality of the challenges they face around work – such as juggling caring responsibilities and work – and to help them recognise and navigate the unconscious assumptions they and others may have about women’s potential.

Why is it important for women leaders to build their presence and resilience?

Having more women in top leadership positions is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do in terms of organisational performance. A study conducted by Ernst & Young in 2015 demonstrated a direct correlation between having women on boards and increased organisational profitability.

Building a ‘female presence’ is one part of addressing the gender equality and diversity agenda. Women need other women to look to as role models and mentors. In terms of resilience, we all need strategies to help us not just to cope but to be the best we can. Good leadership requires you to do work on yourself, and, if you like, to build resilience; as Rowland says in Harvard Business Review: leaders ‘need to work on the quality of their inner game, or their capacity to tune into and regulate their emotional and mental states, before they can hope to develop their outer game, or what it is they need to actually do’.

How does the Athena programme help participants to do this?

The Athena programme takes a practical approach – using experiential learning and working with real-life situations. It supports women as they examine themselves in the context of their role at work – looking at the forces and factors that influence how they take up their roles and what the implications of these are. Some of the exercises we use may well take people out of their comfort zone – but we find that this is where deep learning often takes place. We also employ a 360-degree tool to help individuals understand their own context, using this as a basis for one-to-one coaching and feedback. Using an action learning process and drawing on the wisdom of the group, participants can interrogate the issue and commit to positive action for which they are held ‘accountable’ by the group. This combination of one-to-one coaching for individual impact and action learning for systemic impact is powerful.

The Athena programme has been running for more than 20 years; how have you kept the content fresh? What can participants expect?

Previous participants have told us that the programme has had a powerful impact – both on them and on the wider system from which they have come. For the 2017 programme we have built on these strengths, updating the programme in line with current needs and trends. We have, for example, introduced a voluntary overseas elective where women can go to Uganda and learn first-hand about the benefits of cultural difference, systemic difference, leadership, innovation and resource management in an unfamiliar context.

The Athena programme has attracted a broad mixture of participants over a number of years. What have participants said they have got out of the programme?

The impact of Athena has been felt at both an individual and systemic level. In our long-term follow up, we find the majority of participants have progressed into senior positions and can directly attribute this progression to coming on the programme.

Virtually everyone we’ve spoken to has reported that they have more confidence and greater clarity about their desired career path. This includes where their boundaries are in terms of what is and what isn’t right for them in the world of work. They have told us they have gained in self-awareness and built their own understanding of their strengths, the contribution they can make, and the areas they might need to work on. Overwhelmingly they comment on how thought-provoking the programme is and how they think and behave differently as a result of taking part – usually more strategically and with greater reflexivity.