Supporting the leaders of tomorrow: Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen profile picture

04 December 2017

Samantha Allen
Chief Executive
Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust


The NHS needs strong, stable leaders who are able to strategically plan and look ahead while taking the immediate needs of their staff and patients into account. We can spend years nurturing and supporting leaders to develop and progress into a chief executive role, yet the average tenure is just 18 months. What’s making people think about moving on so soon? And how can we get better at keeping them?

In the sixth of a series of blogs, Samantha Allen, chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and a graduate of the Aspiring chief executive programme, discusses her experience and the impact the programme has had on her, her colleagues and the system. The programme is a collaboration between NHS Providers, the NHS Leadership Academy and NHS Improvement.

The NHS has never faced the challenges it has today. That’s not just my view. I’ve spoken to many experienced NHS leaders and people with experience of using services who share this view.

Now, more than ever health and social care leaders need to hold on to the very founding values of the NHS if we are to ensure it is to be there for our families, children and friends (and us in older age). We need to be bold and ambitious to achieve this. That, to my mind, is a pretty good reason for wanting to become an NHS chief executive.

I was one of fourteen people selected to start the Aspiring chief executive programme in July 2016. The programme is supported by the NHS Leadership Academy, NHS Providers and NHS Improvement, who recognised the need to support the next generation of aspiring NHS chief executives.

The assessment process was pretty demanding and set the tone for what was to come. It consisted of group work, individual feedback and a long and challenging interview.

It was clear our knowledge, experience, leadership style, values and personal resilience were being tested throughout the assessment process. The atmosphere amongst participants was cordial but tense, with a strong sense of competition hanging in the air. I was delighted to be selected to go through to the next round.

The importance of being in service to others, patients, carers and colleagues was at the forefront of the programme – it felt different to any other development I had done.

Samantha Allen    Chief Executive

As the programme got underway we were asked to identify a staff and patient/carer mentor to work with us throughout the programme. On the first day we received a talk from Tommy about his work campaigning to improve dementia care following his experience caring for his mother. Tears rolled down many of our cheeks listening to his talk.

With our staff mentors in attendance alongside us the importance of being in service to others, patients, carers and colleagues was at the forefront of the programme – it felt different to any other development I had done.

We weren’t there to simply learn about leadership or the technical aspects of being a chief executive. It was more than that – it was about being able to understand and demonstrate leadership in service of others.

At the heart of the programme is exploring the four key leadership aspects related to the chief executive role: your personal, executive, corporate and system leadership.

Samantha Allen    Chief Executive

At the heart of the programme is exploring the four key leadership aspects related to the chief executive role: your personal, executive, corporate and system leadership. You are supported with an excellent online learning resource that takes you through each module and your patient and staff mentor are instrumental.

There is a combination of workshops and ‘calls to action’ that you need to undertake – each of these linked to the programme learning outcomes. We were put through our paces by a media company and assessed on our interview (radio and TV) and press handling skills.

The programme also gave you access to people like the Care Quality Commission’s chief inspector for hospitals; the chief executive of NHS Improvement; and a national freedom to speak up guardian. Each participant was assigned a ‘buddy’ and I was grateful to have the guidance and insights of Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, as mine.

The learning curve, alongside the programme has been steep but I can tell you this – it would have been a lonelier, harder role to take on if I had not benefited from the learning, relationships and development the programme has supported me with.

Samantha Allen    Chief Executive

I think everyone will take something different from the programme. Whilst it is structured learning, the journey remains very personal. When I started in July 2016 I did not think I would finish it as a chief executive. I was appointed as the chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust in March 2017.

The learning curve, alongside the programme has been steep but I can tell you this – it would have been a lonelier, harder role to take on if I had not benefited from the learning, relationships and development the programme has supported me with. It is a huge privilege to be a chief executive in the NHS. That said, as you will expect, it is as tough and demanding as it is rewarding.

My learning will continue beyond the programme but I now believe my foundations are stronger – on the inside and outside. I feel more prepared and confident as a new chief executive and hugely grateful for the programme and the support and challenge I have received throughout.

I feel more prepared and confident as a new chief executive and hugely grateful for the programme and the support and challenge I have received throughout.

Samantha Allen    Chief Executive

My personal commitment, responsibility and purpose as an NHS chief executive is to be bold and ambitious in my leadership and to remain positive about what I can do - not what I can’t do. I want to look to the future, not be rooted in the past – though I want to seek and understand what we can learn from it.

Small things make a difference; it will be a movement, not a system, that will create the conditions for great care to flourish and the NHS to survive. And, at the heart of that movement, we need to hold true to our values: respecting, supporting, encouraging, nurturing the people who work in frontline clinical care and the services that support them.

The future is uncertain but it is our role as leaders is to seek it out, shape it, influence it and create it with a grounded sense of optimism. In doing so we mustn’t forget the here and now; perhaps the greatest challenge we face. I will use my guiding value to lead with care and treat others how I wish to be treated, for that is what we are here to do, whatever our job title is in the NHS.

I believe in the NHS and its founding principles. At the same time, we cannot be complacent about assuming it automatically has a right to exist forever more. We need to challenge old assumptions and ways of working; continuously test ourselves; and focus everything we do upon the needs of the patients, families and communities we are here to serve.

That, to my mind, is the central purpose of my role as an NHS chief executive. And that’s why I want to do the job.

The Aspiring chief executive programme is a collaboration between NHS Providers, the NHS Leadership Academy and NHS Improvement. It was created in 2014 to ensure a strong, ongoing, pipeline of candidates for the role of NHS trust chief executive. The programme is designed to prepare those with the potential to become chief executives in the next 12-24 months for these key roles.

The programme has had two cohorts who graduated in 2017. Of the 28 participants so far, 10 have gone on to become trust chief executives. Providing the right leadership support for these individuals will be key to ensure they have the right skills, attitudes and behaviours to build a better NHS.

This blog appears in our Aspiring chief executives publication where past participants of the programme share their experiences and the impact it has had.

About the author

Samantha Allen profile picture

Samantha Allen
Chief Executive

Sam Allen became chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust in March 2017. She started work in the NHS in 1996 and has a background both in the operational management and leadership of mental health services and health and social care commissioning. Sam also gained valuable experience working with an international healthcare organisation in the private sector. An important aspect of her work is developing effective partnerships with experts by experience, families and carers, clinicians, support staff and partner organisations, to ensure efficient clinical care and improve experience and outcomes. Sam is a Chartered Manager, Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute and holds an MBA from Aston Business School.as

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