What’s it like being a non-executive director on the board of Healthcare Improvement Scotland? As we recruit for a new board member, Rhona Hotchkiss explains the route she took to becoming a non-executive director and the qualities you need for the role.

Sometimes life takes unusual turns that you can’t possibly foresee. Way back in 2004, after I spent a year as an Interim Director of NHS Quality Improvement Scotland (NHS QIS) – the predecessor organisation to Healthcare Improvement Scotland (HIS) – I left the NHS, seemingly for good, and went into management consultancy.  I had no notion then that I would be back 15 years later as a non-executive director, nor of the path my career would take to get me here!

Scotland to Australia and then back again

But it all started way before HIS and way before QIS! I started my working life as a nurse, training with Argyll & Clyde Health Board, as it was then, and after qualifying went on to train and work in ITU. I went to Australia for 6 months on a working holiday visa, during which time I did agency nursing to keep myself fed and clothed, and the rest of the time generally scrounged off some Australian midwives that I’d become friendly with when they had previously come to Scotland to train.

Fast forward many years after my return from Australia, and life has taken more twists. It’s 1998 and I’m an advisor in Nursing and Quality at Scottish Government going on to become the first Director of the new Nursing and Midwifery Practice Development Unit for Scotland, NMPDU or ‘NUMPTY’ as it was affectionately known.  After 2 years, NMPDU was one of the organisations that came together to form NHS QIS and then eventually became HIS. In a way, change and development was becoming quite normal.

Time for more change

By then I’d been working in the NHS for 25 years and it was time to try something entirely different, so I opted to join a consultancy firm.  It was comprised of good people working to a very high standard, but, although I stayed for almost 5 years, it wasn’t for me.  I missed the sense of unity and purpose, the feeling of service that the public sector had brought and, in a move that surprised many who knew me, I joined the Scottish Prison Service as a Deputy Governor. After being Deputy Governor at Barlinnie and then Shotts, I went on to be Governor of Dumfries (just the prison, not the entire town!) then to Cornton Vale, where I also project managed the reprovision of the women’s prison estate and finally to HMP Greenock, from where I retired in 2019.  I could write a book! Well actually, I have, but I can’t get anyone to publish it.

One week after retiring and I was back in the NHS as a Non-Executive Director at Healthcare Improvement Scotland – saying ‘hello’ to at least 15 very familiar – and much aged – faces, while my own of course had barely changed!

The volume of evolution

As someone who had worked for QIS, HIS does and doesn’t feel like the same organisation.  The volume of evolution and outright change has been huge.  The direction the organisation has taken, and the size it has grown to, are sometimes surprising to me and at other times feel more organic. Having at least a passing familiarity with the organisation pre-HIS has been useful, as has retaining some understanding of the environment it operates within – but much more useful has been the whole 40 years I’ve spent working in or close to the public sector – at all levels – from very junior to very senior.  Of course, running a prison is very different to being with HIS, but people are the same wherever you work: their concerns, their issues, their brilliant and their not so brilliant moments, and I feel every step of my 40-year working life has contributed in some way to the person I am and what I bring to the non-exec director role.

Being a non-executive Director is never dull.  I’m as prone as the next person to letting my concentration wander during long meetings and, of course, some things interest me more than others – but that’s true wherever you work.  I think there is both a qualitative and quantitative difference between a national public board like HIS and a territorial NHS board.  Different issues, different pressures, and yes a different workload. I’ve been surprised by how well the non-executive team of directors get on and how our backgrounds and skills complement each other.

The main qualities required to be a board member

I think the main qualities a non-executive director requires are curiosity and a willingness to learn.  If you’re already feeling jaded, then this isn’t for you, because the political machinations that determine how the NHS runs can feel a bit ‘groundhog day’ at times, particularly when you’ve been around the public sector as long as I have. But seeing real progress being made more than compensates for that. 

You have to be able to probe and ask questions in a constructive way and you have to be brave enough – or stupid enough – to do that when no-one around you seems to have any issue with what is being said or presented. Everyone wants to operate in a supportive environment, and you have to play your part in creating that at board level – that means valuing the contribution of others, even when you don’t agree or can’t see their point; understanding that the process by which a governing board will reach a collective stance may not always result in what would be seen as a perfect outcome in your book. 

Finally, I think being able to read critically is a vital skill.  There’s a lot of material to plough through at times and having the wisdom to realise what can be skimmed, what has to be looked at forensically and what just doesn’t hang together properly and needs to be questioned further, is vital.

If you want to contribute to the NHS, if you have a broad base of experience, and if you can operate in a collegiate way, being a non-executive director might just be right for you.

Rhona Hotchkiss is a non-executive director on the Board of Healthcare Improvement Scotland.

More information

Find out more about this role and apply online now.