Celebrating International Women’s Day, I’m excited to embark on a journey with some outstanding women, driving innovation in Digital Health. Our conversation will navigate obstacles, victories, and words of wisdom, offering a guiding light for aspiring women in the Digital Health space. To launch this series, I had the pleasure of conversing with Lisa Emery, former Chief Information Officer at NHS Sussex, exploring her journey as a woman in the dynamic landscape of digital health. From her humble beginnings as a Project Manager at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in 2001 – 2002, to her distinguished tenures in prestigious CIO positions at NHS organisations like West Hertfordshire Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and NHS Sussex, Lisa’s trajectory is undeniably inspiring.

SABRINA ISKANDAR: Hi Lisa, thank you for joining me, how are you?

LISA EMERY: Hi there, I’m good, thank you.

SI: Happy International Women’s Day! This year’s theme “inspire inclusion”, carries significant weight. What does it mean to you?

LE: Oh, gosh, it means so many things, doesn’t it? It’s massively important. One of the things I’ve always thought is, if you don’t have that diversity of thinking within the teams that are delivering your digital services, how on earth do you speak to the population you’re representing? It’s always been my absolute pleasure to work with really diverse groups of individuals in the digital space and develop and design services that mirror the people that you’re delivering them for. The opportunities and benefit you get from listening to different perspectives is hugely important and absolutely critical to things as well

SI: 100%, I couldn’t agree more. I think the more people you speak to, brings out different perspectives or ideas that you’d maybe never considered, after all, you don’t know what you don’t know. So seeking out those chats with a diverse range of people would broaden your own ways of thinking, but also those around you and even society as a whole.

LE: I think as well, when we start to look at Al and other end technologies coming up, even at its most basic level, you’ve got that risk of introducing bias into the design if you’re not inclusive in your approach. So there’s so many reasons to take that incredibly importantly.

SI:  Definitely. Could you share with us your journey into the digital health industry, and how you may have felt about entering a market predominantly dominated by men?

LE:  Absolutely. I came from a scientific background, I started off as a lab scientist then did a number of projects from there – actually, labs were quite strongly female dominated. Then I crossed over to the project management spaces, and then particularly into ClO roles, I obviously walked into quite a male dominated space, and it was not actually a very culturally diverse space at that point in time. Walking into a room full of people, in your first CIO role, you’ve got that impostor syndrome and if you couple that up with the fact that you’re also one of the only women in the room, it just piles on even more, because it’s just something that you’re acutely aware of. So your perceived lack of knowledge plus, the room you find yourself in makes that really tough. I’m very lucky, actually to have been quite formally and warmly welcomed into the ClO communities, and have had reach out from both men and women in that space, to be friendly and help out on what was really important. But I wouldn’t say it was without its challenges. Simple things like going to conferences, where panels were all male, or that piece that you see in a room where when the conversation starts, the nod is across to the to the men in the room? I would definitely say it’s got better over time, but we’re not there yet.

SI: No, I completely understand. It’s like when you walk into a room, and you’re present, but it’s like the attention is elsewhere and the eye contact isn’t directed towards you during the conversations, but to the other men, or others who had more experience.

LE: I think that’s right. I had experiences where l’d walk into a room or a conversation with a male colleague, on a similar level in terms of job role, and the person you’re speaking to, would refer to the man. IT is not the only industry where you see that.

SI: Yes absolutely, and it’s across all industries. I think it’s how you navigate around it. And I guess being confident, making sure you are heard and your opinions are shared, getting the right people to listen to you, because everyone has great ideas.

LE: Also how you try and overcome – that is actually more prominent in women, isn’t it? That sense of imposter syndrome. And trying to battle through that as well is a bit of a challenge.

SI: Definitely. Were there any other kind of barriers and challenges that you encountered throughout your career?

LE: I suppose, another one is how you then start to build. And, importantly, how to create an environment where you try and encourage more women into the space, create much more opportunity which can be quite difficult. I think, as well, not so much a barrier, but a challenge is when you’re at the start of some of these sort of roles, where you’re overcoming the challenge of your own lack of experience and longevity in the game, and how far you’re able to challenge.If I think of a specific one, early in career, I would have found it quite overwhelming, the notion of an all-male panel in conference, where now, I’m much more confident, because l’ve been around the block a bit to do that. So there’s something about your time and experience you’ve had and what that looks like as well.

SI: You mentioned creating a new environment to allow for more women in the space. How did you do that? What were the wins and challenges that you found in that space?

LE: It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? As you move through, into more senior roles, you get more opportunity. Looking at how your interview panels are constructed, what you’re doing in terms of shortlist for people, the sorts of groups that you engage with actively to make that happen. Are you going out and questioning the EDI approach of that group that you’re working with? Working with people like The Shuri Network to offer out opportunities. I think working with HR colleagues to ensure that when you’re reaching out and advertising for roles or looking for apprenticeships and things, you’re putting some really critical thinking into what you’re working with, to look at where you’re drawing that talent from. That’s something you can take advantage of the more the more senior you get. But it’s a really important thing to sort of critically assess yourself. Are you actually going in looking in the right place?

SI: Yeah, you don’t want to just be ticking a check box. You need to kind of go through it yourself and make sure you’re speaking to all the right people to find the person you want, and provide all equal opportunity.

LE: Absolutely. The danger is, as you said, for example, if you have created a diverse interview panel – is your candidate pool sufficiently diverse? Have you used different ways to look for people? I think being a bit more willing to take risks on people’s levels of experience. Bearing in mind that in many cases, because of the things we’ve been talking about, your candidate pool won’t necessarily include people on the basis that they haven’t had that wealth of experience, or opportunity to create that wealth of experience. Being a bit more open to where people have come from and what they’ve had to overcome to get to that point in the first place.

SI: So, in a panel interview like this, if you had a different opinion to the others, would you usually have to speak up to back a candidate? Or is it more about everyone getting a unanimous decision to shortlist this person into your candidate pool?

LE: I think it’s the mix. I’ve had really good constructive conversations with people on shortlisting panels actually, where you may get a difference of opinion and you’re willing to then take the risk. People are actually willing to question themselves and take a chance and can be really constructive about it. Put your voice in and make sure those people do get an opportunity. You’ve got to hold your nerve, and be willing to admit if it hasn’t worked out quite how you thought.

SI: Over your career, whether it’s during your time as a CIO or lab scientist, have you come across any female leaders who have inspired you? It could be someone from your professional circle, a colleague, or even someone outside of work.

LE: Definitely my mom, she is a brilliant role model for women. She had all of us kids and went back in her 40s to get her degree in science. So, that’s inspiring. And then on a work perspective, I’ve got a number of people really, I always recall back in the national programme for IT going into a really horrendously difficult environment. Again, very male dominated, and was a very difficult programme role in a political environment, new systems going in – it was probably the most challenging programme I’ve done career wise. We had an absolutely fabulous female leader, who’d come over from Australia, and I still keep in touch with. She showed me just brilliantly how to handle being in that environment, but provided me enough cover and space to learn my job. So l keep in touch with her, and I try and take elements of what I do. But there’s been a number of people. Yeah, one does stick out to me.

SI: Oh, amazing. Was that your first big programme role?

LE: It was probably one of the first big ones. Yeah, I had been out in the Middle East for years and came back into that.

SI: Is there a pivotal moment in your career that actually empowered you, or, inspired you to pursue those leadership roles within the NHS?

LE: That’s a really good question. I sort of ended up in digital off the back of 12 or 13 years in the scientific side. I think probably it was just learning through doing some of those projects, and seeing the difference that digital world could make. It became a quite an exciting environment. Something that l thought, you know, you can actually do something quite compelling and interesting here. So I don’t think there was any one particular moment, I just got more interested over a course of a short course of time in learning.

SI: So looking ahead, what are your hopes and aspirations for the next generation of female leaders?

LE: Goodness, so many. I really hope that the gains that we have made continue. I think we’ve got to do far more and I count myself amongst that. Those of us that are established and those of us coming through. Are we doing enough for the next generation, or the younger generation coming through? Are we in schools talking to people? Are we running careers that are out there in health, and in digital, there’s so much to do in that space. And it’s not all about, the important technical skills, there are many transformational type roles, change roles, fantastic opportunities for engaging with communities and what they need. I don’t think we’re always very good at explaining it, We’ve still got this tendency in the digital side to not talk about the breadth of what we do and what ties in with the clinical teams. I think we could do more, and do better. And we’ve talked to colleagues in groups like The Shuri Network about this all the time, we don’t do enough, either to attract that diversity of talent, or retain that talent. We’re getting better, but we’re not quite there yet.

SI: I completely agree. I think also, as someone who recruits to the NHS and supports the organisation in a way to provide good talent, communicating is key in what you do. At the same time presenting to various groups, including younger generations and encouraging their support. Obviously understanding that, I guess, there are different perspectives and ideas around the priorities of Boomers, Millennials and Gen Z. It’s important to navigate those dynamics and finding ways to collaborate effectively with everyone involved.

LE: That’s the thing isn’t it? I agree with you and the danger is you end up just talking to an echo chamber, it’s easy to, we do it in all sorts, every day on social media, with your friends, and to get the answers you want, don’t you? You hear the same voices and the same opinions – it’s a bit like conferences. There are some brilliant ones, but this tendency to hear the same group of people talking about things. I’m sitting here saying it knowing that I’ve been trying to turn things down on the grounds that people have heard enough from, so l know we need to stop doing that and raise up the platform for new people coming through. And, to your point different ways of thinking, people want to work differently these days. The whole concept social constructs different. People can’t afford to live and work in the same way they could be coming through. In the younger generation, it’s just not possible. So actually, you’ve got to adapt how you how you work and how you offer opportunities to people, because things are very different socially as well.

SI: And it’s finding the balance of going with it and have different ways of thinking but also challenging certain ways, and finding a compromise.

LE: The key to compromise is communication. If you’re not talking to people, how do you know what is making it difficult for them or what they are motivated by if you’re not talking to them? You’ve not really got any excuse for moaning about it. The other part of that, of course, is you’ve got to be a bit more robust about it, you’re going to get some critical self-reflection, some of what you hear, you won’t like, and some of it will feel directed. I’ve had conversations where I think I’ve missed something or I’ve not quite understood something well, particularly in the diversity space. Often, your immediate reaction is to be quite defensive and say, well, that’s not what I meant. But it’s to actually just listen. So that’s, that’s a skill that people need to develop a bit more.

SI: Yeah, I completely agree. I think, in every industry, for sure.

LE: Absolutely, that’s across the board. It is difficult, you know that that degree of self-reflection and challenge can be quite tough to take.

SI: What advice would you give to your younger self?

LE: I would probably have looked for some mentorship and guidance a bit sooner, and not thought I could just power through it myself. Definitely. But also to keep going, I would look at myself in the mirror now and say take on board a bit more advice and help from people that were offering it than I did to start with.

SI: So, to all the young women aspiring to leadership positions in the NHS, look for mentorship, and don’t be afraid to ask questions!

LE: Yes, and that doesn’t need to mean that the onus is therefore on that younger person to do that. Me as an older, in career person is going to get just as much out of that relationship. All of the things we’ve just been talking about. You don’t improve that alone, do you? That has to be improved in tandem. It’s the reverse mentorship aspect where it’s massively valuable and important. So yeah, it’s a good mutual benefit. I’d always encourage people to do that. Take some time to do it.

SI: 100%. I love that. And my final question is how would you position your current position and influence to amplify the voices of underrepresented women within the NHS and advocate for their advancement?

LE: There’s a few different ways, so advocating via being an active ally for some of the groups that are trying to address the challenges we’ve spoken about. Putting yourself out there, with groups like The Shuri Network, and others to make a statement, this is what I stand for, this is what I believe in. You’re not there just to prove that you’ve joined a group. Offering out the time for mentorships and sticking to it, it’s equally important. Doing what we said around how you approach your recruitment . And I think, particularly, speaking out when something’s not right. Which continues to be tough. So, you know, if I was asked to go on a panel, for example, at a conference, is there a really good reason that’s an all-male? That there is one female on it? Looking at the conference programme critically and saying, is this a diverse conference? Is it attracting the people I think it should be? And if it’s not, what am I going to say about that? Where do I position myself? What am I advocating by doing certain things? That was one of the things I was really hadn’t prepared myself for when starting an executive role, the fact that so many people are watching you, they watch behaviours, your leadership style. And I hadn’t really thought that through. What you do, what you walk past, how you portray yourself and how you behave is massively important. You’ve got to be really, really aware of that. Thinking about how you project yourself, and how you therefore do or don’t run certain things.

SI: That’s really helpful, when did you realise that actually this is important, and as a leader, I need to be aware of how I portray myself, what I’m saying, my behaviours.

LE: Coming into an environment where you are in a leadership role, you don’t know that an individual is concerned, but you can sense what the underlying tensions and difficulties in that team are. If you walk into your office or down the corridor, with a particular demeaner, or look – that projects itself on how people are feeling, onto the conversations you have, and you can’t easily reset that. It’s not to say you can’t allow yourself to present a vulnerable side at work, but I think there’s something about being authentic about the ways in which you behave and how it impacts other people. Particularly if you want to lead other people as well. And it’s not to say don’t do it, but just being really aware of it.

SI: That’s really interesting as it’s something I’ve noticed as well – obviously I’m not a leader of my own team or anything.

LE: Uh uh, we’re all leaders.

SI: Yeah no, you’re right.

LE: This is the female thing you see! We are all leaders, I bet you have led many many things.

SI: No, you’re right, I just need to take a step back and recognise my own little achievements.

LE: Precisely, good on you!

SI: Thanks Lisa, ended that with a free therapy session as well!

LE: Haha, let’s call it mutual aid.

SI: Those were all my questions! Thank you so much for your time and speaking with me about your journey, it has been really quite wonderful.

LE: No problem, thank you for having me.