As the Teams call begins, Jo’s unmistakably cheerful face lights up the screen, her hair displaying a vibrant array of pinks freshly dyed in three distinct shades. Melina, my colleague, joins in from our New York office, excitedly talking about her upcoming sunny trip in Miami. We catch up on recent holidays and life updates, before proceeding into the call.

Jo has been a familiar face to Hunter’s network for years. I was actually lucky enough to build on our relationship after securing her a role as an Interim CIO Consultant at University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust back in the summer of 2023. Naturally, I knew I was always going to tell Jo about launching my own little series of write ups aimed at empowering the next generation of Digital Tech, and I was thrilled by her response. Jo was delighted to share her experiences and to provide what I knew would be an insightful and inspiring perspective on her journey.

We speak about her notable career and journey into the digital health industry, exploring her early days as a programmer in a pharmaceutical company (Roche Products Limited) up through the ranks of project management and numerous interim CIO positions, now landing her current role as Interim Chief Digital Officer at Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, a testament to her dedication in the field.

What was the pivotal moment for Jo when transitioning into leadership roles?

It was her first CIO position in the NHS – Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust (RBHT).

“Roche gave me an amazing career and exposure to what good looks like both in people and processes as well as technology, which I was able to bring into the NHS. RBHT was very clear about their ambitions and wanted to be quite brave, so they chose to have a CIO that had not worked in the NHS as they wanted best practice and new ways of working that outside experience could bring.”

Like many aspects in life, Jo admitted that, at the time, she didn’t realise how ”easy” RBHT made it for her, in terms of enabling her to drive the changes needed. When she started in the role, it was a time when funding was not as constrained and she was given the authority and autonomy to do what was necessary. The combination of all of these factors gave her a strong sense of fulfilment and enjoyment in her work.

“It was easily the best job I’ve ever had and I am very grateful to both Roche and RBHT for giving me that experience and confidence.”

As our conversation unfolded, Melina inquired, “was technology always your primary focus?”

Jo chuckled as she reflected upon her unconventional path, admitting that she left school at 16, driven by the arrogance of typical youth. It was clear that she was eager to enter the workforce and earn money, so much so that she bypassed the traditional route of university, “much to my mother’s horror!”– initially having roles in Banking, HR and Sales Marketing. She found herself changing positions every three years, mainly as the novelty had worn off.

It was during this journey that she stumbled upon digital and IT. She was encouraged by others to talk to the IT Director at Roche, and undertook aptitude tests which lead to her journey into the world of technology.

“It was then I knew that this was the world for me. It was amazing. I am passionate about digital – it’s so broad and deep in terms of the roles available – from being a real techy and working at the computer to delivery projects and programmes and talking to people about their requirements as well as working with stakeholders on digital strategy. To me, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t want to work in digital!”

Melina emphasised that within healthcare, technology is something that will never really go away – it’s always evolving.

Jo wholeheartedly agreed, highlighting the nature of digital integration across all sectors. “Absolutely, the world runs on digital, and continues to do so. With health, we all relate to it, we’ve experienced it first hand through ourselves and our family and friends and we can make a real difference. There really isn’t a better cause.”

Delving deeper into Jo’s journey, I asked about the particular challenges she’s encountered as a woman.

She was candid and honest with me, “I went into the NHS in my forties, so I’d already developed a fair degree of confidence. I would argue that the NHS is one of the most inclusive and diverse environments, public sector bodies are really tasked to be so. I haven’t faced any issues personally – that I’ve noticed. Actually I’ve been impressed by the number of women in leadership roles.”

We also explored the everyday challenges that are encountered like the bureaucracy and financial aspects of working within the NHS. The NHS operates under a complex system of processes that are all in place to safeguard themselves against risks which can make acquiring resources and managing finances particularly challenging “you just have to accept that procurement and HR may take longer than in a commercial organisation, but processes differ in each Trust”.

We asked if there was a particularly impactful project or achievement that she was proud of. In short, Jo expressed it was the transformation of digital at RBHT. She had heard about the challenges in the public sector but was determined to be a part of transforming their digital and IT.

“I had the autonomy to define a strategy and describe a roadmap. I did that personally, I didn’t pay people to do it for me. I got it approved and had 3rd party validation that it was fit for purpose.” She achieved one of the highest levels of funding through NHSE and Safer Hospitals Safer Wards scheme, which was, in part down to how she managed the process and the support from the execs. They restructured the team, replaced networks and systems, they changed everything. The transformation of digital was what she was proud of. She loved the job, but it came to a natural end after five years and she was appointed as the CIO for Sidra in Qatar.

I remembered Jo’s involvement with numerous organisations worldwide – from the Japanese and Arabs to the Americans. I couldn’t help but pick her brains on how she navigated around different cultures when approaching a new role.

As she explained herself, I came to learn how and what makes Jo tick, “I love understanding what makes people behave and act. I like to try and work out how to get the best of that rather than clash with it. I love culture, I love style. The pharmaceutical organisations, and also Sidra invested in cultural and social awareness programmes, along with an understanding of social styles. In Japan, the US and the Middle East, it was important to have that sort of training because the workforce was widely diverse. I’m very lucky that in my career, I’ve had a lot of development to help me understand more about me, how I operate and how to work with others and try to and adapt.”

So, how does Jo maintain a work life balance in such demanding programmes?

“Very badly,” she jokes. One of the reasons she came back from the Middle East was to work with a more portfolio type approach. It gives her a degree of flexibility. “I will make sure to deliver, I’ll still do emails and admin at weird times of the day and night, but I sometimes find it easier to switch off as an interim – as long as I know I can deliver”

We debate around the perks of interim contracts and the blend of commitment and flexibility. You are fully committed to an organisation for the duration of your time there, and you take pride in the achievements you deliver. However, unlike permanent roles, there is more freedom to pursue your own career ambitions as you’re not necessarily tied to the organisation in the long term. Arguably, there is less pressure to develop deep personal connections or feel the need to advance your career specifically within that organisation. You can focus on specific responsibilities without the added weight of pleasing social networks and trying to be everyone’s best friend so you’re able to direct your energy towards achieving key results than navigate around complex interpersonal dynamics.

“What’s your biggest tip?”

“My biggest tip? Again, this is quite hard to answer as everyone is different and the roles are so diverse. I think, really recognising and understanding how to play to your strengths. What do you enjoy the most?” She expresses that digital will always have a role that maps to your strengths, so it is important to look for it. It’s key to recognise that the breadth of digital is more than just buying technology, hardware or software, it presents opportunities for stakeholder management or business relationship management. In short, the breadth of digital extends beyond those technical aspects, so you have to encompass your skills and strategies for your own success. “These are different skills and strategies that are all really important. You need to understand your organisation’s purpose, it’s goals and objectives. Making sure that you rely on digital to help the organisation deliver those things. To me, that is the most important and exciting part of the job.”

“I guess it’s not really a tip, but a reminder to focus on what you’re good at. Don’t do it because it pays you a lot of money. If you do something and you enjoy it, you will be successful. If you’re trying to make yourself do something because you think it’s a route to earning money and a good career – you won’t, necessarily.”

Jo enthusiastically gives us more words of advice, recounting her early experiences as a Programmer. She vividly recalls the excitement of understanding a business problem and being trusted with designing the solution to it herself. “I’d be sitting up in bed at midnight with my pencil and paper to figure it all out”, she recollects with a chuckle. “I was one of those ‘sad’ kids that went home and did maths homework for fun. I like solving problems!” her laughter rings out, an indication to the joy she found in her work, even from the earliest days of her career.

Throughout our conversation, Melina and I have explored Jo’s admirable qualities, as well as her relentless drive. With a shared sense of anticipation, we were keen to discover if Jo had any particular people she looked up to. Who were her aspirations in life?

And of course the answer, which I can say is a recurring theme throughout all my discussions so far, is the invaluable network of people you trust and can talk to. They are the ones who help inspire us on our journey.

“There were two amazing female executive partners in Gartner, who ran a women’s network where I met all sorts of fantastic women CIOs. I wouldn’t say any one of them stood out as the one I aspired to be, but more of that group of people that I regularly met with. There were people in my industry, outside of my industry – and that network of people gave me inspiration,” she smiles as Melina replies “it’s hard not to feel inspired when you’re around those sorts of women.”

Jo points out that the network of women is an answer linked to one of the questions I sent prior to our interview – ‘As a woman in a leadership role within the industry, what strategies do you employ to empower and support other women in the field?’ she highlights the significance of actively watching out for your team and choosing to bring them into different events outside of your 9-5, linking them in with your network and pushing for opportunities of growth and visibility. It’s a strategic move. “It’s how you evolve your career. You need to get exposed to other people and understand what’s going on out outside of your world”

We continue to speak about the changes Jo has seen in her journey, the ways of working and general behaviours throughout the years. Melina and I are completely captivated. As she continues to fill us in on little snapshots of her life, our jaws have dropped, and Jo laughs out loud at our reaction, explaining that we’ve barely scratched the surface ourselves. With a warmth in her voice, Jo reflects on our talk today, and confesses “But all of that, all the experiences an individual goes through life, to some degree, it does shape you. I’ve always believed the best in everybody, I’m a glass very full kind of person”.

It’s clear that her spirit and positivity is illuminated in her success.

“I believe very strongly that we, and only we, are responsible for our destiny. Our careers. Life throws curveballs, the only thing you can control is how you deal with it. No one is in charge of your career except you.”