Better than beer - a career in the NHS

Author: Stephen SutcliffeDate: 6 months 2 weeks Ago

Stephen Sutcliffe, Director of Finance and Accounting, NHS Shared Business Services

Qualifications:  BA(Hons), CPFA





BETTER THAN BEER - A CAREER IN THE NHS

Whilst a job in a brewery might seem like a dream come true for some, Stephen Sutcliffe, Director of Finance and Accounting at NHS Shared Business Services, decided the NHS was a better option.

“During my business studies degree, I spent my placement year in an engineering company in Cheltenham, where I first got a taste for accountancy,” he explains.  “When I left uni, I had a choice of graduate schemes to apply for. The two that appealed most were the NHS and Tetley’s Brewery.  I chose the NHS! Not that the beer wasn’t tempting, but I genuinely wanted the chance to contribute to society, so I thought the NHS might be a better bet and decided to try to carve out a long term career.”

Career path

Inspired by the interview panel – which included Ann Marr, former DoF at Aintree and now Chief Executive at St.Helens & Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust  - Stephen became a regional trainee on the Mersey Regional Health Authority scheme.

“Once on the scheme, I had clear aspirations to become a Director of Finance,” he says. “People think about the NHS as being doctors and nurses, but it quickly became obvious to me that patient care is only half the story.  Using taxpayers’ money wisely, getting value for money – those are the things that can make or break a hospital just as much as the quality of patient care.  Naively, I expected everyone I met to understand this – and most of them did – but I found that some people just didn’t see the link between finance and care.  I thought that the best way of tackling this would be from the front.”

His career aspirations were realised early, when he became director of finance at Oldham PCT aged just 31.  Whilst there, his successes included leading improvements in children’s and cancer services in Greater Manchester, resulting in cancer patients being able to receive the latest chemotherapy and radiotherapy locally, rather than having to travel to the Christie.  The link between finance and patient care stayed with him and has driven his unswerving dedication to NHS finance ever since.

Current role

Stephen joined NHS SBS in September 2015.  “NHS Shared Business Services appealed to me, partly because the organisation was set up with a single purpose in mind – to improve the efficiency of NHS organisations and save money which can be redirected towards better patient care,” he says.

Stephen’s current role is varied.  A typical day could involve meeting clients; spending time with his 1,000 strong team (the largest finance department in the NHS) and helping to ensure new technology, like Artificial Intelligence and Robotic Process Automation is used effectively in the products NHS SBS develops.

A keen open-water swimmer, Stephen usually starts the day in the gym before commuting - either physically or virtually – to an SBS office in Leeds, Bristol or London, or to a client site anywhere in the country.  Making use of limited time is essential, so using technology such as Skype and teleconferences is a must.  With multiple demands on his time, keeping calm and remaining focussed on outcomes helps him decide what requires his input, and what can be deleted to other members of his team.  He admits that he harbours perfectionist tendencies, and struggles to stop the “great being the enemy of the good”, so encourages his team to speak up and challenge him if they feel a task isn’t progressing as it should.

Secrets of success

Stephen is quick to point out how swiftly the role of the finance function has developed, largely thanks to the people within in.

He said: “Over the years, I’ve learned just how many devoted and passionate people work in NHS finance.  I’ve also learned that we could achieve so much more by sharing.  Imagine how amazing the finance function would be if we could just take the best bits from each area!  I’ve discovered that finance people can do a lot more than just look at numbers – some of our best leaders are accountants. Finance professionals can be motivational extraverts, or they can be cautious and softly spoken.  Either way, I’ve been lucky enough to work with so many truly inspirational people throughout my career. I know I’m only as good as those gathered around me, so I get a glow of pride when I see people who have worked for me in the past going on to achieve great things.”

He credits challenge and feedback as being one of the most important elements of his success.  “I’ve worked with a number of coaches and mentors throughout my career.  Sometimes they’ve been people who have specific skills that I need – perhaps technical ones – but other times it’s been people I admire, who can make me reflect, who can spur me into doing something that pushes me, that makes me learn.  The best advice I was ever given was – be you!  But I think there’s more to it.  It’s not just about being yourself – it’s being the best person you want to be.  And that’s the advice I give to others now.”

On reflection

Stephen says his biggest work-related achievement was leading a turnaround programme in the North East Sector of Greater Manchester, that was clinically supported and delivered savings of £35 million in a year.  And having achieved his ambition of becoming a DoF, he’s content to stop climbing the career ladder.  Finance, he believes, should always have a seat at the decision-making table, and can bring value to every part of the NHS.

“When I look back on my career, there’s absolutely nothing I would change,” he says.  “I am a great believer in things happening for a reason.  Working out how to get from A to B is going to be different for everyone, but we all have choices.  Making the most of the opportunities presented to you, working with great people who are different to you and making a difference are possible for us all.”

 Outside work 

  • Favourite film – The Shawshank Redemption
  • Favourite book – The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters.  I love the combination of solid science and brilliant writing.  And it’s helped me understand my inner chimp!
  • Favourite TV show – Friends.  Still as funny now as it was the first time around
  • Top three records – In My Life (The Beatles). All of Me (John Lennon).  All Along The Watchtower (Jimi Hendrix). Do they make me old?  I’m glad I am kept young by Charlie (who loves Ed Sheeran) and Christian who is just embarking on his music career.
  • Favourite food: Monkfish.
  • Sports team: Liverpool football club.
  • Hobbies and interests: Open water swimming – I’m a freestyle guy. Rugby. Live music. Theatre. Travelling