Career Story - Louise Lowry, Head of Financial Services at The Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust

Author: Courtney LawrenceDate: 4 months 3 weeks Ago

So why would you want to be a leader in NHS Finance?

It certainly wasn’t something I’d dreamed of doing as a kid. I always wanted to be a dancer.

From 5 years old I studied Ballroom, Latin American and Disco; then added Ballet, Tap, Modern, Acro and Contemporary. By the time I had to choose a subject for University I obviously wanted to study dance, despite my positive academic record, and specific skill in Maths. My parents were, incomprehensibly (to me at the time) extremely reticent to back this choice.   In the end we compromised. My degree was a BA (Hons) in Performing Arts and Business Management with IT. The course sought to train creative types how to run dance or drama companies. It included finance modules. Guess which modules I did best at.

After University I still hadn’t been scared off the dancing dream. I was, probably, even more determined. I launched my own Dance Company, Illusions, in the North West, having successfully won a Princes Youth Business Trust Loan and an A4E Express (National Lottery) grant. I even won a Livewire Business Start-up Award. It all seemed to be looking like I’d be able to dance for a living.

Funny thing these hobbies though. Once I was having to choreograph routines to a deadline, the fun started to drift away. I was doing administration and adding ‘teaching’ to pay the bills. Eventually I was temping (in finance roles) to supplement my income, but it wasn’t enough to keep Illusions afloat.

Still thinking the arts were where my passion lay, I took a job as a Front of House Manager at the Alban Arena in St Albans. I thought it might be a route to dance, close enough to London to attend auditions maybe. But it took only months for me to realise I was on the wrong path.

A friend of mine was studying CIMA at the time. One day I thumbed through his text books and had a lightbulb moment. What if I used my skill with numbers to earn a good wage 9-5? Then I could build a dance studio in the evenings and weekends and re-start my dance company.

Ah, the naivety of youth.

I applied for a job in Internal Audit in the NHS. Why? Total chance. It looked finance-based. It was local. It was a training post (they’d fund the CIPFA studies) and it paid well. I only got the interview because the Interviewer was intrigued by my CV. But fate kicked in. I got the job and started studying finance.

I’ve been in NHS Finance ever since. 20 years and counting.

Did I have time to build that dance studio in the evenings? Of course not. I was studying an Accountancy qualification and working full-time. Also, within weeks of starting that job I met my future husband. I finished CIPFA, got married and found out I was pregnant with our first child on our one-year wedding anniversary.

My dancing friends often ask me why, if I love dance, I work as an Accountant. I think it’s easy to see passion in a creative pastime, but it’s less obvious to them why I’d love working in NHS Finance.

For me it immediately all made sense. Numbers are clean. They either add up or they don’t. The feeling you get from completing a reconciliation and knowing it’s right is completely different to the feeling you get sharing a dance with the world and wondering if they may or may not like it. The Arts are subjective. Numbers are not.

 I also started to see how my systems review work (in Audit), my budget analysis (in Management Accounting) and my number crunching (in Financial Accounts), were all helping NHS managers and clinicians make decisions about patient care. I was supporting our most precious organisation. Our NHS.

Since starting in that training post I’ve worked in all fields of finance from managing GP Contract budgets in a Primary Care Trust, to leading on the annual planning process in a Mental Health Trust. I led small teams, managed change programmes, led bigger teams. And 20 years after that Auditor took a chance on my unusual CV, I’m now Head of Financial Services at The Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust managing a team of 16 and reporting to the Director of Finance. I’m also the Finance skills development lead for the organisation, a Future Focussed Finance (FFF)* value-maker, the lead for our FFF level 1 accreditation (achieved this year), and a NHS Graduate Management Trainee Scheme (GMTS) Programme Manager, responsible for designing the 20-day orientation programme for our Graduate Scheme Trainees including time in the various specialities at our Trust, the Ambulance Service and local Clinical Commissioning Group.

Do I still dance? Gosh yes. After a few years out, I found classes locally, and now that the children are older I took the opportunity this year to take my first Tap teaching exam (IDTA Pre-Associate). I’ll also be performing in our dance school’s show in a few months. It’ll be my third show and I still love it.

But I also love my job. Some things were meant to be hobbies, to help us grow and have fun. Some things are like a calling, that may not be originally obvious, but that get you in the end!

Working in an Acute Hospital I see the impact my work and my team’s work has on patient care. When we avoid delivery delays by managing our working capital well and paying suppliers on time, we ensure that our Doctors and Nurses have everything they need when they need it, to care for our friends, family, neighbours… and that’s just one example.

My parents found my circuitous route to a maths related job incredibly frustrating. But of course, it’s often the journey that matters more. My performing and dance teaching background actually means I have the skills to lead, present and train, speaking in Board Committees and in front of large groups. These are skills that they don’t teach you when you learn accountancy, but they are vital skills to be a finance leader. We’re not bean-counters anymore. We’re advisors, challengers, enablers and change-drivers.

Has there been frustration in my career journey? Again, of course. As a woman with 2 children I took a year out on two separate occasions for maternity leave. Seeing colleagues continue up the ladder without me was difficult. But fair. I was behind. When I went back to work I went back part-time for a while, which of course also slowed me down. With the best will in the world, you can’t build the same knowledge and experiences at the same rate as full-time colleagues. It’s important to me that as a leader I support all my team to enable them to reach their full potential, whether they are parents, or carers, or not.  I try and support flexible working wherever possible. I also encourage those that have to take time out or work part-time, to be patient and not compare themselves to others. Each journey is an individual one. Parenting can take you out of work for a while, as can other situations like illness. Know that your opportunity to progress your career will come. Take your chances to gain experience, watch and learn from others, get yourself a mentor, build knowledge, so that when the time is right, you’re ready.

I’m now on the FFF Aspiring Finance Leaders programme, with an eye on a future Director of Finance role in the NHS. When I get there I’ll know I’m ready. I won’t have rushed it. I’ll have all the tools I need.

Don’t get me wrong. Working full-time, with 2 children, when your husband also works full time and has a 90-minute commute, is hard work. We rely on grandparent support and I spend a lot of my life watching the clock, and having to stop work mid-flow, in order to do the school-run. But I also work flexibly, so that I can do that school run. I have a laptop that enables me to work from home when appropriate. I answer emails on my phone in the evening. I work a couple of short days, then a couple of long ones. It works for me. It means I don’t feel guilty if I leave the office a little sooner than others, because I know I will get the job done later, at home. I don’t miss my deadlines. It’s all about output; not hours in the office.

Being a leader in NHS Finance is really rewarding. I might have landed in the NHS by accident, but I’m very glad I did.