Henrietta Mbeah-Bankas is Head of Blended Learning and Digital Learning and Development Lead at HEE. For International Women’s Day, she has shared some insights on her career, challenges she has faced, and advice she would give to women aiming for leadership roles.
Tell us a bit about your career so far.
I trained as a mental health nurse and thoroughly enjoyed the diversity that setting gave me. But I am someone who has always wanted more and doing clinical work wasn’t enough for me. I was interested in research and academia. So, I did teaching, and based on my research activities, secured grants to implement my findings for better patient care and carer support. I really wanted to make things happen!
The carer support work saw small to large local, national and international organisations contribute time, money and products to carers’ events. My particular interest in parental mental health resulted in developing learning resources and facilities to address the needs of families when a parent was admitted to an acute mental health ward in three of London’s poorest boroughs. It was significant to me to be able to address the needs of these communities and assure our wider communities that having a mental health problem did not make someone a bad parent.
It was an extremely rewarding role and yet – as someone who is driven, and always wanted more – I began feeling stuck and even contemplated leaving the NHS.
So, I decided to join HEE through the Darzi Fellowship, which develops leaders from multi-professional backgrounds in their ability to undertake complex change initiatives that have a profound impact on them and the organisations they work for. I had amazing mentoring and coaching through the programme which taught me to be a leader and enabled me to focus on what I wanted for myself and how I made an impact.
I have had an exciting and unique career as a clinician, including doing a research and evaluation fellowship at NHS England and Improvement, the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur programme and the Topol technological review, as well as co-authoring journal publications and a couple of books. The recent one being, Digital Connection in Health and Social Work: perspectives from Covid-19, which will be released 14th March but launching today.
All the different experiences have taught me different and invaluable things.
In your time at HEE, what have you learned about your own leadership?
I found that HEE was a natural home for me. Equitable access to health and education are extremely important to me, and HEE is an organisation that brings these two things together. At HEE, I know everything I do has an impact on healthcare education and on healthcare delivery.
Most of the leadership learning I’ve done in my career has been at HEE. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing! But I am keen to pass on what I’ve learnt to others through mentoring with the aim of helping people to realise how much they are capable of achieving in the right place with the right support.
One thing that I always say, is that I am a woman, a black woman and of faith but does it or should it matter in what I can do or the value that I add? Absolutely not!
Until I applied for the Darzi Fellowship, I would look at job descriptions and think I couldn’t possibly do this job. But for the first time through the Darzi application I looked at the person specification instead and realised that I had everything the person specification was asking for and more. This really helped change the way I looked at things, and myself.
I have always worked full time while having a family. I don’t make apologies for wanting it all and having it all – it’s through hard work, kindness and support. My measure of doing well has been how well my family is doing, especially my children and as long as my children are doing well, I don’t feel the need to compromise. After all, the evidence says as much, about how positively influenced children of working mums are, especially daughters – and I have three. That’s why I have no reason to do otherwise if my working life benefits more than just my family. I think we call it work-life-balance!
How have you tackled challenges in your career?
Where do I start? I have had several, but I tend to take the challenges I’ve faced in my career and use them to my advantage. I don’t let being a woman inform or dictate what I do. In fact, sometimes I think it’s more powerful than a vulnerability.
My mother always said when I chose to do anything, “You go and show them how it’s done”. This is something I’ve always lived by as it gave me the confidence not to limit myself. I don’t need permission to do anything, I just try and establish what I want to do or need to do and take opportunities to do them at the right time.
What advice would you give to other women aspiring to enter leadership roles?
Think about what you are interested in, what you can do and the opportunities out there - don’t forget to allow yourself to be stretched. Then try and get the right mentors and coaches – they can challenge you to think differently and be effective. Also, don’t be afraid to knock on doors – you never know where it can take you.
For example, when I was near the end of my Darzi Fellowship, I thought, "Oh dear, I’m going to be unemployed soon”. I knew I had outgrown my role as a mental health nurse and didn’t want to go back to it. So, I decided to approach Professor Wendy Reid, HEE’s Executive Director of Education & Quality. I knew she was setting up a national mental health team and knew I was passionate about mental health and had the expertise to add value to the team. Look where that led me, 6 more years in HEE and still in the NHS.
Finally, make sure that you are self-aware and try to be resilient but also, know your value and values because that drives ownership and authenticity, a couple of attributes that are key to leadership. And remember, relationships drive everything!