Sir Robert Naylor’s retirement speech opens up on lessons he learned while serving as UCLH foundation trust chief executive for the past 16 years – and speaks about the next chapter of his career

It has been an absolute privilege to have been University College London Hospitals Foundation Trusts’s chief executive for the last 16 years – sad as it may seem, I can’t think of a better way to have spent my time. I’ve been constantly in awe of the dedication and commitment of the thousands of people right across the organisation and our reputation is a testament to their efforts.

The job of an NHS chief executive is a blend of three things. The first is about reputation and motivation; the second is alignment with our staff and communities; and the third is knowing how to fix the train set when it breaks down.

The three skills needed are IQ, emotional intelligence and experience – so somehow I seem to have muddled through without scoring highly on the first two, but then like Alex Ferguson “I’ve never played for a draw in my life”, and of course, there is no substitute for experience.

Inspired decision or leap in the dark

Although UCLH has a reputation (in some quarters, at least) as being an ivory tower, our international reputation is built upon the diversity of the fantastic partnerships built over many years.

Most people don’t realise that we don’t own or maintain most of our buildings: we have joint ventures in pathology, radiology and private practice, and we rely on University College London, our most important partner, for many of our outstanding clinical staff. It’s no coincidence that our reputations have developed together, and our symbiotic relationship is arguably the major factor in UCL’s meteoric rise in the world rankings over the last decade.

Never put anything down in writing that you can’t say to someone’s face

Of course we built upon our long heritage, but coming top nationally this year in all five of our research domains is a triumph. Together, we represent one of the most prolific research collaborations on the planet: long may it continue.

It was an inspired decision to build the new UCLH. Others might argue it was a leap in the dark.

Indeed this was this challenge that attracted me to the trust. It was the largest private finance initiative of its day, and clearly unaffordable when it first opened. I remember that day in 2005 when the £42m annual bill landed on my desk, with an overdraft in the bank.

My then chair once suggested that I was a better property developer than a chief executive: that may or may not be true, but in all fairness that’s largely how we got out of the mess.

I’ve calculated that by the time we have completed our current developments, we will have made over half a billion pounds in property sales: all reinvested in the campus, which is now one of the most impressive in the world. This half a billion over 16 years, works out to be a cool £100,000 per day.

Honesty and integrity

From leaving school it took 15 years to become a CEO, 15 years in Birmingham and 15 years at UCLH – I’ve got 15 to go before I completely lose my marbles.

In my earliest days as a graduate trainee, I had a mentor called Ken Lewis – he was a hard taskmaster. On one occasion, I wrote a carefully worded but scathing report about the disorganisation of the nursing staff. When I went to see Ken the following day, he said “don’t bother sitting down, I’ve arranged for you to go and see the chief nurse in the boardroom”. There she was, surrounded by her entourage, all with copies of my “confidential” report.

I’ve traded in my old job for six new ones

As you can imagine, I had a pretty torrid time, after which she told me to go back and see Ken. He said: “I hope you have bloody well learnt your lesson, Naylor: never put anything down in writing that you can’t say to someone’s face.” I guess this was my first lesson in honesty and integrity, and one which I’ll never forget.

So what’s in store for me for the next chapter of my career? I’ve traded in my old job for six new ones – three advising international boards across different continents, I’ve created two new companies (clinical training in the Middle East and contract management) and have my new role as national adviser on NHS Property and Estates – a real opportunity to rebuild the NHS estate fit for the future.

I’d like to end with a quote from Doug Ivester, who retired as chair of Coca-Cola in 2000 who said, “never let your memories be greater than your dreams”.

So, like me, I hope you all have great ambitions for the future, rather than dwelling on what has been accomplished in the past. UCLH is a great organisation: keep it that way, and I wish you every success in the future.

Sir Robert Naylor is the recently retired chief executive of University College London Hospitals FT and the national adviser on NHS Property and Estates, among other roles. This is an edited version of his retirement speech.