Published: 30/06/2005, Volume II5, No. 5962 Page 36

Deputy chief executive and director of operations for East Kent Hospitals trust Kim Hodgson grew up in London's Mile End when, as she says, the East End was still the old East End.

Born when the Krays rather than warehouse conversions dominated the area, Kim did well to qualify as a registered nurse in 1981. She says her background 'did not contain many advantages' - although it did feature a spell in a children's home.

'If you do not have many advantages you either become very driven or you go the other way, ' she adds.

A senior sister by the age of 24, Kim was clearly the former. Confident enough to recognise that she might be a nursing director by 30, she knew that without further qualifications she would go no further. While working full time over the next decade she notched up three qualifications, including an MSc in public service management and a PhD.

Her background has given her belief that people from all levels of the NHS can achieve great things - not least because of the life-long learning and flexible working most NHS employers offer. Kim was the Department of Health's NHS manager of the year 2004. Here are her tips for success and personal fulfilment:

Watch, listen and learn: 'Many of us are in a great position to learn while we work, understanding the bigger picture and then moving onwards and upwards. I told delegates at the HSJ conference for personal assistants and medical secretaries last month that they were in the perfect position to do just that. They learn so much about the NHS and they do not realise just how much they know. PAs are also often mentored informally by their chief executive without realising it.'

Keep abreast of the flexible working and life-long learning opportunities offered by your organisation: 'These are major foundations on which people who did not go to university can build and develop. However, in considering flexible working, you should also consider the needs of your employer and colleagues.'

Find a mentor: 'This is one of the few areas where the NHS is not so good from an employment perspective: people tend to look up rather than below them. Be realistic in selecting a mentor. A gap of about two levels is probably best. Any more than that and people tend to talk different languages. Choose someone who will complement your personality. I didn't want anyone too straight, someone who might be upset if I swore occasionally. I also wanted someone who would be up front, not afraid to correct me when I did not quite express things properly.

'After all, I was aware that I lacked the final 'polish' because of my background and I wanted someone to be unafraid to point that out when it showed through.

'It can be exciting to feel you are making the most of your potential at work and to make a new contribution to the NHS. But you do not have to - you must do whatever makes you happy, whatever gives you and your family the best deal.'