The new head of the Leadership Centre for Health aims to 'break down the stereotypes' of different professional groups to link leadership development with improved patient care.

Barbara Harris, chief executive of the Royal United Hospitals Bath trust, was appointed to the job this week, completing the top team at the Modernisation Agency just days before its official launch on Wednesday.

Ms Harris said she was 'thrilled to be given the opportunity to contribute to the development of the NHS - most significantly to improve the working lives of all staff '. She promised a practical focus, saying: 'The first thing we'll put in place will be a robust project management structure, otherwise there is a danger that it will be very haphazard and will not focus on delivering the NHS plan. '

She also aims to set up leadership offices around the country in addition to the centre's London base. Ms Harris has a record of active involvement in leadership development and is on the national advisory group of the NHS management trainee scheme. She said she wanted to build on work done at Bath, such as a multi-professional development programme for trainee doctors, managers and accountants.

'It was the first project of its kind, and was designed to break down the stereotypes - That is an extremely important part of modernising the NHS, ' she said.

But she stressed: 'It is not all about high-flying leaders, It is about change management in support of service improvements. '

Groups of staff such as pharmacists offering extended hours to improve services were just as important, she said.

Ms Harris, who began her career as a management scheme trainee in 1981, is widely seen as 'a highflyer', becoming chief executive at Bath in 1993 at just 32. Her first job was as assistant unit administrator at Westminster Hospital, and she also worked with former NHS chief executive Sir Alan Langlands early in her career. In 1984 she moved to Bristol, where, as hospital manager, she commissioned the Bristol Eye Hospital.

Two years later she became outpatients manager in Gloucester under Ken Jarrold - now chief executive at County Durham health authority - later rising to become executive director.

Mr Jarrold was 'delighted' at the appointment. 'She's very innovative, with a lot of ability to spot good ideas and work with professional staff to develop them. '

NHS Confederation chief executive Stephen Thornton was pleased by Ms Harris's track record of involving clinicians in leadership work. 'She will build on the good experience of leadership development within her trust. She has practised what she'll now be preaching. '

NHS director of leadership and management development Tessa Brooks, who is leaving to go freelance, said Ms Harris's challenge was 'responding to the real energy out there in the service and the hunger for development'.