career exchange;

Director of human resources management, University College London Hospitals trust

Salary: circa£60,000 package (pro rata for a nine-tenths contract)

Helen Gordon, 36, was appointed after acting in the post. The trust, with over 5,300 staff, has the country's largest private finance initiative project. Deputy leader of Barnet council since 1997, she has been selected as Labour candidate for Barnet and Camden for the Greater London Assembly elections.

What was your career path?

My first degree, in English and European literature, gave me a love of books and an appreciation of poetry, but my masters degree, in industrial relations, led me into personnel management. My first job was as a personnel trainee with the Midland Bank Group and I came into the NHS a year later, as personnel officer with Islington health authority. Subsequently I was director of human resources at Haringey HA, later Haringey Healthcare trust, then director of HR at Riverside Mental Health trust before moving to University College London Hospitals in March.

Describe your job

I am still relatively new in post so I am on an extended induction tour, which is essential as the trust is massive. I arrived during the second strike about the private finance initiative, but Unison called off the strike soon after - it was pretty much a damp squib in terms of general support from trust staff. We had some constructive meetings with Unison, sorting out protection for staff terms and conditions and agreeing the status of trade union recognition, and the union agreed not to engage in any other strikes about PFI for the duration of the development and commissioning of the new hospital. I am working with senior colleagues in the trust and our private sector partners on the key issues underpinning the new hospital - obviously I am concerned with the people issues rather than the bricks and mortar.

How many hours a week do you work?

I work a nine-day fortnight at the trust, probably spending about 45 hours a week on my NHS job.

What aspects of your job do you most enjoy?

I have always enjoyed working with staff, seeing real change come about and making a difference to patients. In a second-line management job it is easy to forget that what we do is about improving services for patients, so I wander around the site quite frequently - which also reminds me, when I see the state of the wards, how very much we need a new hospital. We say we are providing 21st century care in 19th century buildings.

What aspects are most frustrating?

The inability to set priorities. There is a huge national and local HR agenda, but it is very hard to set priorities when you are firefighting on a day-to-day basis.

What has been the high point of your career?

It is still to come. I can't think of one particular high point, although there have been a number of occasions when I think I have made a difference - where people who have been hostile to change have later turned round and thanked me. I was thrilled to get the job at UCLH. I had always been intrigued by the place and wondered why they had so many strikes - now I know. I am determined to introduce a more grown-up approach to industrial relations.

What has been the worst moment?

Being at the sharp end of a badly managed reorganisation in my last trust. I was made redundant at Riverside and it was handled in a very insensitive way. It reminded me, if I needed reminding, how important my job is and how poor personnel practice can get in the way of delivering the kind of change you are looking for. It was a timely reminder that change management in the NHS is reliant on good personnel practice.

What has been the biggest challenge of your career so far?

Setting up a trust from scratch. I joined Haringey Healthcare trust before it was granted trust status and it was quite a challenge doing things such as recruiting a board. I also had to introduce a new consultant contract when I was at Riverside - that was an interesting introduction to the workings of the British Medical Association. And, of course, there was walking into the strike in my first week at UCLH.

What is your biggest challenge for the next year?

It will continue to be the new hospital. Support services staff transfers will begin next year. I also have to get to grips with the new working practices agenda for clinical staff. The new national HR agenda and the promise of a new pay framework will also fill the odd moment. I also have the forthcoming GLA elections to look forward to. But I must stress that my politics are separate from my NHS work. I find it easy to compartmentalise the two and keep them on separate, parallel tracks. But having an appreciation of politics, political procedures and politicians helps me in my job and is increasingly important for all NHS managers.

What's been the hardest thing you've had to do?

To try to introduce local pay at Riverside. We did not introduce wholesale local pay and conditions and we did not have a major dispute, but the whole thing was tough on staff and it was hard to negotiate things amicably.

How do you unwind?

When I have time I like going to the theatre and I enjoy cooking, which I find very therapeutic. The more stressed I am the more complicated things I like to cook.