Laura Donnelly interviews the new chief executive of South East Coastal SHA

Candy Morris got her first 'real job' in the NHS just before the winter of discontent that saw off the last Labour government. Quickly, she found herself 'single-handedly boiling 300 eggs' as the strikes hit Fairfield Hospital in Bury.

Maybe it is not surprising, then, that she insists she is 'not too daunted' by the prospect of running a health economy with some of the biggest challenges ahead.

After studying biochemistry at university she realised she 'didn't have the patience for research'. Knowing she wanted to work in the public service, she got a place on the NHS Management Training Scheme and, after a stint at Fairfield, she spent a decade working in management in a number of towns in the North East before moving to Grimsby in 1989, where she ran acute mental health services. Three years later, she got her first chief executive's post, taking Scunthorpe and Goole Hospitals to trust status.

That taught her a lot. The trust spanned more boundaries than most: with two hospitals, almost 30 miles apart, the trust crossed two health authorities, two counties and even two NHS regions.

'It was frustrating, but interesting as you got the chance to learn about different ways of working.'

A 'needs must' approach created a number of innovations. 'It was really tough to recruit first-class doctors, particularly consultants, so by the early '90s we made a significant shift extending nurses' roles, because we could recruit nurses. If you wanted to keep providing services you just had to work with what you had.'

They employed a GP to work as director of primary care on the hospital board and began work on clinical pathways and the future of commissioning. 'It was one of the most formative experiences of my career.'

Ms Morris spent eight years at the trust, including a secondment to Yorkshire and the Humber government office looking at joint working between local government and the NHS.

She brings up a theme expressed by strategic health authority chief executives: relatively long service in one organisation was invaluable.

'In the SHA role you need to be able to help others build capacity and capability; to create an

environment, and you learn those skills in a long-term situation.'

However, the local government secondment whetted her appetite 'for more strategic stuff'. Two quick moves followed: West Sussex health authority, where she spent 15 months, followed by nine months in East Surrey. With the creation of SHAs in 2002, she was asked to lead Kent and Medway. Last November she took on the troubled Surrey and Sussex. So she has got a handle on the challenges ahead. 'I'm not too daunted, more stimulated. There aren't too many surprises.'

She is glad she won't have to uproot her life. Which reminds her: 'I couldn't have done any of this, if I didn't have a husband who has been an absolute rock.'

How does she feel about taking the breadwinning role to Stan, who works part-time as a golf marshal? 'You have to make choices about who might have the strongest career; it took some getting used to. It is unusual, but it's taken more getting used to for other people. People see it as a sign of weakness ? it's quite the reverse. Plus, I don't have to worry about the shopping and cooking.'