• Karen Partington has retired after 10 years leading Lancashire Teaching Hospitals FT
  • Says being visible on wards and understanding frontline staff is “critical” for hospital leaders
  • “Astonished” how many junior doctors have never met senior directors of hospitals they have worked in

A retiring chief executive was “astonished” how many junior doctors had never met the senior directors of their hospitals — and stressed how being visible on the wards is “critical” to good leadership.

Karen Partington, who has this month stepped down after 10 years leading Lancashire Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust, said she had made it her mission to understand the feelings and motivations of frontline staff.

Ms Partington began her career as a nurse and continued doing monthly shifts as a healthcare assistant and other frontline jobs throughout her decade-long leadership of the trust.

In an interview with HSJ, she was asked if being visible and spending significant time talking to frontline staff is the most important bit of advice she would give a first-time chief executive.

karen

Karen Partington

She said: “In my personal opinion, it’s critical. How can CEOs be compassionate leaders without understanding the daily pressures faced by the whole team?

“My executive team and I [would] meet regularly with our junior doctors and do a ‘you said, we did’ session, which really helped us to change their experiences for the better.

“But it was also an opportunity to ensure our frontline colleagues understood the environment they were working in as well. I have always found that when people understand ‘why’, [then] they will come up with the solutions.

“I was astonished at how many said they’d never met the senior leaders of a trust.”

During their training years, junior doctors work on rotation at different providers.

Ms Partington spent three years as LTH’s chief operating officer before being appointed CEO in 2011.

She added: “I wasn’t sure what the job was going to be [when first appointed] but the thing I knew I wanted was for every single person in this organisation to know me, and on a basic level to feel confident to ring me and tell me anything that was going on — obviously while following the line manager structure as well.

“Recently, I walked around the hospital with David Flory [Lancashire and South Cumbria Integrated Care System chair], because I was showing him the infrastructure and at the end of the walkabout he said ‘I cannot believe how many people who both knew you and had something to say to you, and that you knew their names and something about them’.

“I said I’d been here 13 years so it would be a travesty if I didn’t, but he said ‘no, that’s really unusual to be so visible’.

“I’ve put my life into Lancashire Teaching Hospitals for 13 years, working 16-hour days, seven days a week… I’ve gone back to the floor every month in my entire 10 years as CEO, and there’s 9,000 people here, many of whom I know, and I know deeply, and I have a personal ambition for them to be successful.”

Ms Partington announced her retirement in January 2021, giving 12 months’ notice. She departed on 31 August after the trust appointed Kevin McGee as its new permanent CEO. She will complete her notice period by working in an ICS role, before planning to “fully retire” next year.

Ms Partington said she had been “inundated” with offers of interim CEO roles, but wants to “go and sail, to learn to walk slowly, to learn to breathe again, to take notice of things that you don’t see because you’re so busy rushing around”.

During her tenure at LTH, she has dealt with deep financial challenges and near-constant controversy over the future of the emergency department at Chorley and South Ribble Hospital.

But successes have included the 2013 designation of Royal Preston Hospital as a major trauma centre, the opening of a new nursing school, and the trust’s inclusion within the government new hospital building programme.