#WomenInLeadership: Theresa Murphy

Q&A - 8TH MARCH 2021

Theresa Murphy, matron and director of nursing at The London Clinic, on the unpredictability of nursing, the joy of developing staff, and the importance of diversity in the boardroom

To mark International Women’s Day 2021, our #WomenInLeadership series celebrates the inspiring women here in the HSMA. Each day we will be publishing a Q&A with one of the remarkable women who make up our vibrant community of healthcare specialists.

Today, meet Theresa Murphy, matron and director of nursing at the pioneering independent hospital and charity The London Clinic. Theresa is an experienced nurse executive, who is passionate about patient-focused care. She has been in her current role at The London Clinic since March 2019.

Tell us a little about your job as matron and director of nursing.
For starters, I’ve got the most exciting job in the hospital! It is a huge privilege to be director of nursing and matron for The London Clinic. It’s an incredibly interesting and diverse job, and no two days are the same. Broadly speaking, I am responsible for ensuring that our patients receive optimum nursing care. I oversee our nursing staff, matron’s office, clinical governance and complaints. There is enormous variety in my role, and it is a position I hold with great pride.

What led you to a career in healthcare?
Perhaps surprisingly, I originally planned to go to university to study PPE. I didn’t know that much about nursing until I saw an ad for it and thought to myself, that looks interesting, how do I find out more? I approached our university career advisor and found everything they told me to be so exciting. Before I knew it, I was being interviewed for general nursing. My friends and family were really surprised, but I knew it was what I wanted to do – I even met my best friend at the entrance exams.

From the minute I went into training, I loved everything about nursing. The diversity of the job, the patients, my colleagues and all the learning and practical elements. In those days, you did all of your training at the hospital and you lived there too.

Following general nursing training, I went on to train in neuroscience and from there, critical care. I had many roles, including ward sister and renal transplant sister. I set up one of the first acute medical wards in the country in 1994, something I’m hugely proud of. I’ve also had the opportunity to spend time in clinical practice, including study tours to parts of America.

At one hospital where I was ward sister, I ended up being the director of nursing and that led me to where I am today. I would always recommend nursing as a career.

What is the most exciting thing about your job?
I love the unpredictability of it. You just never quite know what will happen. The patient requests that come in are so varied – everything from special dietary requirements, to organising a wedding for a terminally ill patient, which we have recently done. We truly go above and beyond to ensure our patient’s individual needs are met. This is supported by our Patient Experience Forum, which features six patients who provide input in setting the agenda for our hospital. I also have the privilege of helping to support the development of our nursing teams, educationally and practically.

What I especially love about working at The London Clinic is that our staff are so passionate about what they do. They deliver the best possible patient care, and they’re also completely and utterly upfront – it’s very refreshing. This culture translates to the conversations you can have with patients. We do have honest dialogues with our patients and they can talk about great care, but they can also share what’s really worrying them. COVID-19 has been a unique challenge, with so many different concerns and anxieties, but it’s thanks to the staff that we can continue to deliver the best care.

Staff education is a major priority at our hospital, and I’m thrilled to be able to support our amazing staff with their career development. For instance, we have two healthcare assistants who have been with us for six years and have shown the utmost willingness to learn and contribute. They came to the UK to become nurses and we are now funding their nurse degree apprenticeship at the University of East London (UEL), starting this March, so that they can become qualified nurses. We’re so proud of their progress.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career, and what are the highlights?
This is an interesting question, because often the challenges are also the highlights. For instance, when I achieved my first director of nursing post, it was in a really challenging organisation in a very poor part of London. It was difficult from a personal perspective and it was a complex job in a demanding environment, where there were real social and economic issues. But it was a huge privilege to serve that patient population and I loved every minute of it.

Likewise, in another instance we had to rebuild an entire hospital, but we did it in the end! And of course, celebrating my first two years at The London Clinic is a huge highlight of my career.

There have certainly been other kinds of challenges. On one occasion, for two years I was the only female on an NHS board. It didn’t have a negative impact on my ability to do my job, but it was certainly helpful that I was a relatively experienced executive by that point. Had I been less experienced, the story might have been different. Even so, I was mindful of being the only female, while still being true to myself. It was an interesting experience.

It’s amazing to see people rising up through the ranks. In the NHS, a lot of people I have worked with have gone on to do very senior jobs. It’s a huge comfort to know that you have developed people to take on more challenging roles. At my last job in the NHS, I was asked for support by the chief executive – someone I had once managed! I just loved it.

As a woman in leadership, have you encountered any barriers to your success?
There have been a few barriers. For instance, as a nurse, people assume you might not be interested in finance or management, or you might not be capable, or have that kind of business acumen. You therefore have to demonstrate that you can handle not just your day-to-day portfolio, but your corporate portfolio. Of course, the same dialogue happens for women in business all the time; but in healthcare, as with many industries, there are unhelpful stereotypes that create even more barriers for certain groups. You have to have a warrior spirit, be inspired by other women and peers, push through these barriers and, most of all, learn from them.

Studies show that women represent close to 70% of the global workforce but make up less than 20% of leadership roles. What can the healthcare industry do to change this?
We have to see more diversity in the boardroom. I’m talking women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, all under-represented groups across all disciplines. In UK healthcare, we’re getting better, but we’re far from having achieved it.

We need to think about growing leadership earlier for younger people, but also for women and under-represented groups at any stage throughout their careers. What sort of support will people need throughout their career? This could be maternity planning or BAME reverse mentors, like we have at The London Clinic. What does the individual need to really excel?

We know by now that the most successful executive teams are those that have true diversity and now we need to help women – mentor and coach them – to get there.

What would you tell other women who are just starting a career in healthcare?
Get as much advice as you can about how you map out your career and take every opportunity that looks like it’s the right one for you. You should also build a really good support network around you – those people who enable you to ask questions you might not be able to ask elsewhere.

Where possible, you should always try to work for a boss who can give you real opportunities in your career and, whether academically or career wise, they recognise you have ability and are willing to expand you.

Beyond that, be brave, jump in, and never limit yourself.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve had some valuable and varied advice throughout my career, but if I had to choose…

Firstly, you’re going to make some mistakes, but you’ve got to learn from them. Every time you get knocked over, get up and run faster.

Secondly, be yourself. I’ve often been seen as feisty and outgoing. Some people will love it, some won’t, but you can only be you.

Finally, don’t lose your passion for patients and nursing, because that’s what drives you. Never lose your enthusiasm, take it with you always.

What is something that your colleagues might not necessarily know about you?
I used to write comedy. I was part of a team of ghost writers who wrote comedy scripts about healthcare. And I think that’s quite enough from me for now.