In the footsteps of Florence

07 September 2018

Health visitor Lena Abdu took up a place on the Florence Nightingale Foundation’s Emerging Leaders programme to become a more effective advocate for change, and view her career through a different lens.

Addressing an audience of nurses in 1872, Florence Nightingale said: ‘Our nursing is a thing which, unless we are making progress every year, every month, every week, take my word for it, we are going back.’

This quote encapsulates why I applied for a place on the Florence Nightingale Foundation (FNF) Emerging Leaders programme: to make personal and professional progress, but not to lose myself in the process. The opportunity of mentorship from a senior figure in health, bespoke residential courses and a year to engage with an FNF leadership programme was highly appealing. I recognised I wouldn’t be able to change practice and improve care by staying the same: I had to make changes in order to grow into an effective leader who could create environments for other people to flourish in.

I had learnt valuable lessons as a health visitor working with deprived families, including how to build trust and make connections with people who were often at the lowest point in their lives. I had also learnt as a clinical team leader that taking a systematic approach to routine operational management didn’t always come naturally. I was comfortable in my space at work, but I felt impatient when I couldn’t make things happen and, when I did, by the pace of change. In my application, I set objectives around improving project management skills so I could distil words and plans into actions and reality to impact on the people we serve. I also wanted to gain confidence so that I could influence, negotiate and play my part in making the system sustainable and future-proof.


In safe hands

A raft of psychometric assessments and 360° feedback provided rich data, and I was curious to see how I was perceived by others. To get the most from this scholarship opportunity, I needed to be organised, agile and resilient; for the first time in a long time, I set personal goals around time management and identified resources I could draw on. I experimented with creative ways to manage my workload, such as protected time for emails and walking one-to-ones in a nearby park.

I also met my mentor: I knew I was in safe hands, and her attention and wealth of experience proved to be invaluable. Equally, I sensed she would not suffer fools gladly. But a more subtle threat came from my own approach to failure. One half of my brain knew that embracing failure can create a rich opportunity to learn, but I wrestled with the other half, which did not want to recognise failure as an option. I resolved to revisit this through coaching at a later stage but, all in all, I was in a strong place to begin the scholarship programme.


Making connections

Connections were speedily made among the cohort of FNF scholars. Despite our range of nursing backgrounds, we had all contended with politics at work, fragmented systems, demand and capacity challenges, and relationship management in an ever-changing landscape. Expert guidance was given on how to interpret our feedback, and I was taught for the first time ever about the structure and organisation of the NHS. The fog had finally cleared and I could now see how the pieces of the jigsaw fit together – until of course it all changes again.

A study day at The King’s Fund helped me understand more about the elements of success for new models of care. I learnt about the experience in Finland, where well-integrated teams target prevention, e-health is used to treat the majority of the population, and citizens become involved to address inequity. I reflected on what I enjoyed in my job – facilitating others to do theirs – but also on how I sometimes felt stifled by the administration in line management. Shortly after the course, I was successful in applying for a position in my organisation in improvement and transformation.

Now that I was in a role that required new language and a new set of skills in influencing, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art’s two-day personal impact programme could not have been more timely. The advice to ‘lower the bar’ and to reconnect with my intentions as a nurse and health visitor to improve the health and wellbeing of people was so simple but powerful. I practised what I had learnt on my return to work at the daily 0 to 19 huddle that had been set up with a colleague two months earlier, and I also watched numerous recommended TED talks.


Collaboration is key

In July, I arrived at Cranfield University to attend a course on improving project performance, in order to meet the objectives I had identified through my feedback. The course was intense: each day started at 8:30am, and most evenings we didn’t finish until midnight. When I realised that nearly all the other attendees were engineers from the oil and gas industry, I felt apprehensive. Would they understand the challenges of my world, would I understand theirs, and would I be able to participate and add value to the course? My fears were soon allayed. A project is a project, whether it’s in health, oil and gas or construction, and the challenges and risks are largely the same.

The course led us through each stage of a project, then made us apply our learning in a series of simulated exercises. The commitment required meant that I wasn’t able to read any work emails for eight days. On the first project management simulation, centred around putting a roof on an aquatic centre, I concentrated hard to use the tools we had been given, such as work-based plans. I was dismayed to then lose my team £47m in the space of 15 minutes by causing chaos after impulsively throwing extra resources at the project. I reflected on how this would apply to teams at work and how increasing the size of a team does not always increase performance.

Subsequent exercises included being interviewed by the press in a live studio. I found this exhilarating, and can now apply this experience to inform how new ideas are communicated to stakeholders. The final task asked us to research a battery storage facility using a wind farm. For me, the silver lining was that the project had to be collaborative. I left the engineers to figure out a battery storage facility while I drew on collaborative principles from industry and health, and the current focus on integration between health and social care. Presenting this to eight visiting directors from the oil and gas industry on the final day was nerve-racking and a great opportunity to put the RADA training into practice.


Consolidating coaching

I successfully submitted my coaching portfolio for the European Mentoring and Coaching Council’s foundation level. This felt like a good time to arrange some one-to-one coaching for myself and work on identified key areas.

For the remainder of the year, I continued to attend study days connected with my job, and applied my learning to work-based projects. A particular highlight was shadowing the chief nurse and her deputies at University College Hospital in London for two days. This was an amazing experience, where I saw in action authentic, grounded and compassionate leadership.

As the year drew to a close, it felt as if time was speeding up. I had completed my sessions of coaching and felt lighter. I reread Nancy Kline’s Time to think (2015) to ensure I didn’t get lost in becoming too busy and understand that the brain that generates the question can also generate the best answer. I regularly draw on my project resources from Cranfield, and WhatsApp is utilised daily by our cohort of FNF scholars.

I have one last study day to attend at The King’s Fund on new models of care and on the possibilities of collaboration between care homes and community providers. Learning about the intergenerational work with crèches being run in care-home settings reminds me of the shift in focus I have made this year from cradle to grave.



Having a mentor who was interested in my entire life helped me recognise that we bring our whole selves to work. The value in working alongside people from other industries has broadened how I think about projects and the elements involved. I feel better informed and more confident to approach projects at work and lead teams. I also know that I belong in the healthcare sector. I have learnt so much on the FNF programme and the exposure has helped me view health through a different lens. If anything, this feels like the beginning of the journey and not the end.


The emerging leaders programme

Since 1929, the Florence Nightingale Foundation has been providing scholarships to the best nurses and midwives in the UK who can make a difference to patient care, policy and practice.

The 12-month Emerging Leaders course is based on residential study and independent learning around personal goals and requires the applicants to:

  • Be a registered nurse or midwife
  • Be Band 7 or 8 or equivalent
  • Have an executive level of support letter confirming time available to complete scholarship
  • Confirm a 10% employer contribution

More details here.


Lena Abdu is improvement and transformation lead at First Community Health and Care in Redhill, Surrey.

Picture credit | iStock | Getty

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