Women behind the Network – Caroline Shaw CBE

1 March 2019


Female Leaders at Fifty with Caroline Shaw CBE,  Chief Executive of The  Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn NHS Foundation Trust. 

I have been asked to talk about work life balance, probably because I work in a trust in Norfolk, but my home is up North, where my husband and teenage daughter live. My son is at university in  Oxford and comes home when he needs money or wants his washing done.

Actually it is quite a fitting time for me to be writing this as it comes on the 20th anniversary of me earning my MSC in Healthcare Policy and Management from Birmingham University after embarking on a career as a midwife. So now is a perfect time to step back, reflect, rethink and maybe make some changes… if I want to.

Hitting 50 – or thereabouts – is seen as the time for reflection,reappraisal and perhaps some changes. We hear a lot about mid-life crises don’t we?  I don’t really believe in them, if I’m honest. I think the desire – and ultimately – the realisation of driving a fast open-topped car; riding a motorbike or climbing a mountain is not because you’re having a crisis it’s because you have reached a point in your life when you can. Also at 50 it’s quite good because you can pretty much say what you like. If you don’t want to do something you can say so. I think we probably make better choices when we’re older. That’s not to say the decisions we made earlier in life were wrong; we just had different priorities, maybe. But we have to own them and take responsibility for them, don’t’ we?

Perhaps you set yourself a target to be a Chief Executive, a Chief Constable a Chief Nurse at 50.  Perhaps you wanted to be financially secure enough to retire at 50. Maybe you achieved your ambitions before you got to 50. Either way whatever your journey, you are where you are because of the choices you have made. I believe I am what I am because of the choices I made. Yes, there would have been a number of factors in play at the time, but the fact remains they were my decisions. We need to be OK with that don’t we? We need to take responsibility; be responsible for your past and the architect of your future.

I think that is what I love about being 50. I am not saying I am a fully rounded woman, but I know what I am. I am comfortable in my own skin and willing to listen and learn. We’re always learning aren’t we? I’m talking about being comfortable with the choices I have made. And no matter what anyone says I believe this level of comfort comes with age. And it is this level of comfort that makes us powerful enough to enter the next phase of our lives – whatever that looks like.

We have a wealth of experience and knowledge by now and I feel I have a responsibility to pass on my learning in my personal life as well as in my professional life. I also have a responsibility – and a desire – to inspire, encourage and nurture new leaders, whether they are women or men, actually. A good leader is only as good as the team around them. You cannot be a one-man band; that is not sustainable for the individual or the organisation. 

This might not sound like work life balance, but it is in my eyes. We have to recognise that we all have responsibilities –not just children; we have parents to look after possibly. Any dynamic in your personal life has to be negotiated. It is fair to say as we approach 50, if we have children they are going to be more grown up and more independent, if not completely so. Our parents are going to be more elderly and possibly need looking after. This all has to be negotiated and this is all part of our work life balance. There is nothing to say we have to divide these responsibilities up on gender lines. We do what is right for us as a unit – whatever that unit is. 

As leaders we have to recognise that what is going on in our lives as we reassess and re-evaluate, is going on in the lives of our colleagues; the responsibilities and demands on their time are just as important as ours. We have to respect that and we have to lead from the front and be compassionate and understanding. We have to show that it is OK to leave the office – to have lunch, to leave to go for a run, to look after family, friends.  We are not locked in.

I don’t believe in living my life in the context of others, or comparing myself to others or their lives. I empathise and I draw inspiration from people who make a difference. I want to hear advice, get the facts, find out what the implications are, go away and reflect on it and then make a decision.

You can’t be a good leader at work without a good team around you, and that is the case in your personal life too. A team means each member knows when to step forward and help out and when to step back to give space and understanding. Only by having a good team can you do that and for me that is the key to a healthy work life balance.

I know I can go for a run when I need to. I get really irritated if I am not able to run and get rid of the stresses of the day. I also know in the moment that sometimes it is not possible to run and I am reconciled to that. So for me we need to step back from phrases like work life balance because they cause more trouble than they fix. They have created more stress and imbalance as we spend too much time thinking about what work life balance should be and creating some kind of perfect life.

I try to make purposeful decisions: what are the factors, why am I making the decisions I am making what is the outcome and then being comfortable with it all.

The real trick is to be mindful. People who know me know that I am having to go at a million miles an hour what with all that is going on in the Trust. Formal meetings are focussed and action driven and if you pop your head round the door I will have time for you, but I expect people to get straight to the point.

I don’t’ always get it right. I’d gone home after a particularly stressful week at work and my daughter was asking me if she could go out. I made noises as I was cooking tea but not really answering her. She told me I was not listening and she was right. It was a good heads up for me to remember to actively listen. It takes time to switch off, but that is what we have to do – switch off one, and then switch on the other.

I rely on my family back home and I rely on my team, TeamQEH. My family enables me to do this job in King’s Lynn and my team enables me to go back home to see my husband and daughter. 

And for really quiet moments I can switch on the telly for my favourite guilty pleasure and watch A Place in the Sun – with a plate of chips and gravy and a glass of sparkling wine. 



Caroline Shaw is currently CEO at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital King’s Lynn, NHS Foundation Trust. She has worked in the NHS for 34 years. Her passion is making a difference to patients and their families. She was appointed a CBE in 2013 for services to healthcare.







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