Q&A: Farewell to RPS chief executive, Helen Gordon

After seven years in the pharmacy world, Helen Gordon is departing as chief executive of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society to enter pastures new at the Royal Society of Medicine. Here, she talks to Julia Robinson about her proudest moments and what advice she would give to her successor. 

Helen Gordon is departing as chief executive of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Helen Gordon joined the world of pharmacy in 2010, the same year the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) took over the regulatory function of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS). At the end of February, Gordon will be leaving the RPS to become chief executive of the Royal Society of Medicine, here she reflects on the past seven years and explains why she feels pharmacy has changed for the better.

What are you most proud of during your time as chief executive?

This time seven years ago I was going through the interview process, so I’ve been around pharmacy for seven years. One of my first highlights was getting the Royal Pharmaceutical Society on the map as a professional body in quite a speedy way. I’m really proud of how quickly we were able to build a portfolio of meaningful activities for members. As such, members have stayed with us.

I’m proud that we were able to carve out a role in speaking to the media about medicines from a pharmacist’s perspective

Across our domains, such as advocacy, leadership and support, I’m proud of how, over the years, we’ve developed strong, impactful campaigns from the boards. Our elected members have played very strongly into that, supported by wise and energetic staff.

I’m also proud that early on we were able to carve out a role in speaking to the media about medicines from a pharmacist’s perspective, promoting the role of pharmacists as experts in medicines. Being able to have the pharmacist view about medicines for patient benefit is really important.

We’ve also developed support and guidance material and deeper professional standards for pharmacists. The Faculty programme, preregistration courses and Foundation early years work have been phenomenally important for us as we occupy the space as the royal college for pharmacy.

I think the other area is the transformation in the Pharmaceutical Press, which has moved to digital offerings that are helpful for a wide range of practitioners, educators and establishments.

These are really big impactful things that mean a lot, not only to pharmacists on the front line, but, I hope, to those involved in medicines throughout our health system and to those who set healthcare policy.

What have you enjoyed the most about the job?

What gets me out of bed in the morning is knowing that by helping pharmacists we’re helping patients. I’ve really enjoyed working with incredibly committed, devoted and talented staff here and also with elected members who have put time and energy into doing their bit to lead pharmacy and make a difference. Being part of something that’s a start-up has also been very exciting.

I walk away knowing that the team here has made a difference and will go on to make a difference.

What have you enjoyed the least?

Trying to find the balance between taking the organisation forward and the day-to-day. Both are really important but as a chief executive you need to find a balance. There’s been a lot to deal with since the RPS emerged as a professional body in 2010 — no week, month or year is ever the same, which is exciting — but there’s never enough time.

It’s been important to go out and meet people in order to stay in tune with what our members really think. I do like to get out and about and that’s been more of a challenge because the workload has been very high.

Is there anything you regret/wish you had done during your time that you weren’t able to?

I’ve got no regrets at all. There are always areas where you think, “I could have handled that slightly differently, I need to learn from that”, but that’s good management and good leadership.

Sometimes I wish we were speedier in bringing improvements to members. We’re influencing and supporting individuals who want to experience us in bespoke ways. Sticking to what is really relevant to pharmacists at the front line as well as in all aspects of pharmacy is always on my mind. Sometimes we get it more right than at other times. But I have no regrets, you just always have to keep on trying.

Why did you decide to leave?

A job came up at an organisation that I’m interested in. I’ve always been interested in education and development, therefore an opportunity to work with a highly regarded organisation which, at its heart, is an education charity, is exciting. It’s just sod’s law that the opportunity came up now — I wasn’t planning to leave.

There’s some attraction to leaving the job while you still love it and also you have to take opportunities as they present themselves. Equally, it’s an opportunity for an organisation to have a fresh pair of eyes coming into a role.

If you don’t focus on what patients and communities need… I don’t think you can move the organisation on

What advice would you give to the next chief executive of the RPS?

Offering advice is always a sensitive thing. Remaining endlessly curious about what our members and the pharmacy profession need to deliver great care, whatever sector they work in, is important. If you don’t focus on what patients and communities need, and you’re not tuned into what pharmacists say, then I don’t think you can move the organisation on.

One of the things that attracted me to this job and working with pharmacy is that it’s a diverse profession, which is wonderful. Wherever there is a patient, pharmacists are on hand to offer advice and to make a real difference through pharmaceutical care and medicines optimisation and that’s a real thrill. Staying endlessly excited about the possibility of people doing great things for patients is really important; the day you’re not excited about that is when it stops being a great job.

The other piece of advice I’d offer is to really nurture relationships because good will come of that. Nurturing relationships with the staff to continue to build what is already a very strong team; developing relationships with the elected members; and building relationships with all players who are important to pharmacy in the health system is a major part of the role. Time invested in that yields huge benefits and opportunity for the organisation and therefore the people we serve.

What do you think are the qualities of a good chief executive?

There are many qualities that make people good chief executives and I’ve tried my best to exhibit some of those. A good chief executive will be really good at relationships, even when it’s tough, and be committed to and focused on the goal. In my experience, if that’s exciting enough, people will align to that vision and want to deliver it. Thinking about the journey we’ve been on since 2010, being able to craft a strong pitch for what we need to offer can yield great commitment, engagement and also really exciting ideas. The core essentials are good communication; great visionary ability to sort the wheat from the chaff; the ability to align work clearly to the vision, bearing in mind what’s urgent and important; and the ability to motivate a team to deliver that.

Does pharmacy need anything special from a chief executive?

The organisation is still on a journey of growth, although we have established our role within the pharmacy family as the professional body and an esteemed publisher. We need to own that role and work with all of our partners in pharmacy.

Pharmacy needs the RPS to be visionary about the future as well as the here and now

Pharmacists are going through a lot of change and the new chief executive will need to make sure that the organisation delivers on what is relevant to pharmacists, not only now but in future. The chief executive needs to be visible and committed to both listening to members and the broader profession, and supporting the boards in their work to develop services and products that really help pharmacists through this challenging time of change, because the public need that from us as well as the profession.

Pharmacy needs the RPS to be visionary about the future as well as the here and now. There’s a reality about healthcare changing — technology, digitalisation, care centred on the patient’s home, increased need in the community — and we’re really serious about supporting the various national plans: the ‘Five year forward view’ and Prescription for excellence, as well as the global view. Pharmacy needs a coherent picture of what it provides for patients, which I think we do bring, to help it carve out an important part in healthcare change.

There’s no doubt that models of care will change and I’m really interested for all healthcare practitioners what the picture might look like in five or ten years. We need to be helping our members and the broader profession thrive in that environment.

How do you think the status of pharmacy has changed since you joined the RPS in 2010?

Other parts of the health system understand pharmacy better. There’s a much more common line than ever before about the value of pharmacy and the importance of investing in pharmacy in all care settings. We’d just like to see that played out more in contracts and agreements. But we are living in very difficult times, healthcare is in a challenging time of growth of different models, different ways of working together and resource pressures and that’s felt right across the health system, so we’re interested in seeing how pharmacy plays its part in that. Pharmacists make a material difference in how medicines are used and this is meaningful for patients as well as great use of a very precious resource — that’s a really important message.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, February 2017, Vol 298, No 7898;298(7898):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2017.20202307

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