Q&A with Paul Bennett, chief executive of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Paul Bennett took up his new role as chief executive of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society on 3 July. He joins the RPS from his position as chief officer of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Local Pharmaceutical Committee.

He was previously professional standards director and superintendent pharmacist at Boots UK. Bennett has also held senior leadership roles and superintendent pharmacist positions at Safeway Stores and E Moss, and was a member of the Moss Board at time of the merger between Alliance Pharmacy and Boots.

In 2007, Bennett became chair of the first RPS English Pharmacy Board and took up the chair of the National Pharmacy Association in 2008. More recently, he was non-executive chairman of Pharmacy Voice.

Bennett was made a Fellow of the RPS in 2013.

Paul Bennett, who will take up his appointment of chief executive in July 2017

What attracted you to the role of chief executive at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society?

I am a pharmacist. I am passionate about the profession of pharmacy and what we do to help the public get the best out of their medicines, and I am passionate about improving the health and wellness of people generally. I have a track record of working in a variety of pharmacy businesses, and I am also used to working in large organisations: I think those credentials are important for a chief executive of the RPS.

I would like to think that I am authentic as a leader; I say what I believe and I do what I say. Being true to that is important, as is providing certainty in leadership. Forming and maintaining strong, worthwhile relationships is also something I consider very important and something that I am good at.

We are in very challenging times for the profession, and working with what I understand already to be a very professional team at the Society gives us an opportunity to make a real difference.

How will you engage with members, and show the value of membership to non-members?

Members should be at the heart of everything we do. To connect with and understand members is critical. I’m coming into this role with my ears and eyes wide open, and I want to get out and about and meet members. I am a member myself, and I am currently active in the steering group of RPS Local for Hampshire, and I talk daily to pharmacists who are members.

It is important that we reach out and connect in an ever more meaningful way. I am hearing some very positive stuff, and I am also hearing that there is more we could do as a Society to better engage and demonstrate that we’re listening.

All good leaders seek to understand, and I will do that personally. Wherever I possibly can I will try to get to events that I am invited to where members will be in attendance. I don’t want to be a London-centric chief executive, that’s for certain. This is a Great Britain-wide organisation — many more members are outside of London than are in it. It’s important that as a CEO you are visible. Getting out and about, exploring what the local forums are like, getting feedback from them, inputting to them, learning about how we can better connect — that’s critical.

I don’t go in with any preconceived plan, because I want to hear what has been done

I don’t go in with any preconceived plan, because I want to hear what has been done  already — and I know a lot of work has been done by the team at the Society — in trying to get RPS Local modernised. It’s important that I hear what has been done, and then reflect upon that and try to build upon it. Connecting with members at speed is clearly critical and that’s probably my highest priority.

A membership organisation thrives on strong membership and input. I was disappointed to read of the turnout at the recent board elections. I don’t know if that is an indication of something that we need to focus on. I would hope that people feel they can make a difference and shape what their Society does, how it behaves and how it supports them. We have got to listen to that. It’s important.

What about engaging with other pharmacy organisations?

I spoke at the recent annual general meeting about how important partnerships are. We are at our best when we are professionally united. I constantly remind myself and others that we have more things in common than we differ on. It is important that as a professional leadership body, the Society has a strong relationship with all stakeholders and pharmacy organisations which have an opinion on the direction of the profession that they want to express. We need to hear that, and we need to think about how their views tie up with our own strategic priorities and vision, and how we can better work with them, collaboratively, on things that are of mutual interest.

Together, we are more powerful. That is easy to say — it’s often a lot harder to do, of course!

To see people work together to produce good stuff demonstrates how collaboration can be powerful

I draw on my experience from when I chaired Pharmacy Voice, when I had the pleasure of seeing the Company Chemists’ Association, the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) and the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies come together around the table right at the inception of the organisation, which has now, sadly I would say, demised. To see people work together to produce good stuff demonstrates how collaboration can be so powerful.

I see the Society as central to creating and maintaining collaboration among pharmacy organisations. As the membership organisation for pharmacists, the RPS is the leadership voice for the profession, so we need to step up to that and behave and act in that way. And part of behaving and acting in that way is to help bring people together.

What concerns are you hearing from pharmacists on the ground, and what should we be doing — if we are not already — to address them?

I would respond to that with two answers. Clearly, I am closest at the moment to those who work in community pharmacy and in England. And it’s a challenging time for both pharmacists who own and operate pharmacy businesses, and for those who are working in those businesses. Recent government-imposed funding arrangements in England have had a big impact. People are concerned about the future viability of pharmacies in certain localities. We are seeing people under pressure, and I know that some pharmacy businesses are struggling to meet their financial commitments. That raises all sorts of concerns about delivery of service to the public, and it destabilises, and that’s very disappointing. I am aware that the chair of the English Pharmacy Board, Sandra Gidley, has recently called for resetting the relationship with the government, and I think that is a really important thing to now do.

How can we work on developing and delivering a future that we know pharmacists really want?

Pharmacists do so much every day to meet the needs of their patients, and do a fantastic job. When they are feeling under pressure and perhaps struggling to be able to do that, it’s disappointing for them and potentially disappointing for patients. How we reset that relationship with commissioners of service, and how can we work on developing and delivering a professional future that we know pharmacists really want, is a significant challenge.

I am mindful of the recent independent review by Richard Murray, into services provided by community pharmacy — how do we bring that to life and get some traction around the ideas that were in that report? I am keen to explore that further. I am also aware that it’s not all about community pharmacy, of course: there is also the impact of the Lord Carter review, and the work that colleagues in secondary care are undertaking — the drive for efficiency and better integration. Relationships between secondary and primary care pharmacists are also critical and very exciting areas of development.

I would say there’s frustration out there, and I’m hearing that

I am also passionate about innovation. However, I would love to see more innovation actually come to fruition. We do lots of pilots, and I would really like to see some meaningful commissioning of services that have been demonstrated through pilots to be effective. It’s a difficult commissioning environment for those who have that responsibility, and who commission, but equally difficult for those who provide services and who need certainity. I want to get that right: break that down, and overcome some of the obstacles that are preventing some great ideas becoming reality so that patients benefit. I would say there’s frustration out there, and I’m hearing that.

What are your thoughts on the place of science in the RPS?

Pharmacy is a science-based profession. There are some exciting developments in the areas of biosimilars, genomics and personalised medicine. I think we are in a unique period of time, whether it be around science, communication or digitalisation, and we, as a profession, need to keep encouraging the development of science and technology. It is really exciting.

Pharmacists, being the experts in medicine, are able to take the developments around pharmaceuticals and interpret them for other healthcare professionals and explain how they work, and support patients to get the best out of them — that’s where we add real value. I talked earlier about innovation. Whether that be scientific innovation or service innovation, it brings change, and it brings new challenges that we should readily embrace. I am keen that we do that.

I think it’s important that we listen to scientists

I am also aware of my personal limitations around some of those areas. I haven’t had the opportunity to work in scientific research, for example, and I think it’s important that we engage with our pharmaceutical scientists. The role of the chief scientist within the RPS is an important one that helps inform the Society about developments in this rapidly changing arena

We need to draw on the expertise of others to shape what we, as healthcare professionals, can do to best deliver the right outcome for patients.

Some people think that pharmacy struggles to have the same public profile as, say, medicine and nursing. Do you agree?

I would agree to an extent. However, we have seen a bit of a shift in that in recent times. I don’t like dwelling on the funding arrangements in England, but one of the consequences was the campaign that community pharmacy undertook to raise awareness, and the response to that was outstanding. The work that the Society did, alongside the PSNC and the NPA really raised the profile of the issue. And the public response was, I think, the largest ever seen for a health petition. That took me somewhat by surprise, and I was extremely pleased. People are supportive of their community pharmacy and the value that the network brings. That came through from the numbers. That is, through adversity I suppose, some tangible success.

I would say we are probably not as good as we should be at shouting about our successes

But generally, I would say we are probably not as good as we should be at shouting about our successes. As a profession we tend to be somewhat reflective internally. We could be accused of being good at talking to ourselves, and we need to talk much more to those outside our own profession, which is why I’m keen on establishing partnership and collaboration. We influence others better when we’re talking about what we do well, and showcasing it. That’s an important thing for the Society to be doing, and we need to do more of it.

I am keen to celebrate success. The RPS has got its awards celebration fast approaching, at the upcoming conference, recognising achievement in such areas as professional engagement and excellence in pharmaceutical science. We should celebrate that, and communicate that outside of pharmacy. There are good examples of how pharmacists make a real difference and we need to talk to other people about that.

Is the Society making enough use of digital technology to reach out to members? How do we stay relevant in a digital age?

If you understand your audience well, and shape your product accordingly, you get a much stronger response

We have got to use all channels to engage and communicate with members. We have seen examples of just how powerful the good use of digital technology can be. I am reflecting on what I heard at the recent Society AGM about the Pharmaceutical Press, and the digitalisation agenda that is being pursued strongly there, as a consequence of them understanding in what form it is that recipients seek to receive the information they need. That’s a good example of how, if you understand your customers well, and shape your product accordingly, you get a much stronger response. And that is equally true of member engagement, of course.

Is the Society doing enough to evaluate the success of its campaigns?

This goes back to what I said earlier about celebrating our success. I heard a lot of success through the campaigns being talked about by the chairs of the national boards, as they made their presentations [at the AGM]. If you talk to a typical Society member, I would suggest that they might not be able to play back to you what those campaigns have been, and how they’ve been successful — which I’m sure we would all like.

It’s important that we reflect on successes, failures and opportunities to do better next time

So again, I think we need to do more to celebrate our successes, and to showcase where we have had those successes. But we also need to take the learnings from those campaigns. We will inevitably have a series of targeted campaigns, and it’s important that we reflect on successes, failures and opportunities to do better next time. I’d like to think that the need for continual improvement that applies to us as professionals also applies organisationally to the Society.

What would you like to achieve in your first year as CEO?

Firstly, I would like to have a short period of time to form a 100-day plan to be agreed with the Assembly. By the end of the year, I’d like to be able to look back and say “We’ve delivered more of what our members want, more often”. At the end of the day, the Society is only going to be effective at achieving its strategic objectives, and meeting its vision, if it is a viable organisation. So I would like to also be able to reflect at the end of the year and say it is more viable, more sustainable, better connected with its members than it was at the start of the 12-month period.

I am really looking forward to connecting with members

I am excited to be joining what I know is a very professional team at the RPS, and having the opportunity to contribute to the development and leadership of the profession. This is a unique opportunity — I am humbled by being given this opportunity and intend to fully embrace it. Most importantly, I am really looking forward to connecting with members.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, July 2017, Vol 299, No 7903;299(7903):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2017.20203082

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