From trainee nurse to CEO

From trainee nurse to CEO – Mel’s mission to make Bradford the best it can be. The honorary professor talks about her hopes for the future:

Mel Pickup, CEO of Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and honorary visiting professor at the University of Bradford. Credit: BTHFT.

Mel Pickup always wanted to be a nurse but even as she was working her way up through the ranks, she admits she never saw herself as a chief executive, recalling “I only ever looked one or two steps ahead”. Having recently turned 52, a mother to two and also now a grandmother, she has just completed her first year as CEO of Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and, as of last month, is an honorary visiting professor at the University of Bradford. Here, she talks about her career path and ambitions for the future.

“I can remember wanting to be a nurse since high school. I became a trainee and qualified in Barnsley and since then my career has taken me either side of the M62. When I first started out, I didn’t really know what a chief executive did. As a student nurse, the most important person in your job is the staff nurse and when you’re a staff nurse, it’s the ward sister. I didn’t set out to become a chief executive, I’ve only ever looked a couple of moves ahead.”

Born in Monk Bretton, Barnsley, she was one of three sisters raised by parents, Barry (who hails from Bradford, like his father before him) and Marylin, who long harboured ambitions to be a nurse but did not realise them, instead running a successful hairdressing business which is still in the family after 40 years. Mel graduated with a degree in health studies from Sheffield University, before going on to study a Master’s in independent practice in Leeds, completing the course while still working.

“I worked my way up, becoming a junior sister and then sister, and later, chief nurse, chief operating officer, deputy CEO and everything in between. I’ve had a lot of varied experience in professional leadership and management. What that background does is give you an innate skill of asking the right questions and being really inquisitive and getting to the heart of the problem.

“In many ways, the skills needed for managing a ward and managing a hospital are the same. The numbers are different but you are still leading a team of people, it’s an exercise in doing things the right way, it’s about organising, giving direction and supporting people. A shift almost becomes a microcosm of an organisation.”

Prior to moving back across the Pennines to Yorkshire, Mel was first a CEO in 2007 at the Walton Centre in Liverpool, ‘The Brain Hospital’, and then CEO at Warrington and Halton Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which she describes as having very similar values to Bradford. Her first year back on home soil has been nothing short of momentous. Shortly after her arrival, the Trust received a favourable ‘good’ rating from the Care Quality Commission and then, of course, Covid struck, creating unprecedented challenges, which continue today.

Mel recalls: “During the first wave, it was more about ensuring the organisation was adequately equipped and had sufficient staff. We know much more about the disease now, so we’re better able to respond but we still have to contend with getting on top of routine care, an increase in demand because of winter and a resumption of cases which were paused during the first wave. It’s not without its challenges.”

Commenting on her honorary degree, she said: “It’s a huge honour, it strengthens the bond between my organisation and the university. It’s my mission to help this city be the best in the country. The ingredients for that are having really good education, public services, hospitals, a great local authority, and everyone working toward the same goal. If, symbolically, we can say we are so close, that our aspirations are so similar and our ambitions so much in common, then we should see a lot more ways in which we can help and support for mutual benefit the sectors and constituent parts of this fantastic place.”

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