Career advice

Shop-floor nous

Dame Donna Kinnear says a job in Marks and Spenser helped prepare her for nursing management

As a manager with Marks & Spencer, one of Dame Donna Kinnair’s tasks was to organise bra testing. The job required tact, an eye for what was needed and the ability to negotiate with manufacturers to ensure the end product was something that the customer would love: all at the right price.

These skills have stayed with her throughout her career in nursing, which has involved an impressive range of roles from health visitor to director of nursing, and from children’s commissioner to child protection expert.

‘I understood the process of buying bras, and commissioning was not that different,’ she says. ‘You had to work with manufacturers, test the product, choose people to try it; exactly the skills you use in commissioning.’

Professor Kinnair has just moved from Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust (BHRUT), Essex, where she was emergency department clinical director, to become head of nursing with the Royal College of Nursing.

It was as a young girl that Professor Kinnair decided she wanted to be a nurse, but after school her focus was on maths, which she studied at university.

But nursing was always at the back of her mind, and she was encouraged to look into it further during a consultation with an occupational nurse. ‘I told her I had wanted to be a nurse and she said “Well, you jolly well still can”.

‘I had to do my nursing course with a six-month-old baby, but when you really want to do something, you do it.’

She found nursing a good fit with a growing family, moving into the community, for example, so that she could work nine to five as a health visitor.

‘The beauty of nurse training then was that you could do almost every kind of nursing. I worked in surgery, in HIV and AIDS, in A&E, in children’s nursing; you didn’t have to specialise.’

Health visiting awoke a passion for child protection, and she studied for a law degree. ‘I ended up becoming a trainer in child protection; I was a bit of a zealot,’ she says.

As a change from this gruelling specialism she moved to a post as children’s commissioner with the then London health authority covering Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark.

Her future was to lie elsewhere, however, and she was asked to be nurse adviser to Lord Laming in the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, an eight-year-old girl who was tortured, neglected and abused until she died, in 2000.

This experience underlined her commitment to the importance of partnership working and communication to ensure that other children do not slip through the net. But it also helped shape her determination to work to support nurses.

‘Nurses were coming to the inquiry unprepared. The social workers and doctors were lawyered up, but the nurses didn’t know what to expect. I decided to move to a director of nursing role and make sure that any nurses working for me would be supported, and prepared for anything like that.’

Professor Kinnair became director of nursing in Southwark, then was asked to take on commissioning too, which she said she would, provided she could keep the nursing element.

Again, she felt her early general management experience and business focus was an asset. ‘In nursing, we don’t recruit for numbers skills,’ she says. ‘But you’ve got to have a bit of business nous as well as compassion.’

Following the latest NHS reorganisation, she decided to move back into the acute sector, taking on the challenge at BHRUT and helping to turn round a failing trust.

She has a wealth of other experience to bring to her new role at the RCN, not least as consulting editor for Nursing Management between 2007 and 2013, and advising the prime minister’s commission on the future of nursing and midwifery in 2010.

But those early private-sector influences will also go with her. ‘Marks & Spencer taught me customer focus and, because you had to move between every department, you couldn’t be afraid of anything,’ she says. ‘These are valuable lessons for nurse management too.’

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