Career advice

Women leaders: learn together how to fulfil your potential

Men still dominate senior positions in the public sector. Management training designed for women aims to overcome the barriers.

Men still dominate senior positions in the public sector. Management training designed for women aims to overcome the barriers 

Residential courses take participants out of the workplace to live, cook and learn together. Photo: Getty Images


Led by the King’s Fund, the Athena programme is designed to support women to fulfil their potential as public sector leaders – whether working in the NHS or beyond, including social services, police and prison services, education, housing, the civil service, and the voluntary and community sectors.

Gill Horne, director of patient care at Rowcroft Hospice in Torquay, completed the course last December, as part of a group of about 15 women working in various health sector roles.

‘I was attracted to the programme because it was specifically for executive women,’ she says. ‘It ticked all my boxes.’

Athena's history

Established more than 30 years ago, the Athena programme is delivered in four modules, as well as three learning sets of one day each and two one-to-one coaching sessions.

The programme begins with a four-day long residential element, designed to give everyone space away from their workplace and encourage the group to form a learning community.

‘It took me right out of my comfort zone,’ says Dr Horne. ‘Everyone in my group was a highly qualified woman leader and I felt quite in awe of them initially.’

Getting stuck in

The group lives and cooks together, alongside doing different tasks, including presentations. ‘You’re in at the deep end but you get to know each other very quickly. I learned a lot about myself from day one.’

She has developed a new appreciation of the importance of having a team around her with ‘different types of people who have diverse views and experiences’.

She adds: ‘Previously I would have looked for people who thought like me. But now I look for people who bring something different.’

The programme also highlighted her own role within teams. ‘I learned that I need to make my own contribution, otherwise the team misses out,’ says Dr Horne. ‘In those exercises where I held back, the whole team suffered.’

She also welcomed the opportunity to practise co-consulting and co-coaching techniques, having critical conversations and delegating more effectively.

Starting new habits

Throughout the course, participants are encouraged to keep a journal to reflect on their learning, and to read management and leadership books. It is a habit that has stayed with Dr Horne: ‘I must have read six books so far this year. I’m still learning. 

‘Athena has stretched and motivated me. It has given me the courage to be who I am and to appreciate that I have a contribution to make.’


You can find out more about the programme here

Lynne Pearce is a freelance health writer


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