Our interviewee, leadership development expert Dr Neslyn Watson-Druée, came to London from Jamaica aged 19 to study nursing. She planned to return five years later. But life doesn’t always run to plan…
“If you were with me at about aged 8,” Neslyn recalls, “you would see me sitting on the veranda in Jamaica looking out and wondering what is behind those beautiful mountains. One day when I was daydreaming, my father startled me. ‘Neslyn!’ he said. ‘You sit there daydreaming. Live for something. Have a purpose!’”
And Neslyn soon discovered her purpose: nursing. She planned to study in England, and return to a career as a public health nurse – the Jamaican equivalent of a health visitor. But, just as she had completed her training, and amassed sufficient experience to guarantee a career back home, she met her husband. “There was”, she says, laughing, “a quick rethink.”
Training and retraining
Neslyn went on to study and work as a health promotion officer, co-ordinating services for maternal and child care across the health services, local authority and voluntary sector in the London Borough of Croydon. This role brought her into close contact with teachers, she realised that, to be properly effective, she needed to understand how the curriculum was designed and developed. So she retrained as a teacher and, before she’d had a chance to look elsewhere, was offered a job at the college where she’d been studying.
Then, in 1986 Project 2000 shifted nurse training into universities, abolished the two-year SEN (State Educated Nurse) qualification and replaced SENs with healthcare assistants. Some 30 years on, there’s ambivalence about its long-term impact, with concerns that the academicisation of nursing has left gaps in fundamental patient care. But, at the time, Project 2000 aimed to tip the balance of power and status within the health service in nurses’ favour. And it offered terrific new career opportunities for capable and ambitious women like Neslyn.
Good news and bad news
So, she applied for a job back in the NHS. “After the interview, the woman who became my manager said ‘there is good news and bad news. Which do you want first?’ And I said ‘well, give me the bad and then the good and I can finish on a high!’ And she said, ‘the bad news is, we’re not going to appoint you for the job for which you applied. The good news is we’re going to appoint you and we want you to use the range of your skills, so write a job description and tell us what you want to be paid.’ I was really on a high!”
Neslyn loved her new job, and it went well, until, during a health service reorganisation, she was assigned a new manager. “She said ‘I find you threatening, because you’re black, you’re a woman and you’re intelligent. So I’m going to block you.”
Deciding that no-one was ever going to speak to her like that again, Neslyn left the job she loved and set up her own business. She developed a pioneering Leadership Demonstration programme for the NHS Executive to show how leadership is about creating excellence and creating the space for others to be their best. This programme helped the NHS tackle the discrimination experienced by so many black nurses and, as a result, she was awarded an MBE for nursing leadership.
About five years later, she encountered her former boss at the Royal College of Nursing Congress. “She came up to me and said ‘you’re doing well. If you ever need anyone in your business, I could work with you.’” “I never did follow up on that,” she adds, “At that time, I couldn’t. But with the wisdom I now have, I would. She offered me an opportunity where we could have grown to another level spiritually. And I didn’t take it.”
Neslyn is encouraged by how discrimination and prejudice has reduced over the years: the changes in law and attitude have had a bog and positive impact. And, while she’s clear there’s no room for complacency, “I am,” she says, “celebrating where we are now.”
One reasons she is so appreciative of contemporary tolerance is her experience of the devastating impact of discrimination and prejudice. “I lost a friend in the 1970s,” she explains, in tears. “She was gay. She took her life because she felt she couldn’t be herself. She took her own life! The questions she was asked during job interviews about her sexual orientation, and the way they were asked and the assumptions that were made drove my friend to her death. What price is that for a human being to pay?”
Executive coach, author and speaker
Now an executive coach, author and speaker, Neslyn works internationally, delivering motivational talks on leadership, living with passion and leaving a legacy. She has, she says, little time for the divisive nature of much organised religion, yet her approach to her work is deeply spiritual. “We are all children of God,” she says. “Divine beings, spiritual beings with human experience. When you can become aware of the divinity in another person, irrespective of gender, race and all the things that we use to categorise or segment people, you know that we are connected. Then that is life.”
And life, for Neslyn, means generosity, compassion and philanthropy. A few years ago she gave away her life savings to Colourful Radio to provide media training for people from BAME backgrounds, and to a project working to improve the range of choices available to young black boys who might otherwise we drawn into gang culture.
Choice, she believes, is key. “I have choice in how I am being. I have choice in how I choose to act. I can either choose to accept the conditions as they exist, or the responsibility to make a difference and bring about a change. For me, choice is a principle. It is a principle of growth. It is choice rather than chance that determines my destiny.” In other words, choice is power.
What’s particularly interesting about Neslyn is that she combines this spiritual view of humanity with a track record of and commitment to making hard-nosed business decisions. While running her own business, for 25 years she also worked as a non-executive director (NED) in the NHS.
Leadership in practice: taking an NHS Trust from deficit to surplus
One of Neslyn’s NED appointments was as chair of a South West London Primary Care Trust. “One Friday,” she recalls, “we had a board meeting, and checked that the finances reconciled. Ten days later, I was in the States, and received a telephone call saying we were £6,000,000 in deficit.” It turned out that the financial information supplied to the board had been falsified. Ultimately, the Trust was left with a deficit of £21,000,000.
So, Neslyn dissolved the board. “Both executives and non-executives,” she says. “I knew the people working in the Trust deserved better. I appointed a new board, and a new chief executive. Then I went around and asked people what was working well within the organisation and what wasn’t working? I asked them what they would do turn the organisation around if they were in my position. I talked to people and I listened to them.”
“I also knew it was either me leaving or the board going. And I wasn’t going to leave with that cloud over my head. Because people hadn’t expected a black woman to be appointed as chair and some of the GPs had even sent an email around about this ‘foreigner’ who’d been appointed. I had to challenge them.”
Neslyn and her new team of non-executive directors met on a weekly basis to monitor and discuss progress. She also worked in close collaboration with the new chief executive and other executive directors. “It was fun,” she recalls. “When a team works, it’s great. And I didn’t do a lot. It was how was I being.” The Trust was in surplus within two years.
Doing or being?
It’s an important distinction for Neslyn, and one which underpins her current work, supporting leaders to be “their best selves” so they can make what she describes as authentic choices. “For me,” she says, “authenticity is about living my truth and being real. And, in a corporate environment, it’s about making that space for people to be themselves.”
Neslyn’s 4 tips for aspiring leaders
Listen to your heart, live your truth and give something back.
Leave a legacy that has positive benefit for humankind.
Do what you love and love what you do. You notice when you’re in the flow. When you’re engaged and you can be engaged for hours and you may be physically exhausted but you’re not tired, if that makes sense. What is it that makes you heart sing? When do you feel closest to your creator? I know what makes my heart sing. My heart sings when I am with people and I am in the flow with communicating and engaging and supporting and enabling their growth. And they’re giving something to me and I’m giving something to them.
Grow the youth. It’s very important that we make space for young people, and give young people that space to shine.
Neslyn is a prolific writer, an accredited international journalist. She writes for the Phoenix Newspaper on leadership and women. She hosts a passion show on Radio Works World and her books are available on Amazon.