Inspiring leaders: Rebekah Cresswell, CEO, Priory

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Linda Walmsley is a professional interviewer and business owner of Lancashire based, executive and management recruitment firm, Walmsley Wilkinson. During 2023 she continues a series of interviews with business leaders who have innovated within their field of expertise and have warranted the description of being an inspiring leader.

Profile 

Rebekah Cresswell is Priory’s first female CEO, with a track record of senior management expertise in operational and strategic management roles, specialising in quality improvement and performance management.

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health services and specialist residential adult care services, supporting more than 25,000 people a year. A nurse by background, Rebekah has more than 25 years' experience in the health and social care sector.

She joined Priory in November 2012, working as director of quality in Priory Healthcare for four years. During this time, she set up governance structures, and ensured strategically driven continuous quality improvement. She led on safeguarding, health and safety, regulation, patient safety, risk and audits, and policies to ensure the delivery of high-quality services. She moved to the wider role of director of performance and regulation in January 2017 to drive improvement and lead on regulation, working alongside seven regulators across healthcare, education and adult social care.

In March 2018, she moved to Priory Adult Care full-time as chief operating officer. On 1st November 2021, Rebekah was appointed as CEO of Priory, overseeing its Healthcare and Adult Care divisions. Priory is part of MEDIAN, one of the leading European providers in the field of medical rehabilitation and mental health.

Rebekah joined Priory from NHS North West where she was assistant director of clinical quality & patient safety, and led on child safeguarding, with oversight of quality and safety for Greater Manchester. This included responding to serious incidents, supporting trusts experiencing quality issues, and assessing and helping prepare organisations for foundation trust status.

Interview

What were your career aspirations when you were younger?

I thought about being a doctor because I really wanted to help people, and where I landed was nursing. It’s been a really wonderful career for me. I did have some other ideas when I was younger; I sometimes thought I wanted to be a lawyer if I saw something I felt was unjust, or if I watched an episode of LA Law on TV back in the day. 

What was your first job?

I’ve always had a strong work ethic and wanted to be able to buy things for myself, so I started with babysitting when I was 12 or 13-years-old. I had a three-hour paper round on a Wednesday afternoon when I had free study time, and I also stacked shelves in supermarkets in the evenings, and worked on the checkout. 

Who or what, inspired you to embark on your business career?

A number of people, but my Dad was always a big guiding light to me. My parents were missionaries, and spent their lives helping other people. My Dad was always a real ‘people person’ and wanted to go where people were most in need or hurt the most. I think I took that from him. I grew up in Thailand, and when I came back to the UK, I was 15, and my Dad was the local youth pastor.

I remember someone from my school year tragically died. My Dad didn’t wait to be invited; he went to see the mother immediately and supported their friends – he was always the ‘ointment’ at a time of need. For me, growing up in this environment, I knew I wanted to do something that was going to make a difference. 

What five words best describe you?

Warrior – people always describe me this way. I always fight for a good cause, fight for my team and fight for people who are vulnerable.

I’m passionate, and as a person who’s very keen to understand the meaning of words – especially those we use every day – passionate means ‘emotion barely contained’. I think passion comes with that warrior nature, it really drives you and allows you to bring other people along with you.  

Action would be another good word to describe me as I like to get things done.

And Outgoing as I’m a people person.

My fifth word is compassionate; it doesn’t just mean empathy and understanding how somebody feels, it’s a stirring within you that causes you to act. 

Do you have a favourite saying or quote?

When I was younger, I liked the quote “evil triumphs when good men do nothing”. I was a health visitor in inner city Liverpool and Manchester, which is not for the faint-hearted. That experience taught me that you can never just ignore things, you’ve got to do something about them.

Now as a CEO, it’s the Steve Jobs quote – and I firmly believe in this – “great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people”. One thing that I think is really important, and I’ve always tried to do it, is build and develop my team to ultimately work myself out of a job, so that they can be the next to do it.

I’m particularly passionate about women in leadership. I encourage our women leaders at Priory to undertake Master’s degrees, if that’s what they would like to do.

Two of my colleagues contacted me recently to say they had finished and were graduating – one with an MSc in Leadership & Management and the other an MSc in Dementia. They both said they wouldn’t likely have done these without the support at Priory. So proud of them.

What technology are you passionate about?

At work it’s about technology that allows people to become more independent. Many people don’t know that Priory has 218 care homes. Over 200 of these are focused on looking after people with learning disabilities and autism - so anything that can assist people to be more independent; maybe a communications tool or something that allows them to state a preference, or even sensory lighting.

I love any technology like this which makes a difference to someone’s life. In my personal life, as a one parent family and mum with two boys, I love my Apple watch – it can tell me the time while it’s taking my blood-pressure and makes it easier for me to communicate quickly with my sons, as I can speak into it.

How should the Human Resources function operate within any business?

Since being CEO, one of the essential senior roles I developed was chief people officer because I prefer the word ‘people’ to HR. Rightly or wrongly, it can be perceived in a certain way depending on who you are speaking to, ie HR is ‘coming’ or HR will support with that.

I believe we work in a people business, and people drive what we do - our values, how we care, how we support and all our new ideas. We do have HR because that’s the way it’s talked about, but HR for me is very much about supporting the workforce, developing them, listening and engaging. Sadly, sometimes we have to focus on under-performance but if we do it in the right way and a fair way, then that’s actually very productive for our teams and the patients and residents we care for and support – it’s important.

Jayne Stutt, who’s my chief people officer, is one of my closest advisors. I often run things past her. She’s also someone who will say ‘I’m not sure that’s the right thing’. She’s not a ‘yes person’. HR is part of the conscience of an organisation and is there to ensure an organisation does the right thing in respect of colleagues. 

What are your views on attracting talent and how do you go about it?

When I became CEO, Priory had significant headcount challenges and had done for over twelve months; turnover was high. I’m proud to say that the team and I have managed to reduce that, month on month, since March 2022.

I became CEO in November 2021.Our turnover is lower than pre-pandemic now. Under Jayne as Chief People Officer, I wanted to create a very senior position in the business of talent acquisition director. I wanted someone who was cutting edge, from a different sector with fresh ideas, and Emma Neary joined us in this role from moneysupermarket.com, and she really is revolutionising our approach, from improving how you apply for roles at Priory to reducing our on-boarding times. Some of our homes and hospitals need additional support, maybe they’re opening a new ward.

Part of Emma’s role is to support them to build their capability to recruit their own teams. In terms of retaining colleagues at Priory, we have seven strategic goals as an organisation and one of them is inclusivity and people feeling that they belong at Priory – feeling comfortable within their own teams. I’ve been a nurse for many years, and you deal with a lot. If you feel part of a team, you can weather a lot. Helping people feel that they belong, building strong teams and giving them a purpose, is so essential for me.

Every day, I’m talking to people, whether they’re in the finance department or in data or IT, saying to them ‘do you know what you did to help that patient or resident on their journey, because you supported that team, that in turn meant…’ so that everybody is reminded about how they are making a difference. 

Has diversity and inclusion now become embedded or is there still much more to do?

I think you have to continuously look at it and work at it, proactively. It’s not going to happen by itself, and it takes leaders to champion it and to want to understand the experiences of their colleagues.

We’ve got at least 10 diversity and inclusion networks at Priory with people who are in different roles within the organisation, chairing those networks. We have networks focused on neurodiversity, menopause, BAME, LGBTQ, parenting, a women’s and men’s network, and a disability network. As CEO, I’ve received a lot of feedback about our menopause network.

Every manager at Priory has to do menopause training. Women have written to me and said thank-you for putting my manager on that training, as I feel I can now talk about it. I’ve had male managers write to me and say I’m so glad I went on that training as previously I didn’t think I could ask questions without somebody saying, ‘what are you asking me that for?’ .They now feel they are able to offer support and that’s a step forward. I had one colleague write to me to say that since joining the menopause network, she’d received such a brilliant level of support that she’d been able to stop taking anti-depressants. You can’t underestimate the positive impact networks like these can have.

I’m a big champion of care as a career, and would like to attract more men into care, as it’s often perceived as a women’s career and I would like more men to feel included and supported to pursue this path. 

What legislation would you amend or implement to support UK business

At Priory we employ 15,000 people. An area I’d be keen to change is around funding in relation to health and social care. As someone who is leading a health and social care organisation, I notice there are often debates about which part of the sector is going to fund someone’s support or care, and it can result in individuals staying in one environment for longer than they need. I would like to see a more unified approach to funding, based on the needs of each individual. I am hoping that the Integrated Care Systems will help with this.

In your opinion what elements are key to be a successful CEO?

You’ve got to set the vision for everybody, and the tone of the organisation. I think that’s very important. You’ve got to have a heart for people. I know there are some CEOs that can be quite aloof, but I’m a CEO who does go and see colleagues on a ward when I know they’ve been having a difficult time, and I think presence is important.

I also think you need to be dynamic so that you can respond effectively. You can’t be a person who is scared of change. One thing I remember learning from my time at Manchester Business School is that health and social care are complex, adaptive systems, so you have to be someone who can reposition and change.

As a CEO, you need to be quite data savvy from every perspective and be able to use the insight data gives you to inform your strategy and decision-making.

How would you describe your leadership style?  

I would describe myself as a situational leader. I think I can be quite a tough leader when things aren’t right. I probably learnt that it’s sometimes required, during my health visiting days. I remember dealing with a particular safeguarding issue.

I remember going to do a visit to a home and the lady made a disclosure of domestic abuse to me. Afterwards, going back to base, I shared with a more experienced health visitor that I felt rotten that you gain someone’s trust enough that they tell you their biggest secret and then you have no choice but to go and tell somebody else. Of course, this is done to safeguard people but as a young health visitor, I found it hard. The advice he gave me was: 1) they felt certain enough to tell you and they wanted to tell you, or they wouldn’t have and 2) you’ve always got to keep the child at the centre of all your practice, as that child has no choice but to be there. I’ve kept that insight close throughout my career.

When I look at a patient or resident, there can be many explanations for their circumstances, but if it’s not good enough for them, then I’ve got no qualms about making tough decisions to improve matters. I always give people the chance to develop and be nurtured, but I’ll always be quite hard on values and behaviours that are not positive culture carriers.

I can be quite transactional, when we’re in a crisis, I just need to say what needs to happen. I think it’s situational leadership and most of the time you’re adapting according to what situation you’re dealing with. Sometimes you need to be more empathetic, sometimes you need to be transformational and inspirational to people to show them the next place we’re going. Every day, you need to adapt according to the situation that you’re in.

What is your biggest career highlight or achievement to date?

Well, I’m the first female CEO at Priory. I think that’s an achievement. I never thought I’d get here, but I had that drive to keep making a difference and to keep developing where I needed to. For example, someone would say to me ‘oh you’re a nurse’ and that would prompt me to think, I must learn more about business, or I must learn how strategy works. I was very proud to get my Master’s degree from Manchester Business School, many years ago now. I’ve always loved learning so that was a proud moment.

In terms of achievement, I managed to get two very important business cases over the line with investors. One of them was to have electronic records in all 200 of our care homes and that’s being rolled out now. That will revolutionise things, releasing time to care and making sure we have even better audit trails.

The second one was introducing the Real Living Wage for support workers and healthcare assistants, and investing in that, which highlights how important we consider these roles at Priory, and how we consider care as a career. Again, I couldn’t have achieved this alone and having the right team behind you is so important. 

What’s next for you and Priory?

For me personally, I just want to be the best CEO for Priory that I can be. We integrated with MEDIAN, which is a big German company, and it’s gone really well and had many benefits. Five of our seven strategic goals are the same as MEDIAN’s, so our organisations are well-aligned. Having clinical pathways that go from very high acuity to less intense support is one of them. That’s very important and we’re bedding this in, and connecting health and social care pathways and trying to lead the way, especially in supporting people with complex autism, who’ve been in hospital for many years, to transition into the community.

I really want Priory to be an employer of choice in the health and social care sector. That means making sure that our values are right, making sure people are welcomed, that they get the support, that they get the development they need, and we support as many people as we can. I often talk about how we respond to need, and how we must use the capacity we have throughout the UK to support those who need it.

Out of all the mental health beds in the country, both NHS and independent sector, Priory accounts for 10% of inpatient beds already, so we are a big and trusted provider. We are currently at maximum occupancy in our care homes within the social care part of our business, so our focus is on reopening some of our wards and redeveloping hospitals within our estate in different parts of the country to help more people who need us. We’re opening a new hospital in Cardiff at the moment. Last year, we opened Barnt Green in the Midlands. I do see Priory as a key partner to the NHS and as someone who has worked in the NHS, I am passionate about meeting the needs of people in the UK and delivering high quality services and support. It means a lot to me that we do an excellent job for them, which we do, and I’m excited about the future of Priory. 

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