Leadership Spotlight – Dr Owen Williams OBE

Leadership Spotlight – Dr Owen Williams OBE Chief Executive, Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Trust

Tell us about your journey to becoming a leader.

When I left school, I got a job working for the Yorkshire Building Society as a Deeds Safe Filer, when mortgage deeds used to be paper, not digital as they are now. For me, that job was a crucial part of my career journey as I came to realise that if I did not do something more academic then opportunities for the future would be limited.

Whilst continuing in full time employment, I commenced part-time study starting with entry level BTEC qualifications working through to an MBA at the University of Huddersfield in 1999. Most recently I completed my Doctoral thesis on Addressing the challenge of appointing more public sector Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME) Chief Executives through utilising an Appreciative Inquiry research framework, which was awarded pre-pandemic in 2020.

I also worked for commercial companies like CACI, specialising in geodemographics and in advertising and marketing. I became Bradford Council’s first ever Director of Marketing and Communications, my first public sector job, which was another important breakthrough in my career and a real eye-opener into how the public sector supports local communities. From there I went onto my first Chief Executive (CEO) role at Rossendale District Council, which at that time was an organisation that was deemed by Government and the Audit Commission to be falling short in terms of delivering a high standard of services for the local community.

I subsequently enjoyed my time at Rossendale, especially working with colleagues and elected members, but due to my Dad becoming ill with vascular dementia, I decided to move closer to family and managed to secure the job as Deputy CEO of Calderdale Council, before becoming the CEO through a competitive process when my predecessor left.  After several years working in local government, I then moved to the role of CEO of Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Trust (CHFT) and have been that job since 2012.


How would you describe your leadership style?

I would base my style around the servant leader model (Greenleaf, 1977). I am very focused on creating the right conditions for people to help them become the best they can be. I also try and create situations where people are not only able to collaborate within a specific work context but also across specialities and cross-organisational. Part of that is the work we do around visioning using methods such as the 3Rs process ‘Reality + Response = Results’ (Corbet & Roberts, 2013, loc. 430) and understanding where we want to be in the future, trying to do that collaboratively, as well as creating autonomy for people to develop.


What values are most important to you as a leader?

Whether it is commercial, voluntary, or public sector, it is prioritising and meeting the needs of the customer, patient, or user alongside meeting the needs of the people or colleagues involved in providing the services or care. Developing a culture of care and placing just as much focus on our colleagues as we do with our patients and users.

It is not just about developing colleagues and helping them to be the best that they can be in a work context, but it is also about seeing the whole person beyond the boundaries of the organisation and supporting them in feeling included and respected in what matters to them as people. Whatever I do I always try to bring it back to two thoughts, is it helping the patients and/or helping those that provide the care to those patients?


What three key attributes do you think define a successful leader?

    • Continued self-awareness
    • Understanding the benefits of leading from the front but also being able to lead from the back
    • Knowing when it is appropriate to apply good ‘followership’ skills and competencies (Uhl-Bien et al., 2014).


Why do you think leadership development is important?

I am a great believer in continuing personal development and think I’ve shown that through my own career experience. The minute you think you have made it and have become the finished article – is the moment, in my humble opinion, that you have started to articulate the start of your own decline.

I have done quite a lot of leadership development training and it is still ongoing. Facets of my doctoral thesis were leadership development based. I am a big fan of coaching and mentoring which I access for myself but also encourage others to do the same. Development is not always about organisationally related development, it can (and should) be about development as a human being and a person.


What lessons have you learnt as a leader?

Communication is vital and you can never communicate and/or encourage dialogue enough in my opinion. Sharing stories is also fundamental. I know there are some people that do not believe in storytelling as a form of leadership, but I am with Gruber (2007, p.3) who stated that “many think it [storytelling] is purely about entertainment. But the use of the story not only to delight but to instruct and lead has long been a part of human culture”.


What has been your biggest challenge as a leader?

There have been challenges in every role that I have been in and not just as a CEO, throughout my whole career. Certainly, as the accountable officer there have been one or two exceptional moments but thankfully with the support of others I have been able to work things through.


What advice would you give to aspiring leaders?

Work on your self-awareness and understanding and be alert to the distinction between great leadership and management. In this regard I have always found Seddon’s (1992) diagrammatic depiction of this difference in his book titled ‘I Want You to Cheat’ very useful.

Also, it is important to understand that leadership is not about hierarchy or being given a title of authority. As a colleague of mine, Rob Webster, would say, we should seek to encourage ‘leadership in every seat’ and I think that is a mindset that everyone should have. Leaders should not lose sight of either the people that they serve or the people that they are leading to serve other people.

And if you can, avoid trying to be a totally different person to who you naturally are, even though it may feel like society and other people want you to conform to be something else. Have regard to what Goffee & Jones (2017) suggested in terms of ‘Be yourself. More. With skill.’


Can you recommend any good leadership books?

I am currently reading a combination of ‘Red Summer’ (McWhirter, 2012) which I am finding a very challenging read to stomach from a leadership perspective, as well as something much more enjoyable which is a Japanese manga book called “Naruto Shippuden” (Saborido & KIshimoto, 2016) which really highlights the distinction between leadership and management. The following bibliography captures these books and others that I have referenced in this piece:

Checkland, P., & Poulter, J. (2010). Soft systems methodology. In Systems approaches to managing change: A practical guide (pp. 191-242). Springer, London.

Corbet, D., & Roberts, I. (2013). From know-how to do-how: The short and simple guide to making change happen. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Greenleaf, R.K. (1977) Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Paulist Press, New York.

Goffee, R., & Jones, G. (2017). Why should anyone be led by you? In Leadership Perspectives (pp. 325-332). Routledge.

Guber, P. (2007). The four truths of the storyteller. Harvard Business Review, 85(12), 52

McWhirter, C. (2012). Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America. United States: St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

Saborido Vert, A., Kishimoto, M. (2016). Shippuden. Spain: Planeta.

Seddon, J. (1992). I Want You to Cheat! The Unreasonable Guide to Service and Quality in Organisation. United Kingdom: Vanguard Press.

Uhl-Bien, M., Riggio, R. E., Lowe, K. B., & Carsten, M. K. (2014). Followership theory: A review and research agenda. The leadership quarterly, 25(1), 83-104. Why should anyone be led by you?


What career would you be doing if you weren’t doing the one you’re doing now?

Ideally playing cricket or basketball.

A successful leader will lead their companies through adversity, bringing them out the other side stronger and better than ever before.

Sir George Buckley

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