Coffee with Melinda Johnson – Health Commercial Director Impresses at HCSA Event

We’re going to have a few articles this week (and probably into next) about last week’s HCSA (Health Care Supply Association) conference, covering my own session and the couple of others I caught during the first day.

So today, let’s start at the top with a story I told the audience about Melinda Johnson, the relatively new Department of Health Commercial Director. Back when she worked for CIPS and I was on the CIPS Board of Management, a handful of us went on a media training day at Warwick University, just in case we ever had to represent the Institute on the TV, radio or in the press.  (I did do BBC breakfast TV twice, not a very enjoyable experience to be honest).

Part of that training was mock TV interviews, conducted by a real live journalist in a real live studio – quite intimidating actually, but fun once you got used to it.  We were taught that in an interview, when you get asked a question that you don’t really know the answer to, you just have to say something that sounds vaguely credible – and say it with confidence.

So, Peter, how do you think the latest results of the CIPS Markit Purchasing Managers Index will affect the forthcoming general election”?

Now the real answer is, of course “I have no idea, you fool, how am I supposed to know that, I’m only a procurement director!”  But that doesn’t come over too well. So what you say is this.

Well, that’s an interesting question, Brian. Clearly if the figures for manufacturing in particular continue to disappoint, then the party in power may feel a little nervous about their prospects on June 15th ….”

So Ian Taylor and I had no issue or problem with waffling in that sort of manner. In fact, although I say it myself, I felt I was a natural at talking in a convincing, if fundamentally meaningless, fashion. A talent our readers may consider I have evidenced on a daily basis for some years.

But while Melinda Johnson looked and sounded great on the “TV” there was one problem. She had a real problem with waffling, which just wasn’t her thing at all. If she didn’t have the knowledge to comment properly, she tended to tell the interviewer just that. She was fine when she felt she could answer and knew her stuff, but basically, she struggled with the bulls**t.

Back to the HCSA event; I managed to catch her for a few minutes over a coffee and reminded her of this episode. “I did get better, I explained the CIPS PMIs to the media for a couple of years after that!”she said. But I explained that I looked back on her aversion to waffle as a very positive trait, not a negative – with her, I do believe that what you see is what you get, a very straightforward and genuine person.

And remarkably, she is the first DH Commercial Director in living memory to actually be a procurement professional. Pat Mills, Peter Coates, Ken Anderson, that other American who didn’t last long … all good people in their own way but none of them with a procurement background.

We picked up two key principles that seem to be guiding her work - building collaboration and looking at how she can help people at the front line.  For instance, she told me that she has started a "strategic commercial steering group" involving the whole health family, with key people from the different NHS organisations. She appears to recognise that her direct “power” is in many ways limited, so she has to work through others, via effective persuasion, encouraging collaboration and using her role to support and develop the network of Trust (and other) procurement leaders.

I was disappointed that I had to miss her speech on day two, but we hear it went down well as she focused strongly on that aspect of how she can support the Trusts.  She is also looking to act as an effective liaison with Gareth Rhys Williams in Cabinet Office, for instance, by making some of the Cabinet Office training available to NHS people.

Back to our coffee - she told me that she has been out and about meeting people, which was something previous job holders perhaps should have done more often. She is a northerner of course, and lives in the East Midlands, so is not afraid of leaving London - another positive trait! She is developing a "northern branch" of the Government Commercial Organisation, which is a great idea.

So if you are a Trust procurement leader with an interesting story to tell, do get in touch with her.  I’m sure she will be happy to talk and she wants to learn about good practice in the system, and understand what can and should be spread more widely. We wish her well.

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  1. Michael Thornton:

    “She is also looking to act as an effective liaison with Gareth Rhys Williams in Cabinet Office, for instance, by making some of the Cabinet Office training available to NHS people.”

    Perhaps a good addition to this idea is to have it the other way around as well, so make NHS training/starter courses available to Cabinet Office / GCO people to start mixing more of the NHS procurement skill set and create a wider base of workforce who could be considered for interim / perm roles in NHS? Could be beneficial when considering problems created by caps / IR35 / salaries not being competitive.

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