Professor Nora Colton of UCL Global Business School for Health: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times
Recognise and celebrate successes. As a leader, you want to ensure that you don’t become so consumed by the uncertainty that you forget to recognise team members for their hard work and celebrate victories regardless of how small. I always try to ensure that myself and the team take the time to step back and enjoy our successes. I am a huge fan of workshops or even a once-a-month gathering where we focus on what we are getting right rather than what is going wrong. I always have mixed feelings about RAG rating tables as I see too many leaders and Boards grasp what is rated red and forget to see the green. Ensuring your team is recognised and celebrated is also a meaningful way to stay in a growth mindset when times are hard.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nora Colton, Professor and Director of the UCL Global Business School for Health, a new business school focused on addressing the challenges faced by healthcare systems today. Professor Colton is a health and international development economist with a wealth of experience in leadership and change management. In recent years, her research interests have moved increasingly towards the political economy of health with a focus on globalisation and non-communicable diseases.
Thank you so much for your time! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have always believed in the power of education and, notably, higher education for changing lives — especially my own. In the early part of my career, this passion led me to pursue a doctorate at Oxford University, where I specialised in economic development with regional expertise in the Middle East. My research focused on the impact that structural changes to an economy have on labour markets. I was convinced that if we could address the economic ills of low and middle-income countries, especially in the Middle East, we could make lives better. I spent a lot of time in the MENA region undertaking fieldwork, becoming fluent in Arabic along the way.
However, I learned that it is not quite that simple, and that politics and governance all play an integral role in determining the fate of so many people in the world. Through my experiences in the Middle East, I realised that poor governance was at the root of many issues that spilled over into so many areas of life. Across years of undertaking projects in low and middle-income countries in the Middle East, I also saw how important quality health and healthcare was to improving life outcomes. This observation led me to expand my area of expertise by branching into health economics and the political economy of health.
Yet, I realised that issues around health and healthcare are not just reserved for low and middle-income countries. The demographic changes such as ageing, lifestyle changes leading to non-communicable diseases, social and environmental determinants of health, and health inequalities all make the challenges around healthcare much more common across the world than we often like to admit.
The Covid pandemic has exposed how important it is to get healthcare right, but it is not just about training more doctors. It is about how we manage our healthcare systems. Consequently, I took my current role as the Director of the UCL Global Business School for Health (GBSH) because I am super passionate about making a difference in the world. What better way than helping healthcare managers and leaders reimagine healthcare through postgraduate training and education that contributes to ensuring we reshape our health ecosystems for a healthier tomorrow.
What motivates you?
Making a difference in the lives of others is what gets me up in the morning. I am the type of person that must have a purpose. I feel so incredibly fortunate to contribute in some small way to improving the quality of healthcare people receive through the training and development that we instil in our students who go on and make a real difference to healthcare leadership and management. I want to ensure we have graduates who don’t just make some changes at the edges of healthcare but are prepared to reform and rethink health systems and care in new and innovative ways for patients and the wider societies they live and work in.
When I was a child, my father always said, “family then work” and then he became quite ill and would always say, “health, family, and work” — we are nothing without our health.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leadership is never easy, but during challenging times, leaders must be resilient. You cannot give up, as you need to be there for your people and keep reminding them why what they do is essential for the organisation. Leaders must own the vision and help others within the organisation remain calm and able to visualise a less challenging tomorrow.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
When the future seems very uncertain, leaders need to be sensitive to their teams by listening and ensuring that they respond proactively. Leaders must recognise that times are difficult in an authentic manner so their teams can see they appreciate what they are also experiencing. Still, they also must enable solutions and innovations that help address the uncertainty and help others recognise that they can move past this moment as a team and emerge stronger.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leaders must take the long view and not overreact to short-term unpredictable moments. The worst types of leaders are those that over-react and jerk their organisations around responding to short-term change. Good leaders are agile, but they also understand the foundation of their organisation and the core competencies and values that must remain while reshaping those areas that need flexing. I like to think about it as a leader riding the waves rather than getting cast about in a storm.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each if you can.
1. Collect enough information to take-action
In my experience, leaders can sometimes feel paralyzed when there’s a lot of uncertainty and turbulence. It comes back to the idea of “fight or flight.” Some leaders kick into overdrive, making ill-informed decisions that can add to the uncertainty and not necessarily deliver good results. Other leaders ignore the uncertainty and keep moving forward as if nothing has happened. These leaders eventually get caught out.
My approach, which has been endorsed in numerous articles and studies, is to make informed decisions but recognise that your experience as a leader will suffice for some information. The reason is that the situation is changing all the time. If you keep trying to wait for the right moment to take-action, it will never materialise. Your experience as a leader is invaluable in such situations to know when you have reached the point for addressing the problem in a proactive and informed matter that will ensure you thrive during these uncertain times.
When I was appointed Director of the Global Business School for Health, it was an exhilarating time on the one hand and, also, very uncertain given that we were in a pandemic and lockdown. There were many tasks to get underway as a “start-up” department in a large organisation, but it was not business as usual. Moreover, universities in general and business schools were on a rollercoaster of ups and downs with student numbers, changing market demands for graduates, modes of delivery, etc. This situation required me to gather real-time market intelligence and leverage my decades of experience in higher education to prepare a vision of what the School could potentially look like and begin to plan and action that vision. I used several valuable resources to make my decisions, such as labour market data and survey research of both employers and prospective students. Lastly, I took the opportunity of the virtual space to interview over a hundred key health and healthcare influencers who I would have never had access to in any other circumstances. Collecting this information and then acting on it has meant that we have created the first business school for health ready to meet the needs of our prospective students, employers and global society. If I had waited for the right time or the uncertainty to go away — I would be still waiting.
2. Bring stakeholders along
It is integral that leaders are much more visible in times of uncertainty and change, listening and responding to the thoughts and feelings of their team and stakeholders. As a “start-up department” in a new space within a big organisation such as UCL, as well as the business school arena, I must constantly be networking and interacting with colleagues both within the organisation and outside to ensure that I keep my sponsors on board as well as understand the shifting health and healthcare landscape. It is easy to get caught up in work and forget the importance of the people side of what you are doing as a leader. I find stakeholder mapping helpful in keeping me in the right headspace and working those relationships to get early feedback on what I am doing and my team. I look at it as a continuous 360 feedback loop that aligns me with the broader ambition of those who are sponsoring and championing my projects.
The need for good planning, both short-term and long-term, cannot be underestimated. When times are uncertain, it’s that long view and strategic plan that helps guide us through the turbulence. Throughout my career, I have found that developing a draft strategy and plan as early as possible that is high-level enough to flex and adapt is invaluable for when things become less clear. It gives you something to hold on to and a place where you can articulate your risks and mitigation plans. One of the reasons high-level strategies don’t get delivered is that specific plans and risk registers do not accompany them. If you are in for the long road ahead, you need to ensure you have the right equipment, milestones, and plans in place, including contingencies.
4. Recognise and celebrate successes
As a leader, you want to ensure that you don’t become so consumed by the uncertainty that you forget to recognise team members for their hard work and celebrate victories regardless of how small. I always try to ensure that myself and the team take the time to step back and enjoy our successes. I am a huge fan of workshops or even a once-a-month gathering where we focus on what we are getting right rather than what is going wrong. I always have mixed feelings about RAG rating tables as I see too many leaders and Boards grasp what is rated red and forget to see the green. Ensuring your team is recognised and celebrated is also a meaningful way to stay in a growth mindset when times are hard.
5. Stay rested so you can respond effectively
As a leader, it is essential to remember that you are not a super-human and need to manage yourself and your team. There has been enough written by now that we all know the dangers of burnout or poor decision-making when our minds and bodies are not rested, but when times are uncertain, leaders often forget this principle. It is not just about protecting yourself, but your organisation to respond and act in the best headspace.
Throughout my career, I have learned how to spot when I am overworking, and it is not just about hours; it is about how I am feeling and productivity. When I start to see my responses and productivity drop, I ensure to give myself a “time-out.” A few days away, I have learned my productivity and confirm that I am fresh and positive for confronting the unknown.
Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favourite life lesson quote is, “Sometimes you have to treat people differently to treat them fairly.” I think there are many versions of this quote, but it always resonates with me. I believe in affirmative action. I don’t believe in the law of averages. Most of us are not average. Throughout my career, I have seen students struggle in education systems and classrooms designed for the average student. I have worked very hard to ensure that myself and colleagues see what is unique in each student as well as ourselves and build on that potential. As we move education more online and enable the use of AI and other innovations, I look forward to a day when we can have personalised education experiences as well as personalised healthcare.
If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be
I would tell myself to slow down and enjoy the journey. Each stage in our careers and lives is rich, but we miss out on some of the more nuanced moments with our teams and family by focusing on outcomes rather than the journey.
What are your hopes for the future and the UCL Global Business School for Health?
I have so many thoughts about this evolving Global Business School for Health. I want it to be so much more than education and training. I want it to be a place where extremely busy health professionals come together regardless of their role and professional healthcare hierarchies and learn with and from each other. I imagine it as a place where our global health sector can get some needed white space to reimagine the healthcare management ecosystem together and for a healthier world.
Thank you for your time! We wish you continued success!