If you were 20 and was told to go buy a family home and settle your younger siblings in a big city far from your Midlands roots, could you do it? As horrified as my Page 1 Woman was, she rose to the challenge and excelled. In fact my Page 1 Woman has led a life characterised by big challenges which would have fazed many. When just 14 years old, she took responsibility for the care of her seriously ill mum and became a surrogate mother to her 3 younger siblings. Whilst she did well, it meant that she had to leave school at 16 and sacrifice the opportunity of a university education. However, there were pay-offs. The experience developed her skills, confidence and drive to prove herself and succeed. And over time these personal assets got her noticed and brought her a parade of career opportunities which she grabbed with both hands whilst keeping a keen eye on the bigger picture. Quite a Page 1 Woman, indeed!
With 17 years as an NHS employee and now a consultant, Shahheen Saiyed is a self-leader with a sweet spot for problem solving and helping organisations achieve extraordinary results. Perhaps her teacher, Estelle Morris (former Labour minister for education), recognised her potential because she encouraged and supported the teenaged Shahheen as she took on the pressures of premature family responsibilities. ‘She always gave me hope that I would do well’, says Shahheen. And she has indeed, done well. So, here’s Shahheen Saiyed in her own words.
Describe your work and what you do
Shahheen Saiyed: I’m the director of Access2Consultancy, a management consultancy that offers complex healthcare solutions to the NHS and problem solving solutions to housing associations and charities. Such organisations handle change projects in which significant efficiencies need to be delivered, usually within challenging timescales. They may struggle to implement the strategy on the ground or they’ve a specific assignment that requires an exact outcome but simply don’t have the people in-house with the necessary skills or experience. I’ve developed a powerful tool called the Peak Performance Initiator to help organisations implement improvement strategies so that they deliver enhanced services to customers, overcome challenges in their systems and develop processes so they increase cost-effectiveness.
What essential steps did you take to get to where you are today?
Shahheen Saiyed: In the beginning, I would always ask myself, “Who am I? What is my purpose? How can I make a difference?” I looked at my mother, who came to this country from Malawi, and became recognised in her new local community for being the best seamstress of Asian clothes. From her, I learned the determination and persistence to answer such questions.
I come from a large family with a cultural mindset of helping everybody else. When I was caring for my mum it got me thinking “I’ve got to do this on a bigger scale.” As I got older and my mum got better I started looking for a local job that would open an opportunity for me to start helping others. I remember phoning the local job centre in Coventry and within half an hour I had an interview arranged. I thought, “This has got to be mine.” And it was – my first job as a welfare rights officer, aged 19. I got to know everybody locally – clients struggling with welfare matters; passport or benefits applications. You name it.
When the family moved to London I started working in a nursing home and some of the doctors said, “Come and work as a practice manager. Do two weeks in our surgery and see what it’s like.” I did that at a practice in Twickenham. The doctor was so pleased that I trained as a practice manager. Whilst on the course, the tutor, the Director of Services in what was then called the “Family Practitioner Committee”, suggested I apply for one of the roles and I ended up in 1990 working as a Quality Assurance Assistant in the FPC. Once there I decided that every two years I would embark on a new role with new responsibilities. I wanted to push myself to grow and succeed.
There was a critical moment that opened my eyes. From September 1992 I supported the quality assurance team for two years, investigating complaints against GPs, dentists and opticians. One day, we got a complaint. I didn’t know him but I treated every call in the same manner. A year on, he won his case. He called the office to say how delighted he was and he revealed himself as the editor of the national “Today” newspaper. He wanted to do an article and say how brilliant I had been throughout the complaints process. He went on GMTV and he was so pleased that justice had been done. What I learnt then was to always be on top form as you don’t know who’s watching and when you’ll get recognised.
Within two days of the press going out I was headhunted by Croydon Health Authority who asked if I was interested in a vacancy for a Quality Assurance Officer/Service Development Manager. It was 20 or so miles away but I didn’t care because that role allowed me to fast-track my career. After about 5 years I got headhunted again for a secondment in Hounslow where I lived. I ended up getting a senior management role. Every two years I just took on another role. Luck played a part but nothing would have happened if I hadn’t worked hard and stuck to my self-development plan.
So it’s 2007 and I’ve done some amazing projects. But one massive project in particular gave increased credibility to my CV. I was leading one of the largest health facility LIFT developments, working with the commissioning team and a partnering organisation providing estates expertise. Before the building was ready the organisation I worked for was being reorganised. My role was at risk. They said I might have to leave before the new building project was complete. However, not getting completion felt wrong and so I asked the CEO to let me see the project through so that I could ensure that the right services were in place for patients. Fortunately he agreed! What this taught me was when you think everybody’s against you, you still have to remain firm and focussed on who you are serving (in this case the patients).
What was your most significant learning?
Shahheen Saiyed: Go for opportunities but don’t sacrifice your health or your family for success. There were times that I gave to the health sector when I wanted to make a difference and forgot that I had a family. Fortunately I had a very supportive husband! I got drawn into the corporate machine and didn’t spend much quality time with my children. When you’re on that mission of making a difference it is easy and tempting to overwork yourself.
What was your most revelatory moment?
Shahheen Saiyed: I’ve got two. The first was when I received the scholarship from the King’s Fund – the NHS watchdog body, which enabled me to participate in their prestigious Senior Management Programme in 2000. I realised that someone saw something in me that needed to come out.
I left the NHS aged 40. I’d reached a crisis point and I thought my whole career had collapsed and I couldn’t carry on. I was desperate for a change of scenery and I went to Dubai with my husband and two children to find my purpose. I felt I had to reinvent myself. What I saw in Dubai were health services being developed at an embryonic stage. This helped me to think about how I could work differently. When I came back I bumped into an ex-colleague, a director in a large organisation and she asked me to do a piece of work for her. And from that moment, I started to work independently and went on to create my own business. I learned that you need to stay focussed on your aspirations. When you’re fully present to what’s available and the opportunity strikes, you have to take it.
What vital tools or resources have been crucial to your success?
Shahheen Saiyed: My husband. He’s a champion and supports me in everything I do. I also have supportive family, friends and networks that keep me energised. I invest in myself too for professional qualifications e.g. management, finance and coaching qualifications and self-development courses. They are all useful for my business and some I can use at home and in other contexts. My latest development is as a public speaker and coach at Andy Harrington’s Public Speakers Academy. I was putting my tool bag together without realising it and they’ve accelerated me to the next position and massively developed my confidence.
What do you understand by leadership?
Shahheen Saiyed: Leadership is about facing up to the challenges around you, taking control of the situation – even if it means going into unknown territories. When you do this you discover endless possibilities. So I thought that I, like my parents, could work hard, serve people and give back to the community. For me, that’s what leadership is about. It’s not always about going to the top. You can lead regardless of your level in the company.
What difference did it make for you in being an Asian woman leader?
Shahheen Saiyed: It makes me proud because I have a strong sense of belonging to the communities I am part of. Being Asian is a key part of my identity. And when I say Asian, of course my mother’s African element comes into it. I feel privileged to have benefited from a rich culture and a religious background with high moral values.
This has made me respect people regardless of their background. As an Asian role model I’m able to work with a wide range of people without compromising my values. I feel privileged to have played some small part in helping other Asian women to stand up and believe in themselves, and dispel any prevailing negative stereotypes about their place in the world.
What are your top tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?
Shahheen Saiyed: Discover who you are, your true purpose and learning style. Be open to feedback as this helps identify any blind spots. Never give up. Always ask, “What am I doing?” “How can I make a difference?” Stay tuned into ongoing professional development. When life throws a challenge, embrace it and learn from your mistakes. You become wiser.
Step out of your comfort zone. Try new things. For example, in the last 12 months, I’ve done two great coaching programmes – The One Command by Neslyn Druee-Watson and The Passion Test by Suzy Pool. Both have helped me to step up to another level. If I’d had access to these earlier I probably would have done much more in the same space of time. So I would definitely recommend Neslyn and Suzie – they help you get there.
To find out more about Shahheen, Access2Consultancy and her Peak Performance Initiator programme, see her Linked In page for more details. Her new web-site is under construction.
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