Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Hardev Virdee, Group Chief Finance Officer

Hardev VirdeeHardev Virdee is the Group Chief Finance Officer (CFO) for Barts Health NHS Trust in London, one of the largest NHS Trusts in England and one of Britain’s leading healthcare providers. Hardev took on this role in November 2019, following a successful spell as CFO at Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust.

Hardev’s career in the NHS began more than 20 years ago, when he joined the organisation’s graduate finance training scheme in 1996. It was as a graduate trainee that Hardev first began his CIPFA training, gaining his qualification in 2000. Hardev trained and worked in several roles in his native Birmingham and the West Midlands area before moving to London in 2007. He gained his first board role as Finance Director at Hounslow Primary Care Trust (PCT) in 2009, building up a portfolio of board roles across various NHS organisations before taking on his current role.

When did you first become attracted to a career in the public sector, and particularly public finance?

When I was studying Economics at the University of Manchester, it became clear to me that I wanted to work in finance. After leaving university, I spent a bit of time working in the private sector, in banking, while I was looking to get on to a good finance graduate training scheme.

I applied for various schemes in both the public and private sector, and I was offered a place on the NHS graduate training scheme. At the same time, the bank I was working for offered me a lucrative training scheme package, so I had to think really carefully about what was the best fit for me in terms of my values, what I really wanted to get out of my career, and what I wanted to achieve in the long term. And that led me to pursue a career in the NHS.

Why did you choose the public over private sector?

The idea of public service and making a difference was really important for me. What really swung it was what I had experienced in my upbringing. I grew up in a very deprived area where you could really witness the impact in differences in health and social economics, and the levels of inequality that existed. So I felt that I wanted to make a difference in helping to address the health inequalities that people faced, particularly where I grew up. That social conscience aspect played a big part in my decision. And I have found throughout my career, many other people working in the public sector have the same values – trying to make a difference and improving the quality of life for others.

What have been the highlights or biggest successes of your career to date?

My CIPFA qualification was the first highlight, because you have to work intensely, and it really opens the door for the rest of your career. Another significant moment in my career was gaining my first board role as a finance director at Hounslow PCT in 2009, at what was then a relatively young age. The first week in that role also coincided with me becoming a dad for the first time, and also buying a house, so that was a very memorable (and hectic) time for me! Another highlight happened last year, when I was nominated as NHS Finance Director of the Year. To get that recognition from colleagues and peers was really important for me.

Joining Barts Health NHS Trust was another big moment for me – being part of one of the largest healthcare organisations in the UK and Europe. Leading the finance function is a big challenge, and no sooner had I joined, we were facing a massive challenge with the COVID-19 pandemic. But being part of this organisation is also one of the most rewarding things – seeing how the NHS works to meet the challenges. That’s been an enormous privilege.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve given? And by whom?

The most helpful advice I’ve been given is “Know your weakness and surround yourself with good people.” It was from one of my finance directors when I was a trainee who gave me quite a lot of support. I could see how he’d built up a really strong team around him. The other piece of advice he gave was “Really know what you stand for and your values.” I like to think I’ve followed that advice throughout my career.

What advice would you give to people who are beginning their career in public finance?

If you want to make a difference, always keep that in mind every day. But also know why you are different as well – don’t mould yourself on individuals; learn from them and really keep challenging yourself to make that difference. Often you see people trying to learn management styles and techniques and try to replicate how a particular person does it. But if it rubs against their own values and personality, it doesn’t work and people can see through that.

You have to be really authentic to your values. That’s got to come through, so really work hard on understanding how you can translate that into your leadership style and your way of working.

How has being a CIPFA member supported you in your career?

I play an active role within CIPFA, sitting on a number of panels and groups. I’ve seen the support it provides to its members and I’ve found the ethics work done by CIPFA to be particularly helpful and supportive in dealing with more complex issues.

Some of CIPFA’s publications are really useful for guidance and it’s an organisation where you can source information, find real thought leadership and share knowledge with others within the public sector. It’s a great place, too, for people to find training and development, from student learning through to professional development.

What book/film/podcast would you recommend to anyone working in public finance?

There are two things. On a more lighthearted note, the first is the BBC’s W1A – that is often closer to reality than you might think for people working in the public sector.  There are lots of parallels.

On a more serious point, a book by Professor Sir David Winkley – Handsworth Revolution: The Odyssey of a School. He was my primary school headmaster (before he was either ‘Professor’ or ‘Sir’). He took on the challenge of working in a very deprived school that was really dysfunctional and turned it around. Since then, he’s led this revolution for how to change education. He’s a real thought leader, advising ministers and other countries on how to develop education systems. And he talks a lot about understanding the social aspects of a population, understanding how you get the most out of teaching the children, and he plays strongly on public values, too – what it means to work in the public sector.