NHS finance careers: make your career count

In the first of a series of CIPFA webinars, leading senior finance professional and CIPFA member Bob Alexander talks with recently CIPFA-qualified financial planning analyst for NHS England Tahmid Ahmed about future careers in the NHS, crucial support for leadership, and why it’s vital to be open to change.

Being a finance professional in the healthcare sector is a challenging vocation, but also a rewarding and fulfilling one for those considering a career in finance.

As demonstrated in particular over the past 18 months in the NHS’s response to the COVID pandemic, the qualities demanded of the modern healthcare finance professional include flexibility, agility and responsiveness to fast-changing circumstances. Crucially, these must also be underpinned by the fundamentals of a solid foundation in robust public financial management. As the only professional accountancy body in the world exclusively dedicated to public finance, CIPFA's portfolio of qualifications is the foundation for a career in public finance.

Bob Alexander (BA): What was it that made you want to join the NHS and the public sector finance family?

Tahmid Ahmed (TA): It started during university when I did a placement at University College London Hospitals – I very much knew early on that I wanted my career to have a greater goal than just making a profit. I wanted to give back to patients and the community, so I decided that I wanted my career to be focused on the public sector. While I was on my placement, I worked with great colleagues who were really focused on delivering the best care that they can to patients, and that really inspired me to move forward with my career within the NHS. After leaving university, I was accepted onto the NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme. Over the three-year scheme, I rotated around two main placements as well as across other areas within the organisation. I graduated in September, and although there have been challenges at times, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my career so far within the NHS, and my current role as a financial planning analyst at NHS England. I’m looking forward to how my career develops – hopefully it will be as broad and vast as Bob’s…

BA: I didn’t have the classic public sector finance professional’s career path – I certainly didn't set out with a plan for it to be so varied. I wanted a career in public sector finance but wasn't too specific about where – I just enjoyed the complexity of dealing with the social issues and challenges against the backdrop of often challenging financial circumstances. I first joined the London Borough of Wandsworth as an internal auditor, which, it turned out, was a fantastic way of getting around an organisation and understanding how a local authority works. It gave me a good grounding while still learning the technical issues around public sector finance, which was incredibly useful.

TA: I agree – getting that rounded experience on the grad scheme around many roles in finance really helps. I had the opportunity to work in management accounts, income, patient level costing and much more. I’d advise anyone not to close themselves off to opportunities that might be great for them, just because they have an idea of what their future might look like. I’m always open to new ones, because sometimes you need a challenge. You need to try something different.

BA: You’re so right. People shouldn’t be concerned about moving sectors. There’s an astonishing amount of transferable values, approaches and learning that operates across the public sector. The experiences that you get from operating in different environments and roles are very helpful and can be of considerable benefit.

TA: What would you say are the main skills you need for a long career in public finance?

BA: Luck – never underestimate the right time, right place element. But in many ways, a long-term career in public finance is no different to a long-term career in any area. You will always set out to do the best you can. Sometimes it’s more difficult than others, and sometimes there’s some difficult learning you have to take on. But always try not to restrict yourself – the more you experience “different”, the more you back yourself, the more confident you will become. Although you’re in the early stages of your career, it seems you’ve already done an awful lot. What sort of experiences do you want to have next?

TA: The NHS is changing dramatically over the next year or so with the move to integrated care systems – the whole landscape of how we commission and how we provide services is changing. The next step is to look at where my career fits in within the systems landscape and see if there are finance roles available within the organisational structures. But I’m open to opportunities, and there are many roles that might come up in NHS England in areas other than finance. For instance, I have a huge interest in digital transformation in the NHS. I had a two-month secondment at NHSX, which I really enjoyed, so if the opportunity does come up, I might explore other careers outside of finance, beyond the NHS as well. I would love to work in other public sector organisations, and I can bring that learning back to the NHS in the future. I want that broad range of experience, which is important to help make you a rounded finance professional.

BA: And although your career may take you into other areas and functions that are not classically financial, because of your training you will always be able to look at it through a financial lens. You will, obviously, develop other lenses, but you’ll never lose that financial perspective, which is a spectacularly useful skill and ability to have. With the changing landscape of the service, I expect it will be quite an exciting time for you. However, we do need to ensure that we’re developing our capability as well as our experiences in the areas of leadership, managerial techniques and so forth. Public sector organisations are certainly much more focused on doing that now than they were when I was starting out – management development and leadership development are far more accessible now.

TA: Absolutely. I think it’s essential now to get those softer skills, as well as the technical skills as you move further into your career. That support and leadership learning capability is easier to access nowadays. There are several mentoring schemes, for example, and sponsorship programmes, which I think are as essential to your career as your normal day job if you want to get to those senior leadership or board-level positions – as I hope to do. I would say, though, that leadership is about actions rather than positions. You can always make a difference regardless of your level. But there are plenty of other opportunities outside of mentoring and sponsorship that are available via One NHS Finance that any junior finance staff within the NHS or healthcare in general can access.

BA: That type of development opportunity is far more available and much better than I experienced back in the day. The more NHS finance people who are able to benefit from that, the better.

TA: There are so many resources that you can use not only for career development, but also to develop your finance skills within your trust or organisation as a whole, enabling us to work closer together and collaboratively use resources better. It’s great for the future.

BA: Even at my age, I’m still very proud to be part of the NHS finance family, as well as the wider public finance cadre. We have some of the most challenging roles in public sector finance, but we also have some of the most rewarding roles. When I finally hang my boots up, the key thing I can honestly say is I’ve never had a dull moment.

TA: I completely agree with that. Working in the public sector, and in the NHS in particular, you do really feel fulfilled in your work. You have the opportunity to be involved in large-scale projects or initiatives that help communities, help patients or, if you’re in other public sector organisations, help the community. And that’s something I’ve always wanted in my career.

BA: For me, the golden thread is a recognition in yourself that you played a part in something that has beneficially altered life for a group of people and that has made a difference. And that is pretty special.

Career opportunities

If you are thinking about a career similar to Tahmid’s, learn more about CIPFA’s Professional Accountancy Qualification.

If you’re in a similar role and would like to develop your skills further, CIPFA offers a number of CPD qualifications. And if you’re not sure what sort of skills you might need, our Key Competencies for Public Finance Professionals will help.

Meet our guests

Bob Alexander is the acting chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, a non-executive director (NED) at London Ambulance Service and, until recently, was the independent chair of Sussex Health and Care Partnership ICS. He is an associate (advisory) director with CIPFA, a NED and audit chair of Community Health Partnerships Ltd and a trustee/treasurer of the Demelza Children’s Hospice charity. He has extensive experience in senior management roles within the NHS, police and the private sector. Until early 2018, he was deputy CEO and executive director of resources at NHS Improvement following the joining of Monitor with the NHS Trust Development Authority, where he had held the positions of chief executive and director of finance.

Tahmid Ahmed has been a financial planning analyst at NHS England since July 2021 following three years on the NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme. He passed his CIPFA qualifications in September 2021. Prior to that, Tahmid graduated with a first-class honours degree in Accounting and Financial Information Systems from the University of Greenwich.

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