Dame Marianne Griffiths, Senior NHS Leader

Published on: 31 Aug 2023

AUTHORS:  Dr Sanketh Rampes and Dr Anvarjon Mukhammadaminov 

In this series the Medspire team interviews doctors about their career, their specialty, the choices they have made and their advice for doctors and medical students.

Today, the subject is Dame Marianne Griffiths, one of the longest-serving senior leaders in the NHS, having served as chief executive of University Hospitals Sussex and its predecessor organisations for over 14 years. She led Western Sussex Hospitals to become the first acute trust to be rated outstanding in all five areas inspected by the CQC.

This article is an abridged version of the interview. The full podcast is available here:

How did you get to where you are today?

I grew up in Ireland and came over to do my nurse training about 40 years ago. I then read psychology at Exeter University. After that, I felt I should have some business training, so I trained as a chartered accountant with KPMG. For 14 years I was chief executive of a number of acute trusts. It's been the greatest privilege of my life. 


Why did you describe your role as chief executive of University Hospitals Sussex as “the best job in the world”? 

Working in a hospital, you've got a clear sense of purpose. You know you're doing something worthwhile, you're delivering care. You're working in teams. As a clinician or a nurse you can change the life of an individual patient, or a number of patients. As you progress you can actually change the life for your whole population in your area, and deliver better healthcare services.


How have you dealt with resistance to change?

You will always have naysayers and people who go along with things because, “yes, it seems to be working”. Not everyone is going to be evangelical about things. 


What makes a great leader?

Having a clear purpose – know where you are aiming – and communicate that to your staff and others. You need to be curious, constantly challenge yourself and take the organisation with you. It’s also about having humility, seeking help from others, and remembering: “I'm only as good as the shoulders of the staff that I stand on”. 


How do you make individual employees in a large organisation feel valued? 

It’s about recognition, reward, feeding back to people, and being as visible as possible. It’s also how you make people feel – you can have great policies and procedures, but in the end it's about connecting and building on each other's passion for a certain outcome, and constantly nourishing that.


What advice would you give about driving improvement?

You can't do it alone. If you're a frontline worker, you've got to go to your execs and say: “We need a system – a bit of architecture to hang our improvement effort on.” We [may] see great people doing great things but this doesn't get anywhere, not because of their lack of effort, but because it's not connected to the priorities of the organisation. It’s also about supporting and helping each other. Everyone needs a buddy to help them along the way. 


What are some of your proudest achievements?

I'm very proud of our Patient First Improvement System that we had the humility to learn from others on how to do it. I’m proud we set up an ambassador's programme - the very positive people in the organisation are our ambassadors for that programme, and speak well of the organisation.

I am also proud of our recognition and inclusion events – our Star Awards [staff awards] are the most humbling events. The joy they bring takes you back to what's important. 


“I'm always learning from people. That journey never ends”.


Are there any key role models who have inspired you?

In my early years, I worked for a female chief executive. I learned so much from her. She had integrity, she never misled –her word was her bond. Even in really testing times, she never crossed the line, and I admired that so much. My mother was amazing.

She was a feminist: ‘you could be and do anything you want’ was a thread through her life. I've also worked with some amazing clinicians whose compassion, and the way they approach their work and the dignity they show their patients, moves me still. I'm always learning from people. That journey never ends.


Is there any advice you have been given during your career that you wish everyone would receive?

You have to be yourself. Somebody once said to me: 'Be yourself more, but with skill’. You can't be somebody else because you won't be authentic. Be comfortable with your style of leadership. Don't lose yourself because you see somebody who is ‘glitzier’ with it. You won't be able to be them, but you can be a better you.


Medspire podcasts are produced by Dr Sanketh Rampes and Dr Anvarjon Mukhammadaminov, both full-time junior doctors. They aim to inspire the next generation of doctors and scientists by exploring the career journeys of leading clinicians and researchers.