Professor Mary Watkins – Baroness Watkins of Tavistock

Baroness Mary Watkins

Mary has had a tremendous career and really shown how you can work your way up the ranks with support from the right people – both formally and informally.  Read about her experience in the House of Lords!  I must add that Mary is the most down to earth person and I greatly enjoy working alongside her in social housing.

Name: Professor Mary Watkins, now Baroness Watkins of Tavistock

Interviewer: Sally Higham

Where are you based for work and what do you do?
My main base now is at the House of Lords on the cross benches. I also have two Non Executive Director appointments, which include the social housing group Aster and the South West Ambulance Foundation Trust. These two roles reflect my interest in social housing and disability. I am also a trustee for an Academy School and separately, a small drug treatment centre.

Did you train for a specific job?
Yes, I trained to be a nurse in the 1970s and was rapidly promoted. I went back to university and did a Masters in Health Studies and Economics and then I was a University lecturer for several years. I gained my PHD part time and went on to become a Professor of Nursing. This was followed by my role as Deputy Vice Chancellor for Health, Education and Science at Plymouth University. I retired in 2012 and was then appointed to the House of Lords.

So what does a typical day look like for you?
It’s mostly emails, papers, then off to work for the House of Lords – I could be carrying out work for one of our charities or my work as NED. I work around 3.5 days a week.

You’ve achieved so much already, what are your aspirations for your career in the future?
I would quite like to be on the Board as a Trustee of a national charity – the right one in time. That would be a real use of my talents. My choice would be a mental health or older peoples charity. I would also like to influence policy in my role at the House of Lords.

Can you tell me about a defining moment of your career?
There are two things that come to mind. I got impatient when change wasn’t happening in one of my early roles and so I focused on getting promotion to influence change. Then when I was selected they provided a ‘women through the glass ceiling course’, which I attended. You were given a mentor and were also given management and leadership training – this was a very interesting experience.

The second time was when I had a boss who was also a medic – he encouraged me to move away from my nursing ‘box’ and to embark on a leadership course. He encouraged me to think more widely as a leader.

Who helped you along the way? Did you have formal or informal mentors?
Apart from that leader I have already mentioned there was a Chief Nurse who informally helped me along the way at the London Teaching Hospital – but it wasn’t a formal structure. I think in an ideal world it needs to be someone you get on with. It can be hard to pin down a formal mentor if the match isn’t right.

Have you changed direction in your career. Did you ever swerve off course?
No I have never been adventurous! However I have developed and have never stopped reading or learning. I am interested in economics and therefore I read a lot around that. It helps me in my NED role – I can do numbers if I need to!

What are the worst and best bits about your work?
I find the worst bit is some of the IT I have to deal with. Answering ‘reply all’ emails drives me bonkers and email chains too. I prefer to sort it out via phone calls. Secondly in the health service there is not enough money to match quality – this is more of a problem than it was twenty years ago. It’s a constant juggle.

The best bits have been making a difference to mental health nursing. We are now much better at looking after people in the community. And being in the House of Lords makes me feel I can really make a difference. For example I’ve been appointed to a committee that looks at the licensing act (i.e. whether to sell alcohol in the middle of the night) and you have to consider the consequences to the public. I like to think that in some small way I can contribute and influence.

(At this point Sally tried to draw Mary on some House of Lords titbits…’Some of the traditions at the House take ages and feel like a waste of time. I’m a bit new to have anything more constructive to add to that!’

What helps you to stay interested/excited in what you do?
Externally I’m very driven by making lives better for people who have mental health problems or learning disability challenges. In housing I believe that social policy should be structured that the poorest and most disadvantaged have comfortable lives. I get a lot of personal reward if we build a new home for someone with dementia.

I worked in both general and mental health nursing and I had some personal experience of issues in the mental health area when I was a teenager and luckily I was able to get treatment – but it’s not readily available.

My personal motivation is that I get bored easily!

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