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Dame Donna Kinnair on the challenges, triumphs and tragedies which have led her to become RCN Chief Executive & General Secretary

It’s been a year since Donna took on the top job at the RCN. The organisation was facing an uncertain future at the time, its chief executive having left suddenly last August. Donna, who was then leading the RCN nursing department, was asked to step up to steady the ship.

“It was a difficult time,” she recalls. “Members were angry and staff were feeling vulnerable. There were so many things to deal with, all of them equally urgent. Emotions were running high but I had to remain focused on making sure the organisation was running properly.”

Donna, who is now the RCN’s permanent Chief Executive & General Secretary following a competitive recruitment process earlier this year, was well prepared to take charge. A highly experienced nurse leader, she is able to wrestle competing demands and make critical decisions.

She threw herself into the job, arriving at work before 7.30am on the back of her husband’s motorbike. “I had to be present, to be here and tackle things head on. I drew on a whole range of skills that I’ve developed throughout my career.”

There have been many times in my career when I’ve had to have nerves of steel to keep my composure when I’ve been panicking inside

That career has been hugely varied and included retail management, health visiting, legal training and nurse director posts. But she says the job most similar to her current role is that of Director of Commissioning for the London Borough of Southwark and Southwark Primary Care Trust, which she did between 2008 and 2012.

It involved balancing the requests of local authority councillors and influential MPs alongside the needs of the local community. She had to navigate her way through the pressures placed on her while making sure quality services were provided by skilled staff. “It was such a demanding role, I think it bore well for me to do any job,” she says.

But the role also presented Donna with the biggest ethical dilemma she’s faced as a nurse. One of her staff members was shot dead while in the home of a person he was providing care for. Donna had to deal with the aftermath and decide whether community care should be suspended.

“I don’t think you can be in a darker place than having to face people who have suffered the trauma of losing a loved one while on duty,” she says. “The patient was paraplegic and required ventilation. But he was also a gang member. It was a safety risk to have my staff in his home.”

Though she warned against it, she was told she must resume care. Four years later, gun shots were fired at the house again. Nobody was hurt this time, but Donna put her foot down and insisted nursing care was no longer provided in the home.

“That’s the worst position I’ve ever been in,” Donna says. “The pressure of making that decision, and doing the right thing, balancing the needs of the patient against the safety of my staff. I don’t think there can be many jobs harder than that.

“There have been many times in my career, though, when I’ve had to have nerves of steel to keep my composure when I’ve been panicking inside.

“My daughter says I’m unflappable, but that’s not necessarily true. My first priority is always to look after those around me. So I might behave like things don’t affect me because I have to maintain my ability to deal with a situation. But you might sit back later and fall apart. Nobody sees that.”

Donna’s also talking about her approach to dealing with personal bereavement, which she experienced at a young age. She is one of eight siblings and has lost two brothers. One died from a neurological condition when she was 14, the other as a result of a medical mishap. The death of her nephews, both tragically killed in separate car crashes, also shook her to her core.

So how does Donna keep her outward composure?

“I think practice makes perfect,” she muses. “I also cycle and quite often talk to myself. If there’s something bothering me, I have to talk it through. But I’m not shy about seeking help from other people or afraid of having a real conversation about an issue with someone else. 

“I also think you learn from situations. So I try to take time to reflect. But I’m by no means perfect. I really have to force myself to listen, as well as talk. And I can get myself in trouble by speaking my mind. That’s who I am, I’m not going to be able to change that, but I do try to moderate a little.”

As for her biggest strength, perhaps it’s her optimism. “I never say never and can always see the good in things. I think that’s quite important.”

But it’s maybe her tenacity that has got her where she is today. “I love the experience of overcoming fears,” she confesses. “I get a bit of a rush by being pushed to the limit and being able to remain calm, thinking ‘I can do this’.” 

I never say never and can always see the good in things. I think that’s quite important

That trait was tested, though, in the role she undertook immediately prior to working at the RCN. Donna had been drafted in to sort out the struggling A&E function at Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust. 

“I laughed when I was first contacted about the job,” Donna recalls. “I said ‘you’re joking’. I hadn’t worked in a hospital for 20 years and the unit was running with a 76% nurse vacancy rate. 

“But then the idea began to grow and I started to think how much I would enjoy having contact with patients, clinicians and nurses and being in a position to help turn things around.

“So it was a brave job to take, and a real test of my mettle. But it was brilliant to be back on the floor with patients and to empower people to have ideas to improve things. We had to start from scratch, redesigning the A&E so it flowed properly. It took two and a half years but we did it.”

I’m by no means perfect. I really have to force myself to listen, as well as talk. And I can get myself in trouble by speaking my mind

RCN Chief Executive & General Secretary Dame Donna Kinnair in her office

Although Donna succeeded in turning the department around, the stress of remaining calm while rushing from one crisis to the next had a physical effect on her. Her work changing the department was complete and it was at this time that she stumbled across the head of nursing role at the RCN.

“I saw the advert just two hours before the application deadline,” she remembers. “I was sitting at the kitchen table with my son and he challenged me to get it done. I set to it, typing frantically. And that was it, I got the job.” 

Little did she know, just four years later, she would be in charge of the UK’s largest nursing organisation. So how does Donna appraise the last year?

“It’s been interesting,” she reflects. “We’re in a different place now, but there is scope for further transformation. We need members to own the RCN, and feel that they can help take it to a better place. If I’m able to galvanise the unity of nursing, and get us all speaking with the same voice, that would be an achievement. If I can crack that, I think I can crack most other things.”

She’s referring to the RCN’s campaigning role, and the need to get members behind her mission to secure a law for safe nurse staffing in every part of the UK. It’s a mean feat, with Northern Ireland in political turmoil, and ministers in England pre-occupied by Brexit. But Donna’s not one to be deterred by a challenge. In fact, she thrives on them. 

“Our safe staffing campaign is important to me, not just because it’s absolutely necessary that we fight to be able to give good care, but also because it’s a way to bring the whole profession together. 

We must make ministers understand the conditions we’re nursing in. Nurses are beginning to speak out, but we need more people to join our fight. So if I could choose to achieve one thing in this job, it would be to unite nursing. Because I think that’s my skill – to bring people together.”

Words by Kim Scott. Pictures by Justine Desmond

Five things you might not know about Donna

  • She completed legal training so she could help clients that she was working with as a nurse.
  • She loves jazz music and attends the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam every year.
  • She likes to coach people and says her other natural job would have been a maths teacher.
  • She is a huge cycling enthusiast and rides to work as often as she can.
  • She lives in Hackney, London, and has three children.

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