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Helen Gordon

Helen Gordoncrop

‘I never thought in a million years I’d be CEO’

One thing that has driven Helen Gordon, CEO at the Science Council, throughout her 38-year career is the desire to make things better for people. From undertaking training to become a nurse at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London straight after her A levels to her first Chief Executive position at Hillingdon Hospital in 1999 and right up until today, improving the lives of people has been a big passion. ‘I’ve always been keen on the development of people, ever since my days on the wards,’ explains Helen. ‘And that is something that has stayed with me. I was first attracted to management positions in the NHS because I was curious about how I could put that knowledge into the wider context of making things better for patients in the hospital overall. When a role came up as Operations Manager in Elderly Care, I jumped at it and found management suited me.’

It was this step up to management that Helen cites as her first experience of doubling down in her career. ‘At the time the NHS provided good opportunities for study days and training,’ she reveals. ‘I also learned from others, developing the skill of leaning in to raid knowledge. I got noticed and found senior managers were very good sponsors for me and could point out opportunities.’ In addition to learning about management and finance, Helen was able to develop broader skills on the job: ‘I started to quickly learn about the wider picture because I always put my hand up and volunteered for things outside my role.’

When an opportunity arose to take on a much larger job and be responsible for a big section of the hospital, it was one of those sponsors, Helen’s boss at the time, who asked if she’d considered a degree in management. ‘I’d left school without a bachelor’s degree so we discussed my options and I decided to apply for the part-time MBA course at Henley. I was working in Hillingdon so it was close and I knew it would be a good-quality education.’

“The MBA taught me a lot about business from a wider perspective. My horizons expanded and the whole vista changed. Without doubt it fast-tracked me to getting that job.”

The MBA programme would prove to be a transformative experience that propelled Helen into the executive level of the NHS and beyond. ‘I learned so much more about the areas I was already travelling in – finance, people, change, leadership and so on – but also studied with a wide group of people that opened my eyes and gave me exposure to the private sector and commercial world beyond the NHS ecosystem.’

Within a few months of completing her MBA, Helen was appointed Director of Operations/Chief Nurse at Hillingdon Hospital. 'The MBA taught me a lot about business from a wider perspective. My horizons expanded and the whole vista changed. Without doubt it fast-tracked me to getting that job.'

Yet Helen’s career trajectory didn’t stop there. ‘Within a couple of years, the opportunity to apply for the Chief Exec’s position arose. Before the MBA, I’d never have dreamed of going for it but I was encouraged to take the leap. I was interviewed against several external candidates and appointed. I never thought in a million years I’d be CEO.’

Since that first leadership role, Helen has continued to hold chief executive positions, working in professional bodies since 2005, but is keen to point out the learning never stops. ‘Doing my MBA and doubling down meant deepening my knowledge in the sector; now the focus is on honing skills to continue to thrive. It’s about interpersonal skills and leading empathically, which is why I’m doing my coaching diploma.’

For those considering doubling down in their careers, Helen shares some appropriately people-focused advice: ‘An MBA is a fantastic, broad, inspiring programme that helps propel you to executive positions. At Henley you’ll learn as much from the other people on the programme as you will from the material itself. Plus there’s an active international alumni community so the networking and opportunities continue well after your studies finish.’

If Helen's story resonates with you, try our career workout to discover the best strategy for your next career move.