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Finance Director Jennifer Howells on working smart in the health sector

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 27 Nov 2020

Jennifer Howells

Jennifer Howells, Director, Finance, Strategy and Transformation, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), discusses the importance of working relationships, challenging yourself and knowing your weaknesses.

How did you get to where you are now? 

I qualified in the UK as an accountant with a Big Six firm and then spent several years in the US in M&A roles, moving up to director level. After a career break living in France, I returned to the UK and joined the NHS. I worked for 16 years in different NHS provider and commissioner organisations, principally as Finance Director or Chief Executive. Prior to my current role, I was the Regional Director for NHS England and NHS Improvement, responsible for NHS services in the South West. I joined NICE on 1 September. 

What are the biggest challenges for the health industry?

A year ago, I would have said the ageing population, the international shortage of clinical staff and the pace of technological innovation. However, the pandemic has raised awareness of the crucial importance of public health and increased our focus on minimising health inequalities – not to mention how we respond to other major threats in the future.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?

The challenge of juggling a career and a family was understated. I always thought you could have it all, but you have to compromise. However, things have changed significantly, and I hope they will continue to do so. As employers, we must be aware of the need to support our teams to balance their personal and work commitments. I wish I’d also realised how important relationships are. It’s amazing how often you bump into people over the course of your career. Having strong, respectful relationships helps get things done. 

What is the secret to your success?

Definitely hard work, so it’s important to do things that interest you. I believe life is a journey, so I’ve always gone for roles that I’m passionate about and that I believe I can deliver. With a family, it is critical to have a strong support network.

What’s the best advice you were given?

Several years into my career, a chairman encouraged me to go for a role that I didn’t feel completely ready for. If you can do the majority of the role, particularly the important aspects, then my advice is to go for it. No one expects you to be able to do everything from the word go. And get a sponsor – someone in a position senior to you who can support your career. Forward-thinking organisations may provide you with one, but if they don’t, try to find one yourself. 

What advice would you pass on?

Be open about mistakes and areas you need help with – it is a sign of strength rather than weakness. If you can, outsource things you don’t enjoy. If you want to juggle your career and family, don’t spend precious time doing housework if it’s not something you enjoy.

What are the key skills for accountants?

There will always be a fiduciary aspect of the role; to take care of and protect the assets of an organisation. But increasingly, accountants are enablers to help the organisation achieve its goals. That requires them to be great communicators, persuaders and influencers. Broader business skills are also really helpful. Some people will want to stay on a narrow career trajectory, but for CFO/FD roles, it’s helpful to have significant experience of operating and/or having responsibility for a portfolio outside of finance. It helps you to be a better finance professional.