How to scale sustainably with Hannah Farrar, Chief Executive of Carnall Farrar

Hannah Farrar, Chief Executive of Healthcare Management consultancy, Carnall Farrar shares insights into her role developing world leading healthcare strategies and her learns from growing high performance teams delivering lasting transformational change.

Listen to or read the full interview of the Leadership Learns podcast with Peter Rabey below:

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To kick things off, tell us a bit about your journey from Director of Strategy for the NHS to co-founding Carnall Farrar?

The more time I spent working in hospitals or other aspects of the healthcare world, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t make the best doctor. I was always fascinated with how to make life work better, so I pursued a career in health care management instead. Over time, I worked within several roles within the NHS, but after another reorganization in 2013, there wasn’t a place for me. It left me thinking about what I was going to do with my career and I decided to found Carnall Farrar with a colleague.

We’ve been developing a company dedicated to healthcare, specialising within public sector organisations, private companies, investors in healthtech and life sciences sectors, along with data science and innovation.

What inspired you to start your own business?

When I make a commitment to something, I dig in, stick at it, and make it good – so I didn’t look back. I put my energy and focus into making it a success. It was the right time because it was the right time for me to leave what I had been doing. There was nothing attracting me to stay, I didn’t feel like I belonged in the NHS’s system, and I felt I needed to do something different, set a new course and being young I was determined to make it a success.

What’s been the most memorable impact of the pandemic on your business?

The world became very unpredictable. Over the course of about 72 hours, every contract the company held, apart from three, asked if they could pause work and they didn’t know when they would be able to restart it. We had to start looking at how long our cash was going to last in different scenarios and forecasts.

We held a leadership summit where we discussed what we could do to help the public sector to tackle the agenda that they were facing. We reinvented what we offered over a matter of days. As a company, we were keen to think about the crisis that we were in, and we offered our services at cost and people took them. One of our values is agility, so it taught us valuable lessons and we managed to ride the storm.

What’s been the most effective strategic decision you have made in the last 12 months?

As a team, we stood back and thought about what our clients were going to need to help them manage the situation. We recognised their needs and offered our service to them preemptively, instead of waiting for them to give us their specification. Adopting that mentality, being ahead of the game and accepting that some decisions will be wrong, has been a process that has endured.

How flexible is your business strategy? Do you map out the clear plan annually, communicate it to your leadership team and stick to it, or is it constantly changing and evolving each month or quarter?

Our business strategy has evolved. I think it has to; you can’t stand still. You don’t know everything you need to know at any one moment in time, life reveals it to you.

We set goals, some of which we achieved on an earlier timeframe, so we were blessed with success. Then we hit a period that was tricky for the company, and in part, we were ill prepared because of our previous success. You have periods where growth is stagnant and it exposes weaknesses. At those moments, you need to stand back, rethink, create new plans and learn new lessons. The company is much stronger from periods of difficulty, but they change your journey.

What has been the most significant growing pain at Carnall Farrar over the last 12 months?

Recruiting is my biggest challenge. It’s hard to grow in perfect symmetry and that can create tensions for people within the company if we’re short in one capacity. It creates lopsided growth which some colleagues can find frustrating.

How did you overcome this?

It comes back to the listening point. There are people in the company who are spokespeople, no-one has nominated them, but they will speak up and influence other colleagues. Listening to what these people have to say is important. I’ll have regular catchups and make sure I am always accessible to everyone.

If you could only give one piece of advice about how to scale sustainably, what would it be?  

It’s all about the people you have in your team and spreading responsibility, so it’s not invested in a single person. Through a period of difficult years, we were able to shine a light on the skills and talents that we should have been developing, but no-one was tending to. There’s something about building resilience in the way you develop the company, not investing too much in one area but making sure you’ve got a depth of revenue lines.

Have there been any lasting impacts or amendments required to make sure the culture endured?

Hardly anyone worked remotely and that has now changed. We’ve refreshed our flexible working policy, and I can’t see ourselves going back from that.

My key takeaways are that hybrid meetings don’t work – everyone has to be virtual, or everyone has to be together. This means everyone’s experience of the discussion is the same. Not only this, being together matters – our policy is that staff need to be together with their team, 60% of the working time.

As you have grown, have there been any significant challenges in trying to make sure all divisions in the business are aligned?

There’s a more dispersed leadership model within the company; I think the pandemic has accelerated the process as people in the room stood up, got on with things and led.

Holding the position of CEO, you have to change your behavior as the company grows. The company has to have broader shoulders in terms of people taking a leadership role as not every decision can come to the managing partner team. We shift autonomy and accountability to the many.

How do you go about your own personal learning and development?

I’ve had mentors and leadership coaches. Our chairman is insightful and impactful in terms of causing me to reflect on the course we’re taking and my own role. When I’m feeling a bit stuck, or I want more technical skills, I’ll participate in a structured training programme. As a CEO, the biggest part of learning comes from listening to what people want and need from you and deciding what shifts you’re going to make in leading.

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