In this blog, we got the chance to have a chat with Sarah Phillips, CEO and Founder of VeinTrain Ltd. Discussing her career, her inspiration and how she got to the position she is in today.
Can you tell us a bit about you and your career:
Probably the most interesting thing was me being a Nurse. I trained in Glasgow then worked as an Emergency nurse in Glasgow, Sydney and London before moving into corporate nursing in London. I left London to move to Nottingham, raise our family and then VeinTrain began as I was writing the book.
A typical day in your career:
As an SME I don’t have typical days. I have to be able to do everything and stay patient while tolerating the frustration of not having an infrastructure to do things in the way I see it and have experienced in large organisations. Although there is a big upside, as SMEs are highly creative, which really suits me! I love the international element of my work too. When you phone up Doha or Las Vegas you feel like you could be there then you look out of the window and there in Nottingham. It is fun. I do a lot of virtual connecting with people then face to face as I travel, I worked with my situation which meant I accessed the virtual world a lot.
I have had some unforgettable moments, I shall never forget getting in the lift in Doha when I was invited to WISH, literally every time I got in some VIP would get in! Proper elevator pitch territory! Then another day in Dubai I met some top-level people at a multi-billion organisation keen to take our system forward. Halfway through I realised the founder’s daughter was one of our group! She was so inspiring yet humble, I was desperate to win the contract so my daughter could meet this incredible lady! You just never know what the day will bring, even when you are in it!!
What made you choose this career/industry?
I did an academic qualification in Business and Finance at College in York but it felt empty as a career. I went into Nursing after my Gran died in a hospice and I saw what even one day of a nurse meant to a family. I was right. Nursing was a wonderful choice and it gives back as much as you put in, which is a lot!!! I now see myself more in healthcare, but I will always be the proudest of my clinical days and always proud to say I was a nurse.
How did you get to where you are now and did you face any challenges along the way?
I work hard and am a doer. I have some talent and intelligence- more from a high IQ than academia, but mostly I just work hard and am determined when I can see something clearly that others have not yet got yet. I am compelled to show them.
The biggest personal challenge, which affected every area of my life, was becoming a widow at 39 when my husband died suddenly in front of our 2-year-old son. It was a terrible time for us but I had a 2 and 4-year-old to provide for so in some ways I became more determined and ultra-focused with any work time. I somehow had to manage being a sole parent, 24 hours, 365 days a year and working full time while also being present for the children’s emotions. The business was ideal in many ways as I could make it suit our situation and it worked for the business which is built not to need me. The children had to feel part of it too, rather than Mummy disappearing and in their experience, maybe not coming back.
If any, can you tell us more about how you overcame those setbacks?
My mantra is “do the best you can with what you have” sometimes that is a lot and others not so much. I tried to smile often to balance out the stress and sadness when you smile people smile back and it releases endorphins. I actually think my MA in psychodynamic organisation thinking helped the most as a steady foundation during the turmoil and societal pressures and projections that come with being a young widow and working single mother. Also, WAY, Widowed and Young, people in there got it and that really helped with so much, including expectations and practically managing day today. They are like an extended family, they just get it!
It was important that I kept work as work so I didn't talk much about it during my professional day. It made me build the business to not need me which is hard as an SME. Our situation also meant my children had to know where I was so they get to come to Dubai, Africa and are very keen on Qatar from what they heard about my trip to Doha!! I once took my daughter to the Royal College of Surgeons and showed her such a fine and strong place full of history and strong women who were once not allowed in unless disguised as a man! It surely helped her and made her realise everyone has challenges, we must press on.
What do you think gave you the drive and determination to succeed?
To be clear I haven’t succeeded yet in where I want to get Veins to, but I think it was just because I want to spend my life doing the best I can with what I have, which at times was very restricted. I have a lot to be thankful for and if not paying it forward then paying it back into the world I think. At times I really didn’t have a lot but I still really believed in something, people see that and follow I think then new ideas emerge and innovations are created, together.
I am personally driven by my children and professionally by patients and their clinicians. I can be super tired and really feel progress is hopeless, ready to give up then I hear of a patient or meet a clinician who loves what we do and it sparks me off again! Clinicians do not want to be put in positions where they offer poor care and the lack of training is not their fault.
More recently I have been motivated by some incredible healthcare leaders. We have a phenomenon going on the political leadership globally but in healthcare, we have some wonderful people to follow and support their work. I find this a great focus. It cheers me up in what can sometimes feel a world that is going backwards! WISH, Qatar had a collection of them all in one place! If I am honest I was overstimulated for months before and afterwards thinking about all that happened there and who I was privileged to meet or even be near! It was incredibly inspiring and really hopeful that healthcare is global and great people are making a huge difference!
What’s great about being a female in your role?
The strong male leaders listen to me when they see how determined and enthusiastic I remain after all these years in the Vein world. They are aware it is not without challenges being a female and a change agent in healthcare and can see I am strong and genuine. I really believe that when you meet a man that supports female leaders then a lot can move forward, faster than in other areas. When he really recognizes that as a woman you have something different to offer. Women too can be supportive, but I really think we do not support each other enough, cheer each other along. If one woman does well, we have all done well.
What is your biggest achievement in life?
Getting veins onto the global stage at WISH, Qatar. I was so thrilled we would be able to share the problem with 2000 world health leaders. No one is looking at veins, we just have to get these needles in for analysis and treatment so they get accepted. It was great to show that to people in positions of power and influence who can help my vascular colleagues around the world. Then of course for the business, our solution and my vision were being seen and understood for what it could achieve.
What is the biggest lesson that you’ve learnt along the way?
Tolerate frustration and be patient. If you continue to do what you believe in, where feedback tells you it is needed (reality) then at some point it will come good. So many people question your decisions and approach and when you start to succeed there can be envious attacks from the most surprising of places. People really don’t understand that you work on these things day and night for decades now, luck didn’t have much to do with my success, I made my own luck.
Have you ever felt that your gender has brought unnecessary challenges to your career?
Yes. I was once told women get babies and men get the top jobs. I think that actually happens. I certainly would have stayed longer in my career in NHS if it had been possible, I still love to offer service to the NHS, despite its challenge as it is a wonderful organisation.
Do you have a mantra you live your life by?
Just do your best. Every day I do my best even if that is at times my best to sit still and rest!! (hard for me) My good friend a female ED consultant said to me after my husband died, Sarah just does your best and you will be fine. She was right. It is enough.
What is the best bit of advice that you have ever been given?
Just do it. (A female CEO I shadowed at Chelsea told me as I asked her how she managed, she said just do it, she was right) She also taught me that no matter how powerful you are and strong, which she was, people will still do what they want!! Fascinating. There was no way I would have not done what she wanted but lots managed to navigate around the policy. She understood that and showed me that you have to lead people in a way that can work for them because that works for the organisation.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
My gran, she was a strong woman, a very proud nurse and was Irish but born in Sydney. She used to read me the family autograph books and showed me how to be strong while feminine. I love this poem written to my great-great-aunt…A modern woman. I think it is still true now…albeit we don’t like to leave the rest to cupid these days!!
What are your key motivators?
I’m an extravert, albeit a shy one so when I am around energised people who use their role positively and power gracefully, then it really motivates me. It is not always easy to find leaders to follow and be inspired by but I make a point of following their work and try and support them, men or women. I like working with people who want to make a difference and do their roles well, whatever level they are at in an organisation. I used to find the support staff, porters, post room, IT motivating when I did strategic work. They reminded me of the importance of doing daily work well, happily. Strategic work can take years to see and change is challenging and can be lonely. At the University in Nottingham where VeinTrain is based, I love the whole machine of the university and the importance of everyone’s role and daily contribution, it is great to be around a big infrastructure again. I can make decisions instantly in my business, the University reminds me that a slow pace and infrastructure also works.
Do you think enough is being done by businesses to address gender imbalance?
No. The pay is a reflection but also things like maternity/paternity leave, childcare, death of a spouse. I still see far too many pictures with a lot of men around board tables. They need women in there too, for the sake of the product or service or in some cases their country. It looks a bit lacking now but it is still common.
What are some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in their organizations?
Step forward when you get pushed back, then stand firm, gracefully but firmly. (easier said than done) Women are great listeners and able to juggle a lot all at once, this is really helpful in changing organisations to work systemically. Holding it all together while keeping an eye on the target, we are good at that.
What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions?
Look to people who are inspiring today. Look at AOC over in the states, she was a waitress. Also to Michelle Obama, Melinda Gates. These women have defied the norm. They have not stayed in their boxes and their authentic approach is compelling. Don’t forget the male leaders too, follow the ones who clearly support the right thing, irrespective of gender, look at the trends.
Don’t give up. Someone once said to me 80% of success is turning up.
What would you say to your 16-year-old self?
Listen and watch but don’t be deterred by doubters. Do something you believe in and it will be fine. Try to focus work energy on things that will return on your investment. Time is your most precious resource, use it well and don't ask others for theirs too easily.
Anything else that you would like to add about your career or story:
I think life can throw curveballs. Things that shouldn’t, in the ordinary run of things happen, but they do and you don’t know how it will affect you until you are in it. Whatever you can’t be a victim, even when you are, it is important to find a way forward that works for you and the resources you have realistically available. As hard as my situation was, I often thought of widows and orphans in those war zones. I would like to do more for those people who have so little resources to draw upon. I might even be able to use VeinTrain as a route to help them too.
I once found a bunch of immigrant doctors working in phlebotomy while I was working hard to get competency rates up and willing supervisors for the nurses at Chelsea. They became superb training supervisors and they loved working with the doctors and loved the clinical skills lab. Some were from war-torn countries, senior surgeons. This gave them the opportunity to do more appropriate work and move back into their field. Two are now doctors, one is a professor in the States and I was able to invite one even wrote a chapter for me. I think now of the number of refugees that must be stuck. Such a waste of intelligence and skill and their ability to provide and contribute to the society they are now part of. I would like to contribute to that if I could in a way that I can. It is wrong what is happening to those innocent people. I know what it is to have your life blow up in your face and scramble around in the rubble of our tragedy, but at least I had resources I could draw upon to create a future for my family.
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