Looking to leadership: Aimee Robson

Aimee Robson, deputy director NHS England, reveals her pathway from physio to a NHS leadership position

Aimee Robson, deputy director of personalised care at NHS England
Aimee Robson, deputy director of personalised care at NHS England [Photos: Richard Lee]

When Aimee Robson was a teenager, she played elite sport and met physiotherapists when she sustained injuries. As her mother worked in healthcare, she volunteered in a hospital setting from a young age. 

‘It was a combination of family, sport and volunteering influences that made me think that I could do something that I am passionate about and work with people,’ she says.

‘I knew during high school that I wanted a career within healthcare and refined that to work with physical activity. Physiotherapy seemed like a fit with what was important to me.’

Aimee gained an MSc in physiotherapy at North eastern University in Boston, USA, moving to the UK in 2004 where she initially specialised in orthopaedics and in MSK community services.

‘Although I loved it, it wasn’t my preference of what I wanted to do,’ she recalls. 

‘Sometimes the opportunities in the postgraduate world can be a bit different from what you imagine. So, I needed to be resilient and open-minded about my work pathway.’

Aimee Robson, deputy director of personalised care at NHS England
Aimee Robson, deputy director of personalised care at NHS England

She is agile within her career, seizing opportunities and gaining skills. When she was in clinical practice, which she only left completely four years ago, she worked variously in NHS hospital settings, private hospitals, for health providers and had her own business.

When she worked in MSK and neurological rehab with people with long-term conditions, such as strokes or spinal cord injuries, she ‘really enjoyed helping people to live their best lives’. 

‘I went through that point that most clinicians go through, of taking on students, and after that line-managing people and then opportunities came up in operational service management, which I was quite good at, but didn’t enjoy doing, although I learned from it,’ she explains.

During nine years from 2009 with Connect Health, a private provider to the NHS, she worked in a variety of roles from advanced physio in MSK to national clinical manager.

‘I was still within physiotherapy services, leading on quality and safety and clinical governance, so I still held a clinical caseload.

‘Half of the week I was working as a physio and half as a quality lead. It was important for me to do that, so I could role model to the people I was leading. I also wanted to see first-hand the influence of the quality improvements we were making, alongside clinical responsibilities,’ she explains. 

This involved line management of non-physios – including nurses, doctors and surgeons. She admits there were challenges to face from people questioning why a physio, a young woman, was leading a team.

Aimee Robson, deputy director of personalised care at NHS England
Aimees says physios should step out of their comfort zones and take a leap of faith

‘Many of the people I line managed were men, including doctors, two or three decades older than me, so there were societal and gender norms that weren’t the status quo, and there was an imposter element that I felt.’

To overcome this, she focussed on what she was there to achieve and how she could support team members to deliver the best care. ‘We had open and honest conversations to talk about how we could help each other to do the best for our patients,’ she says. ‘I gained their respect over time. 

‘We figured out how to serve our population and fulfil difficult contracts. Not everything is smooth and straightforward. Having diverse professional backgrounds helps.

There are more similarities than differences between professions,’ she believes, ‘because ultimately, we are all trying to help a person, but we have slightly different tools in the toolbox.

'We can all help people through our own unique superpowers, and we can recognise our differences. I learned that leading a multi profession team was really rewarding.’

Eventually she left provider organisations. ‘After my daughter was born, I wanted to try something different. I’d made an impact, so I moved into national programme and arms-length body organisations.’

Her first step out of the formal physio world was to the Getting It Right First Time (GIRFT) national programme, around clinically led quality improvement, based in the north of England. 

She now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne.

‘As an improvement lead, I was struck by how hard it was to let go officially of being a physio, but also by how many transferable skills I had. For me, it was about relationship building – it’s no different when you are managing a patient or line managing a surgeon.’

Her role at GIRFT was to support implementation by looking at data and opportunities for improvement, facilitating change as part of a team. ‘I didn’t need to be the expert about the technical area. I was improving neurology services or urinary tract pathways, which I know nothing about clinically.

After eight months she was appointed AHP clinical adviser with NHS Improvement. ‘I was looking through the lens of finance for a financial regulator, which was valuable. Although I was a clinical adviser, I could build upon previous chapters as a manager when I had held budgets.’

When NHS Improvement merged with NHS England, she began her current role as deputy director of personalised care at NHS England.

She led delivery of the NHS Long Term Plan responsibilities for elements of personalised care and related improvement and transformation, including horizontal clinical leadership integration across NHSE for personalised care. ‘We delivered our long-term commitment plans and the team was fantastic.

‘It’s very different, but again I have built upon my experience in all my previous roles. I had some incredible mentorship to help me in the early days.’

Day-to-day she is the commissioner for large national commissions, works with people with lived experience, health ministers, the Department of Health, on strategy and policy, charities and voluntary sector organisations, on data with clinicians and supports national clinical directors and royal colleges. 

‘It’s been quite a catalytic style of leadership to work with a really small team, but we have a great impact.’

However, she says the NHS needs to improve shared decision-making in personalised care, as five out of ten people don’t feel involved in their treatment and haven’t done for over ten years.

Her guidance for physios keen to progress into leadership roles is to think about what you enjoy. 

‘Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. 

‘When I look back at the moments when I have had the greatest success, they happened when I was unafraid to do this and lean into it with vulnerability and humility. 

‘You will get things wrong but be comfortable with taking a leap of faith. 

‘One of the things that has helped me the most when doing a complex piece of work is to consider who is around you to help, as complex problems don’t get solved by individuals.

‘It can be tempting to have allies that have similar views but seek diverse opinion from people you may not agree with, because they have nuggets of lessons to teach. 

‘Consider the legacy you want to leave on each piece of work you do and across your career. 

‘Always be curious about learning and undertake regular leadership training. There are a lot of leadership options out there. Be brave enough to take opportunities.’ 

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