From Wolfson College to GOSH

Senior Member Jan Filochowski came to Wolfson in 2004 as a NHS University Fellow. In 2012 he was appointed CEO at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Here he describes his journey…

My acquaintance with Wolfson was as a ‘mid-careerer’.  After graduating from Cambridge (I left Churchill in 1972) I had spent most of my career as a National Health Service (NHS) manager.  In the 1990s, I became CEO of a big hospital - Poole Hospital (“the most complex managed organisations in the world” according to management writer, Peter Drucker).  By 2003 I had led four hospitals, two of which had needed fundamental turnaround.  I started to see patterns in failure and recovery, so I began to write articles about them and to develop a theory about what went on (remember, theories for managers are few and far between, as we are practical men and women, doers at heart).

This is where Cambridge and Wolfson came in.  I was offered an NHS University Fellowship for 2004-2005 to reflect further on this topic and to start writing a book about it.  I thought the Judge Business School would be a good place to come and, when they agreed to take me, they recommended Wolfson.  At first I wasn’t at all sure whether Wolfson was the right place for me in my middle years, but I quickly became a convert.  I ‘lived in’ for the whole year, used lots of the facilities, and went to talks, the weekly dinners and even balls.  I loved the gardens and the easy cycle down Barton Road into town.  It was truly a refuge for me from the hurly burly of very pressurised work, a time to think and reflect and develop my ideas.  And I realised what a great role Wolfson plays in the Cambridge firmament, covering every academic topic, with a wonderful international feel and with slightly mature and (as in my case) more mature students and members creating a completely characteristic mix, which works.

I left Wolfson in the autumn of 2005.  I’m sure that without my year at Wolfson there would have been no draft book and, even more importantly, I wouldn’t have been refreshed and ready to return to the fray.  Within a couple of years I was back again at the frontline, running the hospitals in West Hertfordshire which were then bottom of the pile but which, during the following five years, rose up and really delivered. 

During these five years I reflected on what I’d done in my year in Wolfson and added to the book.  The ‘2005’ book draft was a combination of biography and initial thoughts on why failure happens.  The changes I made after leaving Wolfson were not simply to refine and improve this, but to choose between biography and managerial analysis and insight.  It was an easy choice.  My own biography might be interesting to me but I doubted it was interesting to many other people.  But its removal left a huge hole in the book and, as one potential publisher pointed out, took away half a book.  He said to me, “You’ve described failure very well but that’s where it ends and that’s rather unsatisfying.  If you know what failure is, you must know what failure isn’t.  Capture that and you really will have a book”.  So that’s what I tried to do. 

By 2011 I had finished, and then the opportunity came along to manage Great Ormond Street Hospital: an extraordinary opportunity which I hadn’t expected at the end of my career.  I can’t say it was entirely down to Wolfson or down to my book, but I do feel that resetting my course through that year of reflection, reading and writing, and the recharging of my batteries it enabled, was instrumental in helping me first to take on West Herts successfully and then, in my early sixties, become CEO of Great Ormond Street Hospital.  And what a place! Full of national and international leaders in children’s medicine, at the forefront of discovery and new treatment and, partly thanks to the Olympics, probably the most famous hospital brand in the world.  It’s been fun and it’s been worthwhile, but as I approach my 64th birthday I’ve decided it’s time to stand down from full time work at this level, while hopefully still making a contribution as an elder statesman to the organisation to which I’ve devoted my life: the NHS.

So, what of my book, Too Good to Fail?  Well, it seems to be selling quite well and, to my astonishment, was shortlisted in October 2013 for Management Book of the Year (result in February 2014).  It’s been variously commented on, tweeted and reviewed, usually positively, and has been spotted in both Johannesburg and Washington.  It has also – and this has to be due to the fact that I was at Great Ormond Street Hospital – led to a profile in the New York Times’ ‘global manager’ series.

So, not all down to Wolfson, but it was a key year and a key point of change for me, and it ever so certainly helped.  Thank you Wolfson!