Anne Cooper – True Strength Podcast – Episode 15
As part of my True Strength project, I’m featuring interviews that dig deep into how people succeed and I was delighted to interview Anne Cooper and provide a space for Anne to share her story. To listen to the interview, simply click ‘play’ on the audio player above or you can read the transcript below. You can find previous podcasts and details of how to subscribe on our podcast page.
CliftonStrengths (TM) Dominant Talent Themes: Woo, Positivity, Communication, Activator, Ideation, Responsibility, Futuristic, Strategic, Input, Individualisation.
Hello there Ian
So first big question… who are you?
Well I thought you might ask me this question and my instinctive response to that was ‘I’m Anne and I’m a girl from Skelton!”, I think that reflects where I am, particularly in my career which is I don’t have any particular job right now, but also I guess asking me that question right now makes me think about where I’ve come from, and I come from a very small village up in the North East and I guess I never ever thought I would be in a room like this being interviewed by anybody about what I did. But I have a background in nursing, I’m still a registered nurse. I ended up working in digital or in technology, stress and emphasise the ‘ended up’, and then last year I decided to leave my NHS role and do something else and I’m not quite sure yet that I’ve worked out what doing something else really means.
So go on, if I’d have asked you twelve months ago, who are you, what do you do, what would your answer have been?
I probably would have said that I’m Anne Cooper the Chief Nurse at NHS Digital I think and when I finished work I found that I had a very strong connection to my role and what I was and the label that was given to me at that time so I almost certainly would have said that. And then the last year has been working out what happens when you lose a title, and some identity I guess, with that.
I was just going to use that exact same word, it’s interesting how much of our identity comes from our role isn’t it? So what do you do now because you’re doing loads of interesting things?
I do too many things to talk about I think!
Give us the highlights.
One of my big passions, one of the things that I’ve been really fortunate in doing in my career is to do lots of leadership development, so throughout the last 20 years really I’ve had so many opportunities to do high quality leadership development because I wanted to be able to do some of that for some other people, so that’s one of the reasons why I’m doing the Women in Digital Leadership Programme which is a particular thing that I want to do really well. I’m also going to train to be a coach as I do a lot of mentoring and I want to be able to do that better than I do it now, but I’ve also got lots of little side projects really which I’m doing for fun. So for example, oh this isn’t a side project of course, I’m a non- Executive Director in the Yorkshire Ambulance Service which is a fantastic opportunity. That’s about giving back, trying to bring some of my expertise that I’ve gathered over all those decades of work and giving that back in a different sort of way. But I’ve got sort of a few non-executive style responsibilities, I work with a very small social enterprise consulting company looking at how we can offer health IT consulting in a different sort of way, so you see lots of different sorts of things. Lots of sort of little experiments really to find out what’s good fun.
So a nice portfolio of different things. Tell me more about the Women in Digital Leadership Programme. Why are you doing that?
If I think back to when I first started working in the digital space, first of all I remember very vividly being in a room of nurses, all women, and men coming into the room and talking to us about technology and we all just sort of thought, ‘well what are they talking about? This isn’t important to us and just go away we are nurses’, and I had a dawning of realisation, it was in the days of NHS Direct, that actually technology was actually a fundamental enabler and that we needed to listen and engage, so I ended up listening and engaging with them. But over the years that followed, so I worked in that environment, the technology environment, for 15, nearly 20 years, and in that time quite often I was the only woman in the room. I was almost always the only nurse, but I was certainly the only woman most often. I think it’s got better but I had this strong sense that it’s still a very culturally male environment and that women need to understand how they can thrive in that type of environment and I think leadership development is one of the ways that we can help to bring diversity to that landscape because my view is diversity drives better outcomes of any sort and that putting women around tables adds value massively. As indeed do other types of diversity, I just happen to be focussing on women, but diversity as a principle increases the quality of everything and I think that’s what I’m trying to achieve and helping some people to bring that diversity to the table really.
That’s brilliant and I would agree entirely about the benefits of diversity. I guess I’d just go one stage further and say it’s important that we have inclusion as well because sometimes we can have diversity, we get the mix of voices and then people aren’t always listened to or involved so I think it’s important that we have both of those.
I agree with you and another project that I’m working on, which is a little bit too early to talk about it in a lot of detail, is absolutely all about inclusion but it’s also about inclusion of disadvantaged people in health technology and digital so I really agree with that as well.
So that’s what you do now and that’s what you were doing last year. How did you end up doing both these things? What’s your journey been to get here?
I think I was quite a difficult teenager to be honest. My parents separated when I was in my late teens and it was quite a difficult time really I think and I learned how to be very independent. So I left home when I was 16 and I was quite bright, I was one of the brightest girls in the year at school. I was fully expected to go on and do other things, probably go on and do A Levels and University and I just decided that I needed to earn some money so that I could look after myself, so I left. That sort of laid out the path I think from there onwards which was about being quite resilient about choices, being very practical about what I chose to do. I went into banking first and liked it because it was solving problems because I like racing against the clock. I used to race against the clock to get the books balanced and things at the end of the day, but even there I think I was a reasonably high performer and back in the olden days, this is in the late 70’s, early 80’s, the way things happened was you were recommended for promotion and then you went on to the bottom of the list of everybody else who was recommended for promotion and at that point in time we were heading towards a recession so we weren’t taking staff on, so we were downsizing, the vacancies were not around, and I remember going to see, I can see him sat in front of me now, the bank manager, this was in the olden days when you had a branch with a bank manager who had his own office and indeed then his own toilet, believe it or not, and his PA, and I remember going in to see him and saying to him “I’ve got an exceptional grade again this last 6 months, when am I going to get promoted?” and he said “Oh Anne, you just have to be much more patient, obviously when it’s your turn”. And I said “well what if I’m not prepared to wait until it’s my turn?” and he said, “well what else are you going to do?” and I went “well I’m going to go and train to be a nurse” and once I’d said it out loud, then it had to be and that is what I ended up doing. The idea about nursing came from when I was being diagnosed as having Type 1, when I’d been in hospital when I was 16 and round the same sort of few years of time. So that’s how I ended up in the NHS! I might have well ended up in banking, so I think that’s a really weird and interesting thought to have about how life twists and turns in the way that it does because I’ve had a fantastic career in nursing.
I can’t imagine you working in banking and we’ll come on to this when we talk about your strengths but when you were told to be patient, I don’t think patient is a word that I’d associate with you and I mean that as a massive compliment! But also you mentioned Type 1 and by which I think you mean Type 1 diabetes, so can you just say a bit more about that and about the influence that’s had on your journey?
I did mean Type 1 diabetes. Yes, so I started working and I look back and think gosh, 1979 I started working in the September, a proper job and I wasn’t feeling great and about 8 weeks into my first proper job I ended up in hospital and being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. It’s a weird age at 16 to be diagnosed, not actually because people get diagnosed at all different times of their lives, but at 16 you’re sort of almost fully formed but not quite fully formed, if you know what I mean? You’re still in that sort of teen space. Sometimes I think it’s an advantage though because I didn’t have to do all the childhood growing up stuff with it so I was adult enough and resilient and grown up enough to look after it myself right from the very beginning. But by then I was going out partying even at 16 so you do have a sense of what’s been taken away from you and back then it was all rules driven. You can’t do this, you can’t do the other, you must do this and that’s never been a happy place for me.
So… left banking, into nursing, so what happened, what was the journey from moving into nursing to ending up as Chief Nurse?
I’m really curious and never ever want to do anything that somebody else has done before me so I bobbed along, moved around the first couple of years of my career but then got promoted really quickly. I was a ward sister within about two years but was just interested, then I guess what I’m saying is that as a nurse, I’ve got a really unconventional career history because I just bobbed around doing things that looked interesting and I think that from something like 1989 probably, maybe a bit before then, I don’t think I’ve ever had a job that somebody’s done before me! So either I was the first person into a gap or I’ve created the job myself because I like to do new things, different things. People find that really incredible when I talk to people about that and they say “well how did you do that?” and the answer is that I really don’t know how I did it, I just know that being curious, having an appetite for things and doing things quite often that nobody else wanted to do, I think was a pattern. So I did lots of interesting things, I was Complaints Manager for 9 years in a big acute trust, fantastic job. I went to NHS Direct because I thought it sounded really interesting and it was there that I became interested in technology and ended up having a national job at NHS Direct in the technology space. As a clinician, always a clinician and then ended up going to the national programme for IT, worked there on various projects and then ended up with the nurse leadership role in I guess in Health IT in England I suppose really, so you create your own opportunities.
It’s fascinating, you do and sometimes people think you’ve got to have a career plan and a clear focus and what was the expression you used “just bobbing around doing things that looked interesting”! You know sometimes you can do that.
That’s my plan!
Sounds like a good plan! And then sometimes it only makes sense when we kind of look back on it and it doesn’t make sense at the time. Let’s dig a bit deeper then into you and let’s talk about strengths. We’ve got your strengths profile in front of us and I want to talk about your dominant talents, about the things that kind of make you Anne, and we’ll include these in the show notes, but we’ve got WOO (winning others over), Positivity, Communication, Activator (that sort of impatience and a desire to get started). Ideation, Responsibility (keep your promises), Futuristic and Strategic (about having a vision for the future and being able to work out how to get there) and Input and Individualisation, so a real curiosity both about things but also about people as well so it’s a really fascinating strengths profile. Just talk to me about your strengths and about how you feel about them and what you like most.
What do I feel about them? I thought that it reflected, if I’m really honest, I think it’s really easy to delude yourself about your strengths, but I thought that if I was really honest, they were very representative of me. I think they reflect my people-orientation, my WOO in particular is all about people and I love being with people. I am extremely extrovert although not all the time. So I thought they were a fair reflection of the things that I like to do – make things happen with people, convince people of things, talk, write, podcast, getting things done. I think the downside of all of that is that I’m not a very good finisher completer so I’m actually very relieved that Responsibility sits in the middle because I think I use responsibility to hold myself to account in terms of making things happen so I will talk to people forever but nothing will change. The way that I make things happen is by giving people a commitment that I’ll do something under responsibility I think, and that is the thing that makes me do things. So I think it’s quite reasonable.
That’s really interesting. I’ll ask you a bit later about your approach to getting things done. I’m always wary of looking at profiles and immediately jumping to a decision that’s “Oh yes, I know what you’re going to be like” and that’s because this gives us some insights into your talents but I don’t know how you’re going to use them, but when people are high in Responsibility and lower in some of the other executing themes from a leadership domain, my hunch, my hypothesis would be, you are going to keep your promises, you may or may not be organised in the way that you do that but you are absolutely going to keep your word and keep your promises.
And it might be one minute to midnight when it happens!!!
Yep, it’s done! So as you look at those dominant talent themes, what do you like most and what are you proudest of?
My ability to work with people, Individualisation, WOO, Communication. That’s been a consistent pattern throughout anything I’ve ever done, even when I worked in the bank, I was extremely popular and sought out to do things and I just loved that. Well nursing, again, it’s a pattern isn’t it about the people thing throughout my career. Even in health IT I guess I’m known for the engagement piece, the translation piece, the person who goes from the technology people to the clinical people and takes messages. I see myself, when I talk about this, about being a translator in health IT, I vision myself, you know that little bridge in London, that walk bridge that goes between Tate Modern and St Paul’s, it’s that narrow bridge, and I see myself walking from side to side taking messages backwards and forwards and having existed in these two different worlds how I’m the journey maker between taking the stories from those different places. So I think communication and people and all of that is what I’m most proud of really.
So how would you say your strengths have really set you apart in your career?
I think because I ended up in a technology oriented environment, that’s where I was technically employed, and I think I didn’t look like anybody else there and that takes a bit of bravery because you are in an ‘only’ position quite often, but also it allows you to bring your assets to the table in a different way to everybody else, so I think perhaps putting myself in unusual places is how I’ve levered some of those skills really.
It’s funny, right at the risk of embarrassing you, and we can always edit this out if necessary later, I met you when you came along as part of the panel at the Masterclass for Healthcare Digital Leaders and I just thought ‘Wow, you’re impressive” and then I met you briefly when you were presenting on stage at eHealth Week and I thought I must go and speak to Anne and I came along and I introduced myself just in case you didn’t remember me and you really stand out and you’re somebody I hold in high regard.
I don’t understand that.
Oh go on…
I don’t understand why that is. So if I take you back to what I said when you asked me who I was, I still feel like Anne, a girl from Skelton and so I don’t recognise that particularly.
Do you see why I would come up with that view?
No, no, I don’t at all, I don’t understand. I’m not just being deliberately obtuse, I genuinely don’t understand. Lots of people say those things to me and it’s really lovely because it’s a form of affirmation and we all like to have affirmation but I genuinely don’t understand why people would think that about me, except maybe I do think I’m genuinely interested in all types of people.
Which, looking at your profile, we’ve talked about things like Individualisation and WOO and Positivity and there’s all the things that would make you a real people person so I can see how being that bridge would be a very natural fit for you.
I think it’s an interesting thought. Lots of people say that to me, you’re not the first person to say that to me and I genuinely do not understand but I take it as a huge compliment and take it that whatever I do when I try to be the best that I can be, that I’m making some sort of positive impact on people and I just need to carry on trying to be the best person that I can be is how I look at it I think.
And I like that humility, you know, I guess if you were like “well of course you’d see me like that because I’m an absolute Rockstar and superstar!” I don’t think that would be authentically you!
No, I’ve always been a trier, I was never in the popular gang at school, I was always the swot, so I’ve never been one of those people who’s liked, in fact sometimes when I go to places and there are people there who know who I am, I feel quite embarrassed. I’m much more reserved than I think that people think I am which is quite interesting. So even though I’ve got high WOO, Positivity and Communications, sometimes when I’m going somewhere I have a sense of “oh my goodness me, this is going to be really difficult, I don’t know anybody”. But once I get warmed up I’m generally fine, it’s the pre bit that’s hard. So even people like me who’ve got WOO as no. 1, going into a room sometimes is still hard but I do enjoy people. One of the things, I’ve found myself doing, quite a long time ago and I thought ‘oh, that’s one of the things that you do Anne’, which is I always seek a connection on the deepest layer that I can with people so I’ll ask them about where do they live, where do you come from and I seek connection and then once I’ve established a connection it’s much easier to have different types of conversations with people. I remember once and there was a really tricky guy who this big team found really difficult to deal with, and I remember thinking, well ok and I went in and met him and we sat there and had a conversation “Well where do you come from?” and he came from a village which was like 3 miles from where I came from and from that day onwards we were best buddies and the rest of the team could not understand how I’d managed. Now yes it was a coincidence that we were from the same place, but it was about seeking that depth of communication with people so that’s something that I think I do instinctively.
Winning Others Over, your strongest talent, breaking the ice, finding a connection and building that relationship. Again, my observation of you was you know, chatting to someone who knew you and could exchange a few words and the first time we met and had a proper meeting and a proper talk, suddenly I feel like I’ve known you for ages and it’s got there really quickly. So we’ve talked about strengths, what about weaknesses? What do you struggle with and sometimes that’s the things at the bottom of our profile, it’s areas of non-talent, sometimes it’s things at the top of our profile where we over-use them or don’t use them in a good way or sometimes it’s other stuff, it’s anything that gets in the way of our success. So what are your weaknesses?
No. 34 is Consistency, I can be inconsistent. I think in lots of ways. If you have this person who is out there who is seeking opportunity, who is listening to people, your mind gets changed quite often, you flip about, you’re listening, you’re absorbing and I think sometimes that takes me to a place where I’m not always consistent, I’ve got a new idea today, I’ve got another new idea tomorrow, and also that leads you to a place where you’re not always the same thing the same way over and over again. And I have little discipline and I have little ability to deliver, only if I’ve promised you that I’ll deliver, so I completely see those things. I like working with people who are the absolute opposite to me who cover up my weaknesses so I worked with somebody recently who we were like ying and yang and it felt so good because I knew she was on it. I absolutely knew she was on it and she knew that I was up there at the front chatting to everybody and doing that type of work and she was very happy to do the other stuff and that’s what I seek to do, find people who can help me to balance out some of my less strong strengths really.
That’s a perfect example of what we call Complementary Partnerships in strengths based leadership so people who have got something that you are not naturally talented at and provided that you recognise that and appreciate each other for what you bring, that’s really powerful. So what do you like about Clifton Strengths because you seem to have turned into quite a fan quite quickly?
Yes I have, I have our team doing it as well. Clifton for me is great for when you are trying to inspire people and to get them to focus on the things that they’re good at. I suppose not trying to fix them. So everybody has something to bring to the table, everybody has skills and assets that they can develop and grow and lever, but traditionally in the past, all leadership programmes I ever did were a list of things that you had to be good at and find things that you’re not very good at and work on those, whereas I feel that actually it’s much more positive and motivating to be able to contribute the things that you’re uniquely good at and that’s what Clifton is about for me, it’s about identifying, sharing and progressing the things that you’re uniquely skilled and talented in really.
And you had an interesting observation in terms of how it relates to and helps confidence?
Yes, I think that if somebody has been told that they need some coaching for example and there’s a problem, the wrong thing to do I think is to just go straight to that problem and to start to try and work out what they could do differently because it just reinforces the problem, it reinforces the things that they’re not very good at. It’s much more motivating to start with what they’re good at and their strengths and to try to help them navigate from there to the things that they’re not quite so good at and how they can either lever their strengths or think differently about the way they do the things that they’re not very good at. I just think that we do everything the wrong way round when we are thinking about a deficit base model and Clifton doesn’t encourage that really. I know that Clifton says you can over lever your strengths and I know that it says that there are blind spots and they’re all useful, but it’s a positivist approach to people which is what I prefer.
Yes, it feels philosophically like it’s coming from a positive approach and I love the definition of weaknesses in Clifton Strengths which is that it’s anything that gets in the way of your success, so it might be an area of lesser talent or it could be a strength over-used or mis-used.
I also like the way, so I’ve worked with you now and I’ve heard the profiles given of maybe 10 or 12 people, and I like the way that Clifton seems to bring those together in a more unique way. So if you look at things like MBTI, and you say ‘oh I’m an ENTJ’ and someone else is like ‘oh I’m an ENTJ’ like you’re the same – course you’re not the same, whereas Clifton allows that uniqueness to shine through which a lot of the others don’t I think.
Well and that’s the fundamental difference in terms of any of these assessments between type and trait. So type is where you say, right there’s two types of people in the world, Type A and B and where people talk about right brain, left brain, stuff like that, or there’s 8 types of people or 9 types of people, 16 types of people, whereas, trait is looking at the relative presence of different traits and just provides such a richer insight into people.
I would agree with that.
Let’s move on from strengths because I want to talk about mindset. What’s it like to be Anne? What’s it like to be in your head?
Increasingly comfortable which is a reflection a made recently about how increasingly I can be at peace with myself. I wasn’t always like that. I think I went through a phase where I was quite hard on myself and I think there is something that comes with age around, stuff about your strengths, it’s celebrating your strengths and not trying to correct yourself about the things you’re less strong at. Recognising them, understanding them, but not trying to be a super hero, that stuff I’ve talked to you before about being good at what you’re good at and recognising what you’re not so good at. When I was younger, I guess I had a high focus on being an all-rounder, good at everything. When I was at school I was the same, I was in the choir, I was in music, I was in the drama group, I was a tiny bit sporty, not very good but I was determined, so I was determined to be an all-rounder, but as I’ve got older I guess I’m more accepting of the things that I’m not quite so good at because 9 times out of 10 I don’t want to do them anyway. So as I’ve got older I’ve got better at balancing that out, I’ve got better at forgiving myself. When I was younger I was really hard on myself, if something went wrong, I’d really punish myself for weeks and weeks and weeks and I was reflecting the other day that I now have a pattern which is that if something upsets me or doesn’t go very well, I need to talk about it, so that’s my extroversion, so I think out loud, so I need people who will tolerantly listen and I’ve got lots of good friends and colleagues so I’d talk it over with them one day and then I wouldn’t sleep very well and then the next day I’ll still be mulling it over but not quite so loudly, should I say, but by the end of that day I’ve processed it and I go to bed and I sleep and the next day I’m fine. That I think is a pattern that I now recognise so I have to have people around me who understand that day one, like my poor husband for example because I do need to chew it over, but 48 hours later and it will be fine. It takes a bit of reflection and learning about yourself to be able to move to the place where you understand that process I think. That’s why I like the leadership development work because that’s why I think reflective practice is at the heart of it for me because if you learn to recognise what’s happening to yourself, you can either make it happen quicker or better or in a less protracted way when things have gone wrong so I guess that’s one of the things that I’ve learned more latterly.
So you said that you’re becoming ‘increasingly comfortable’, so what were you like in your younger career then in terms of mindset and thought processes? You talked about trying to become an all-rounder.
I was very driven but a bit quirky. I blogged for quite a number of years, I’ve not done any for a while and one of the blogs in that I talk about being an outsider. I’ve always felt that I was at the edge of everything and the centre of nothing and I think that being at the edge is a really interesting place to be. Sometimes I felt a lack of, I remember doing a leadership programme where I talked about this and somebody actually said to be “but does it matter, do you have to be in the centre, does it matter if you’re not?” and I think over time I’ve concluded that sitting at the edge of things is actually a very fortunate place to be because you can look further, you can see more, you’re not looking in quite so much, but I’ve always chosen jobs that were at the edge of things, things that had the potential to make change really.
So it’s now about a month after we recorded the podcast and we’re recording a little brief intermission; So Anne, after we’d recorded the podcast I think a day or two later, I released the podcast with Sam Miekle and you had an interesting reaction. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
You did and there were two things that happened and they sort of came together after I’d listened to Sam’s podcast because I love Sam and I find her enormously impressive and I found the original recording of the podcast that we did together quite difficult actually. I found it quite difficult to talk about myself, I found it difficult to express how I felt about some of things that I’d done and then I compared what I think I’d said to what I heard from Sam and I also went and listened to Rachel Dunscombe’s podcast too and then I had a terrible terrible sense of ‘my podcast isn’t worth this, it isn’t good enough to be alongside these incredible people’s stories’ and it felt horrible actually! It wasn’t a nice a feeling at all.
I know I felt really guilty when I saw your tweets, it’s just like ‘oh, you feel bad about it’ and that’s not how should feel about it because I was really pleased with the interview because it’s so inciteful about so many things. Is that something you tend to do then, compare yourself to other people in that respect then? How do you do this, is this an unusual thing for you to do or is this sort of something that you do?
No it’s not an unusual thing for me to do for me, it’s a long-held thing that I’ve done and I know that I do it as well which is worse because it’s one of those particular things that you know you do something and you know it doesn’t make you feel particularly good but actually you still can’t stop yourself doing it which is unfortunate really and sometimes I do think I’m too old and long in the tooth to change some of things that are so deeply held really.
I challenge that.
Yes I knew you would!
So how does this show up for you then?
I feel very difficult. There’s a difference between what my head knows and what my heart inside says and it’s that differential, that dissonance that creates the problem. If I reflect on some things that I’ve done, I know that they would never have happened had I not been there, my head tells me that, yet inside I know it wouldn’t have happened if other people hadn’t been there as well and therefore I don’t feel I can say that it’s my achievement. I feel like I’ve wandered through life contributing to things but never really achieving anything. Now my head tells me that’s not true but then my feelings again tell me, ‘course that’s true Anne, you never achieve anything, you’ve never done anything’ and I have this inner voice that just keep chatting back to my head and it is a version of imposter syndrome isn’t it? That’s what it is, it’s the voice saying ‘well how can you say that that was your achievement?’. And interestingly I was helping somebody else a week or so ago and I saw a perfect example of how I behaved in her CV and I thought ‘oh yeah that’s what I do’ and I looked at it and I could see it and what she’d done was she’d expressed in her CV the things that she’d done but she never claimed any of it as hers at all and that’s what I do all the time, that’s what I do.
You see and that’s an interesting insight because it took me a while to get to know you. I’d bumped into you a few times, you’d been on a Masterclass, you’d come along on a panel for us, but I’d seen you speak at a few events, things like eHealth Week and I always regarded you as a superstar and I was like ‘Ah there’s Annie Coops speaking on stage!’ and it’s like then for you to hear that story that you tell yourself is completely different isn’t it?
It’s really strange as well isn’t it because if I’m in the zone I’m fine so I don’t have a lack of confidence, it’s not the same thing, it’s like a reflective activity, it’s like pre-activity or a post-activity so when I’m doing things like speaking, I love speaking, and that’s my WOO I think, I love doing all of that and my communication as well, so I love doing all of that, so when I’m in the flow I don’t think about being a voice saying ‘who do you think you are being up on this stage Anne?’, I just think I’m enjoying being on this stage and I’ve got things that I can express and talk about. It’s the reflective part, it’s the claiming credit, and I know I guess I was brought up to be, modesty was valued in family, being modest was seen as a positive attribute, whereas a lot of the time when we are doing things in our career, we’re almost expected to be, I suppose my family would say immodest and my family would say ‘well who do you think you are?’. So some of that is built into my DNA as well so it’s a cultural, social thing as much as it’s anything else.
So I was going to ask the question where it came from but you’ve answered that question already. What do you do to manage this, how do you work around this? What’s worked?
Do you know, I don’t know. Sometimes I just struggle with it and sometimes I don’t. I mean I think because you are asking me questions about me, it brought it out in a way that much other activity doesn’t in quite the same way. It’s that level of conversation that makes me uncomfortable. I’m an extrovert, I love people, I like talking to people, I like being with people but I read the Susan Cain book about introversion and what I realised was that introversion isn’t just about your ability to be in a crowd and to hold your own and there are parts of me that are actually quite introverted and I think it’s when I’m in those introversion spaces that these particular voices and heart challenges come through I think.
I think that spectrum of saying people are either extrovert or introvert is far too simplistic and a lot of people are ambiverts and can actually show different characteristics of both. So I’m extrovert, I’d happily spend all day long with people but then there are times when, do you know what, I love my own company and I might head off to a library to work for a bit to work as well because then I can’t speak to anybody at all.
Yeah and one of the things I don’t like and again I don’t know where this comes from, but it might be again family, it might be that modesty, it might be that ‘who do you think you are, everybody is equal, everybody deserves’ whatever, but I don’t like being centre of attention. So I like to be an achiever, I like to see outcomes and I like to see that happening but I don’t like to be the centre of attention. So for me the worst scenario is when you are leaving a job and everybody wants to tell you that they’ve liked working with you and care about you and they don’t want you to leave and they have a big presentation and say things, that is like my worst nightmare. But I don’t know why for somebody who is so confident, you know for this person who doesn’t mind getting on the stage, why do I have these dilemmas? And it’s that dissonance between ‘you don’t deserve this Anne’ you know and my head saying ‘course you deserve it, you’ve worked here for 20 years’ you know that type of story that goes on inside me if that makes sense?
So what stories do you tell yourself then?
It just goes backwards and forwards and in the end how I deal with it is that I park it so I don’t feel able to knock the gremlin of the heart speak on the head but what I do know is that it will go away so I do know it will stop, it’s not completely disabling, it isn’t completely disabling, it’s sometimes a bit upsetting, sometimes a bit irritating. I mean I was actually quite upset when I reflected on the podcast. I was quite surprised at how emotional I felt about it and I also felt like I’d let myself down. I thought that I’d left myself down, I thought there are so many things Anne that you really really know in your head, remember the head space, that you could talk about and yet you didn’t because this little voice inside was saying ‘well that’s not yours to claim’ or ‘that’s not really your story, that’s everybody’s story’. So I find it quite an emotional thing as well and I tend to deal with it by just getting on with it, just getting on with the next thing, just trying to do the best that I can at the next thing that I’ve decided to do really, it that makes sense?
It does. And we talked about the stories that you tell yourself that are not helpful. When you tell yourself stories that are more helpful and more empowering, what are they like? What’s that inner voice when it’s working well?
Yeah, that feels really nice, it’s motivating, it makes me aspire to do more of the things that I think that I’ve achieved and I’ve done well. I love nothing more than, I don’t like the big crowd of people coming to say thank you but I do like individuals coming to me and saying ‘you know Anne you made a real difference to me by doing this’ and I think for me that’s where the good voices start and where I recognise that nobody else could have done that, that must have been what I did. So is that making sense? So those are the good voices where I think ‘yeah, I did do that, I did have that positive impact or a did deliver that or I did write those words’. It’s where I can feel that sense of responsibility for something if that makes sense?
So if you were advising somebody early in their career, who’s ears have just pricked up at these stories that you tell yourself that sort of hold you back because they’ve got the same, what advice would you give them?
I think I wish that I had been more reflective through my career I think because I think that I’m not very rigorous, I’m too busy to take a breath and I think I wished I’d been a bit more reflective. So I’d say be reflective, I’d say write it down. It doesn’t matter how you do it, it doesn’t matter whether you draw a picture or whether you write words or whether you type it or whatever, or even record it, because when you actually do that and when you actually look at it in black and white, you can see how ridiculous it is. So when I looked at this girl’s CV it looked silly because she could use power words around what she’d done, so I would encourage people to be more reflective. One of the things that I have been blessed with in my career is people around me who are happy for me to talk things through, so support networks. I call it my personal scaffolding. I say that you need to build around yourself some personal scaffolding. It could be family, in terms of my work it’s not my family because I don’t do work with them, but I have got lots of friends and good colleagues who create that scaffolding so when I’m having those little wobbles or vulnerable spaces, those are the people who say ‘well let’s talk about it, don’t be silly Anne, why are you telling yourself that story?’. So that’s what I’d do, I’d say those two things, be reflective, write it down or record it somehow and also make sure you’ve got some personal scaffolding, whatever works for you, I’d say.
Your tribe is so important isn’t it?
Yes, I’ve been very blessed actually. I don’t think I could have done what I have without having them. And I’m lucky aren’t I because all of my strengths play to orientate to having a strong sense of tribe and team, so I’m lucky in that respect I think. So yes, that’s what I’d advise them to do.
And now we return back to the original podcast interview… You said you were driven but it’s interesting, I think you are still very driven and I see that in you so I want to ask big picture. What impact do you want to make on this world on this universe, what’s driving you?
I used to want to do big system things, so I used to want to change nursing for example and I tried really hard to do that and maybe I did have some sort of impact I don’t know but that was a big ambition to have, but more latterly I’ve gone smaller but deeper. So I’m going to give you an example, I was once on Wakefield Station, and this made me cry, so I’m on the station and this girl came over to me, a little bit younger than me but not a lot, and said to me ‘are you Anne Cooper?’ and I said ‘Yes’. She didn’t look threatening so I said ‘Yes I am Anne Cooper’. She said ‘you don’t remember me do you?’ and I said ‘I’m sorry I think I recognise you but I don’t know where I know you from’ and she said ‘you were the Ward Sister on Ward 3 weren’t you at Killingbeck Hospital?’ and I said ‘yes I was’ and she say ‘my name is X or Y and I’ll never forget you’ and I had no idea what to say. And she said to me ‘you’ve changed my nursing career. I was probably going to leave nursing and I came to your ward and you gave me everything that I needed to develop me’ and she had quite a senior job in the health system, and what she was saying to me really was that me just being me, I think, because I won’t have been deliberately trying to have that impact on anybody, but me just trying to be the best ward sister that I could be had had that type of impact on a person, and for me now, having impact on people and helping people, individuals, is what I’m aiming to do rather than as much emphasis on the big system stuff. And that’s been a shift for me in the last few years.
Let me dig on that bit a little bit more then, so by the time you decide that you’re going to stop doing the sort of working bits and shift the focus a bit, what legacy do you want to have left? What would you like to be remembered for?
I’d like to be remembered for being a decent person, who wouldn’t say that? I’d like to be remembered as somebody who had a positive impact on nursing and the profession and from some individuals somebody who helped them in some way or another, so I guess on a number of layers really. The nursing stuff’s hard, it was tough, it was really tough, working in an area of the profession where it was an annexe really, nobody really took me seriously and I did lots of things to try and make me stand out so that people noticed and that’s where the blogging came from, the social media stuff came from that. I knew that in order to be recognised, to be seen, to be visible, I needed to do something different so I just experimented with different things that I’d never done in order to be noticed, in order to get my voice heard in a big space where there is a lot of noise, so that’s the sort of things that I did. So my impact on nursing for me is quite important but I’ve sort of left that a little bit now I think.
But still driven to make an impact? Just an evolving impact.
Yeah. When I said I was very driven, I hope I didn’t imply that I wasn’t driven now, I think I’m just differently driven now. I hope I’m driven until the day I’m not here any longer, so I’d like to think that I’ve the capacity to carry on being driven to do something.
So you’re still driven. We’ve touched on this earlier but how do you go about getting stuff done and achieving all that stuff and being organised and using your time? How do you go about doing that?
Hmmm, it’s a struggle sometimes.
You and me both!
I’m ok. For me part of the problem is focused time. I am ok if I can sit down with a good chunk of time and the capacity to do it. Because I’m this person who’s all over the place with ideas and everything else, what that means is constantly you’ve got new things flying in and being somebody who’s very active on social media means that I’m actually quite disrupted quite a lot of the time. So trying to carve out bits of time to do things is something that I do and I might not do that at a time when people would ordinarily do that so for example first thing in the morning for me is a quite productive time between 7-9 am when everybody in the house is busy doing their own thing, they don’t disturb me, so that’s a good time for me. I used to write all my blogs very productively in an evening time so I suppose my most productive times are not in the 9-5, I think in 9-5 I’m too busy WOO-ing people, talking to people in other words! So that’s one of the things that I do. I try to use technology as much as I can positively to help me to do things and I get other people to help me because I’m not very good at some things, so I’m not above saying ‘well I wouldn’t give me that to do because…’. So those are the sorts of things that I do. I am bit disorganised, I’ve got my lovely book, I always have a nice book. I used to be more organised in here, I used to write a lovely Things To Do List in the back but that seems to have disappeared since I finished work. So all sorts of little micro strategies I guess really, not one big thing. I actually, I don’t know if this is a bad thing to say, you’ll tell me that it isn’t I think, I don’t dislike myself and I understand that I’m a bit chaotic and I quite like being chaotic because it means some of my other needs are being fed around ideas and stimulus and drive and so why would I give that up just because I’m a bit disorganised? I need to tolerate the disorganisation and make sure it’s not stopping me delivering the things I’ve set up for myself. It’s like some scales isn’t it where you try to balance it out and get the right balance and sometimes you get it right and sometimes you get it wrong.
And it’s interesting, I think everybody’s different and that’s why I’m really interested in the question, so for me I’m not naturally organised but I work really hard at it and I’m a bit obsessed with productivity and that’s because I know if I feel organised then I’m more creative and at my best and I know that if I don’t feel organised, then I feel guilty about stuff and I’m not sort of at my best so in some ways I’m similar to you in that not being naturally organised, but then I like that feeling of being free, knowing that everything is organised as well.
I don’t need organisation to make me feel free at all! I mean I do feel guilty if I’ve made promises, that’s different but you’ve just made me realise something, I very much live in the moment, very much am present in the moment and I don’t feel the pressure of all the things that I should have done to be crowding in on me at all, I don’t feel that at all, never have done.
You see that’s really different to me so that is really interesting. So you’re sufficiently organised to get stuff done but you said that you enjoy some of the chaos?
Yes, I guess so, I’ve just got used to it! You’ve made me reflect that I am very present I think so I know that if I go into a meeting, even if when I was in my big job, I had lots and lots of things to do, when I got into the meeting room and I was with the people and we were discussing or making decisions about something, I was very present, not worried about what I hadn’t done or what I wasn’t doing, that would come when I walked back out through the door I think. So that’s probably related to some of my strengths though around people isn’t it I’d imagine?
Yes. So I want to talk a bit about well-being and resilience. How do you look after yourself and that’s both mentally and physically and bigger picture?
Living with Type 1 diabetes is not easy and I guess sometimes I underplay how difficult that is. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had reasonable health around that for a long time, touching wood as I speak(!), but it does take its toll. I mean the amounts of times in the day when you have to think about it would mind blow most people I think. I read something yesterday that said a child who pre going to school has 26 decisions to make before they actually leave the house around their diabetes from getting up to going out to school. And I think that’s fair, so there’s that, but I think diabetes, and I’ve heard other people saying this, makes you strong in a different sort of way. It makes you really resilient.
Say more about that.
You’ve tested yourself in lots of ways and there’s been lots and lots of challenges. You know we seek out challenge, some people are quite vocal about seeking challenge and needing challenge for stimulus but when you’ve got Type 1 diabetes you are challenged all the time so you learn how resilient you are. You learn that you can deal with problems, you learn that you can see things through, you learn that you have to stay focussed, but of course remember, this Anne who is disorganised so sometimes my diabetes management, there are some people who are really organised and my chaotic stuff leads into, but I manage in the same way that I manage the rest of my life. So I think diabetes is a factor around learning about yourself, what you tolerate, where the challenges are, how you deal with adversity, that sort of thing. Other than that, I’m not particularly fit but I’m trying. I’ve always tried on and off to stay fit and well and we eat well at home. I’ve got a very happy family background. The other thing that I’ve always been really good at, and I guess that comment that I made earlier about focus with people maybe this too, so I’ve always switched off. There’s a certain time in a working week where I am no longer working and I like transition from work to home and it’s like I almost become a different person, but clearly my strengths and things are the same and my friends would recognise this I think, my strength profile, but I always used to stop working on a Friday and never worked on a weekend until Monday morning, never, unless there was a really big reason why I would do that. So compartmentalising work and home has been something I’ve always done. I’ve never practised anything like mindfulness or anything like that. I understand and recognise why perhaps I should but I sort of do that in a slightly different way by going to the cinema with my friends or I’ve got a really really strong group of women friends who, they wouldn’t recognise some of the things that you said about me earlier I don’t think, they’d just laugh and take the Michael out of me!
Yes we’ve all got mates like that!
But all of that’s part of how you stay well isn’t it? It’s about that level of diversity. I’ve got a lot of support, I’ve got a very supportive family so I’m very fortunate really, I’m very lucky, I’m very lucky!
You do seem content with your lot but I’m really interested with you saying ‘oh I’m not into this mindfulness thing, I do it in a different way’. I can read a study about mindfulness is brilliant, it’s going to change the world for everybody and I’m not going to mention which programme, but I walked out of a programme once that was all about ‘mindfulness is the answer to absolutely everything’ and that wasn’t supposed to be the focus of it, and the next study I read says ‘mindfulness is not good’ and my experience, what I observe, it’s brilliant for some people, for others, you’ll do it in a different way and it’s about trying different things to see what works for you.
I have tried, I did do it with one of my friends a mindfulness programme, a little short programme and it was fine but also I read somewhere, and I thought this was really interesting, this study said that some types of fitness activity are actually better than others and it ranked the gym quite highly, and when you unpicked why that was, it was because when you go to the gym and you’re doing this regime, and I’ve got my spreadsheet with all the things I’ve got to do, and it says I’ve got to do 10 of those and 12 of those and then I move on and I have a break of a minute, when you’re doing that you can’t think about anything else. When you’re constantly counting multiples of 10 or 12, you can’t be worrying about what’s on your things to do list because it’s impossible. So some of these activities have a mindfulness of their own which is about pushing out things, unwanted thoughts and so on so I thought that was really intriguing that it doesn’t always have to be a sort of a very purposeful activity, it can be something else and the gym works for me in that way. When I’m there, I just can’t think of anything else. Not that I look like I go to the gym, maybe, maybe in a while that will happen! A transformation!
It’s interesting, I always used to take the mickey out of people who would always go and play tennis in the rain, I’ve always sort of said ‘look tennis is a summer thing isn’t it?’ and I’m going to something at the tennis club called Rusty Rackets for people who used to play and haven’t played for ages, and last night I didn’t want to miss it so I did my hour at the tennis club in the pouring rain, but it was brilliant because you’re just completely focussing on what you’re doing and where you are and your feet and your grip and swing and following through with the swing and it’s like yeah, it’s a form of mindfulness, so it was really good for me.
So you’ve talked about your Type 1 diabetes, you’ve talked a bit about how you look after yourself. I’d be really interested if you’re happy to talk about it, how do you use your different worlds, how do you use your technology to help with your Type 1 diabetes?
I’m very proud to have been invited in the first round of something called Tad Talks, have I mentioned this before?
You’ve mentioned very briefly which is why I asked the question.
So the lovely Dr Partha Kar, with some other doctors set up something called “Talk About Diabetes” which is sort of styled on Ted Talks really and I was one of the first people who did one in the first year but I think we’re on year 3 or 4 now. And in that I talked about my diabetes story, my history and I talk about what it was like when I was first diagnosed. I was still testing wee and you can’t do a lot of that out of your handbag when you’re wandering or whatever. And then I talked about the evolution of all the technology developments that had come along since 1979 through to today, and if I look at my life now, with my technology now, it’s unrecognisable. This is Star Trek stuff (I was a fan when I was younger!) compared to how it was back then and I think about how fortunate we are, so more recently I’ve got my Freestyle Libre which means that I can look at what my blood glucose is doing on my iphone which is a marvel. I can look at patterns and trends, I can see the data, I can adjust and make decisions in real time in a way that was unimaginable a decade ago really. So it feels in some ways easier now than it ever did really.
So how does that work then because I know my Mum had diabetes and it’s like her fingers would always be marked and sore from taking blood tests so many times a day, so how does this work now in terms of the monitoring?
So it’s a little tiny electrode that sits in your tissues on my arm currently which is where you’re supposed to wear it and that sends a little Bluetooth reading to your phone or to a device to tell you what your interstitial glucose is and then there’s a little algorithm that works out what that means your blood glucose is, but then it not only tells you what that it is at that point in time, it tracks it for you as well so you can see a beautiful little graph that shows you what it’s been for a period of time, however long, and that means that I only rarely prick my fingers now. In fact I was just looking, the finger that I’m holding now used to be sore because it was always my favourite finger and it’s no longer sore and in fact some of the hard skin that used to be on it is starting to disappear which I hadn’t noticed until you said, so it’s a massive difference, a massive difference. Technology and the speed that it’s accelerating has the potential to really change people’s lives. That’s one of the reasons why I was interested in it. That’s one of the reasons why I always thought it mattered. The application of innovative technology is huge for people like me.
In terms of well-being we’ve talked about mental well-being but also that physical well-being, that’s a really great example of technology totally transforming things and the management of something.
I’ve got an insulin pump as well but I feel like that’s just part of me now and I forget about it but that was as transformative. I think I got it about 9 years ago, it doesn’t feel like I’ve had it 9 years, but again I remember when I got it the doctor had to persuade me to have it because I’d been managing for so long without it my argument was ‘well this is going to be really difficult to do and why would I do that when I’ve been managing’ but I did it because he said ‘come on Anne, you’re going to have to have a go’ and it was transformative. I felt I suddenly went from, what on reflection was not systemically well, to feeling much more systemically well, more normal.
So the pump; injections are often given once or twice a day aren’t they of insulin, with the pump how often is your body receiving insulin?
So as often as I want it to. It’s got a pipe, a piece of tubing with a little tiny piece of plastic canular that goes into me and then I can just tell the pump to give me. It’s got some insulin running all the time, what’s called the basal rate, and then when I eat I just have some more insulin but no injections. So you just insert the giving set every third day.
So how do you instruct it to give you more insulin?
Well, there’s two ways, you can whip it out of your bra which is what I do and I’ve been seen to do that on stage at conferences! Or, I don’t use mine, there’s a little remote control you can use, but I’m terrible, I have got a thing about control, it’s not in my strengths is it? I am quite controlling so I don’t trust the remote control so I get the pump out and press buttons on the pump to tell it what to do!
So do you think it’ll get to a day when your app that is monitoring levels and the pump are connected and using those algorithms and AI?
Yes, definitely – in fact that’s already happening – and one of the things that I think is really interesting about this is, there’s a movement called “We are not waiting” which is a patient movement and actually I’m going to try and tell the story in a very potted way so forgive me if anyone listens in and knows the story better than me, but effectively this was some parents of babies who had Type 1, and I know that’s really difficult and if you’re going to have motivated people, there’s nobody more highly motivated in my opinion than parents of children with long term conditions, much more highly motivated than adults with a long term condition like me. They decided that the technology wasn’t keeping up and they could do better because they’re clever people and there is this assumption in the health system that the health system knows best and everybody else is a bit dim! Whereas in fact in society there’s everybody, there’s clever programmers, there’s clever technologists, just like there are in the health system. So they decided to break the rules and they hacked into devices and they set up a device that showed them what their children’s blood glucose was doing remotely on a device like an iphone and then they have gone on subsequently, there’s somebody called Dana Lewis (1:07:5) in the United States who is probably one of the people who most people talk about, and they’ve gone on to develop their own closed loop pancreas system and that’s patients with open API’s and hacking into the back of equipment. The health system and the technology system can’t keep pace with those developments and I think it’s interesting to observe that they did that for years and years and were seen as anti-system I think, but now we’re starting to see more collaboration between those people and the technology people in the system but also doctors and so on. I remember I was in this room, it was a lecture theatre, and I was talking about some of this and I talked about “We are not waiting” to a room of doctors and they were horrified! I can remember them saying to me ‘well I could never recommend that to anybody” and I just said to them ‘well if it was your child what would you do?, if it was your daughter or your baby, what would you do?’ and I think it throws out some real ethical dilemmas for people so it’s a very interesting area of working in the technology space I think. They’re much more radical than me by the way, in a good way, I respect them for that.
Well ethical dilemmas, regulatory dilemmas as well, it’s one of the things I love to see in kind of digital technology and social media, is the way it can empower patients but particularly bring people together and bring communities together who may not ordinarily meet and sort of help them to act.
I saw a Tweet yesterday because I participate in, I’m a bit flirty aren’t I, I’m aware I spend my time on Twitter, but I’m in the diabetes world and somebody had tweeted that they’d set up their closed loop system in two and a half hours, they were a new user. And you get all the API stuff and the instructions and you do it yourself so you’re taking responsibility for your own system delivery. My anxiety with all of that, if I have one, is that it’s not equitable. There are some people who won’t be able to do that and how do we make sure that everybody has an equal opportunity or is that not possible? I don’t know. There’s other ethical dilemmas around some of it as well.
Yes and it’s a valid concern, it’s like whenever we put stuff on the web and assume that it’s open access, there are always people who don’t have internet access and it means that there are people, so yeah, it’s a really valid concern. So, well-being, there’s loads you do to look after yourself in loads of different ways, including using the technology. I want to ask you a big reflection question now. What would you say to your younger self? What would Anne now say to younger Anne?
Be brave. Be braver.
Say more about that.
When people talk to me and say ‘oh gosh that was a brave thing to do’ going to work at NHS Direct for example when I was working in a big Acute Trust in a quasi-management sort of role. ‘That was a big jump’. It wasn’t. I think I’ve chosen wisely rather than bravely and I would say to myself, be courageous and just do it. Just do it, it will be fine. You’ve got the skills, you’ve got the resources, just do it, it will work out fine and that’s what I wished I’d known when I was 18.
So what do you think future Anne will say to Anne now?
Just do it!! Haha!!
Exactly the same message!
Yeah, I think I would also now say to myself, don’t worry you don’t have to prove anything to anybody so just have fun, just do the things that matter to you and be less concerned about what other people think. I always used to be very concerned about what other people used to think but now I’m less concerned. I guess that’s a sign of being more comfortable with myself as well.
If people want to connect with you, find out more about you, where can they find you online?
Oh they can find me most places can’t they! So I’m definitely on Twitter and they’ll definitely find me there so I’m @anniecoops on Twitter. I’m also on LinkedIn in the usual sort of places. My Facebook profile is personal, private but on Twitter it’s a free for all!
I tend to be the same, you can find me on Twitter, you can find me on LinkedIn, if you try to connect with me on Facebook, you’d only get photos of the dog and beans on toast on a Friday night which are not particularly interesting.
No, I agree they’re not particularly interesting. HaHa!
Yes, thank you! HaHa! What about your blog?
Oh yeah, the blog’s a little big dormant at the moment but it’s www.anniecoops.com and there’s some reflections on there that I’ve written over a number of years really. I must get back to doing it actually. I’m also going to have a little experiment with podcasting, that’s another. You see you’ve stimulated my interest Ian, that’s what happens, that’s what you get with me!
That’s what those strengths say, she’ll be off having a go somewhere!
Well we will look forward to it at some point, we’ll link to it.
Good, that will be good fun.
So you can get to be on the other side of the microphone.
Ah, brilliant, look, just to say Anne Cooper, thank you so much for this and it’s just really brilliant to hear your story.
Thank you and thank you for having me.