A different kind of diabetes week: learning about how to improve diabetes care – by Sarah Woodman

Dietitian Sarah Woodman reflects on a recent visit to Ashridge Business School, as part of her leadership training as a Diabetes UK Clinical Champion.

It has been a different kind of diabetes week. Thanks to the Clinical Champion programme I attended the launch of a Diabetes UK report at the Houses of Parliament. A great experience to share with other champions and staff at the charity.

I live and work in Hampshire and, by coincidence Paul, another current Diabetes UK Clinical Champion, lives literally a mile down the road from me. Our clinical champion experience therefore starts a couple of hours before arriving at Ashridge as we have time travelling together, reflecting, planning, sharing and generally catching up with the local diabetes world before we arrive at the grand venue that is Ashridge Business School.

Last time the Champions congregated at this magnificent place it was midsummer and we spent much of the programme appreciating the beautiful grounds; finding out about others in this group, our plans and visions in our pockets of the diabetes world.

This time we were treated to an array of autumnal colours as we journeyed along the drive passing woodland full of fallen leaves that any child, anyone, would just love to kick their way through. The woodland gives way to parkland and the building comes into sight. A gothic castle? A Tudor palace? Or convincing modern reproduction?


We get checked in, drop belongings in our rooms before gathering for lunch and gradually familiar faces trickle in.

It is really lovely to see these people again, people whose paths I never would normally have crossed but here we are, selected into this group who are genuinely passionate about making life better for people with diabetes.

United in improving diabetes care for patients – Diabetes UK’s Clinical Champions and staff at Ashridge

There are 20 champions in this cohort; diabetes consultants, GPs, dietitians, pharmacists, nurses, podiatrists. Inpatient and community services represented equally. Males, females, those who have worked in diabetes for many years and those who have only recently started to specialise, those new to management and others with more experience to share.

Everyone has a mission, a personal goal to develop and practice leadership skills alongside a project created to improve diabetes care in the local area. A cohort supported so ably by the Diabetes UK representatives Mhukti, Beth and Amy, Catherine and Katherine from Novo Nordisk, with Guy from Ashridge at the helm with his infectious smile and oozing leadership knowledge.

Our module starts with a short crossover with last year’s cohort. A Mexican wave around the room introduces us by name and area before we get into small groups of current and outgoing Champions defined by our project themes. My intended project coming into the programme was to develop volunteer lay educators in the local area providing practical skills and education to help fellow people diabetes live better and more easily.

This has, through circumstance within our Trust, been diverted via a need to develop a specialist diabetes offering to our community teams and community hospitals. I was therefore in a small group with experienced champions Parajit (Birmingham), Sarah (Margate) and Helen (Leicester) and Fiona (Inverness) in my cohort. Parajit and Sarah explained their experiences of the past couple of years, the simple yet effective improvements they are making in their local hospitals and how the clinical champion role had given them the confidence and platform to enable these to happen. The course gives practical skills and a wider network to be able to influence and lead change while holding the ‘champion’ title makes local decision leaders recognise and respect what you have to say.

After our ‘theme’ chats we stopped for coffee (there is a big emphasis on coffee breaks here – not just for the nourishment but the time to connect with one another is valued) and regrouped into our professional groups. Just three dietitians in our group – Alison from last year and Frances and I from this year. I was really pleased to have an opportunity to talk with Alison, having previously seen her speak at DUK APC last year – in fact it was Alison who inspired me to apply to become a Champion. She has been working with Prof Roy Taylor on the DIRECT study but she wasn’t giving away any sneak previews of the results!

The 16-17 cohort had now completed the Ashridge element of the Clinical Champion Programme and departed with heavy hearts. This would be us next year, time is really ticking by, I really need to make the most of this experience.

Everyone was looking forward to ‘The Fishbowl’ that was planned for later that evening. We didn’t really know what it was to involve except that national diabetes leaders would be swimming within!!

We had the opportunity for a tour of the building. Stories from Henry VIII to Harry Potter, a well worked by ponies, a monastery, a tree planted by a young Queen Victoria (somewhat blocking the view) and a room decorated by the extravagant party girl who modelled the nude statues beneath the mantelpiece on her gardeners.

Back together we shared stories and experiences since we last met. Champions have really grown since last time, their confidence boosted by media appearances, invitations to previously out of reach meetings and all on a steep learning curve.

“Takeaways from Ashridge are transferrable to other parts of life: Aim higher, have a go, try a bit harder” encourages Guy.

A TED talk “Dare to Disagree” proved an inspiring watch, reducing one of the group to tears – a real lightbulb moment for her, some kind of epiphany?

“Openness alone cannot make change happen”

“Provocation and disturbing ‘normal’ is important for change”

“Seek out thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers”

“Link with people very different to yourself, see conflict as thinking”

Difficult to do, unnatural to do but we are on this journey to do things differently, to develop, grow and try things out in a supportive environment. Guy’s words echo “Aim higher, have a go, try a bit harder”.

We are joined by national diabetes leaders Chris Askew, CEO Diabetes UK, Jonathan Valabji, National Clinical Director (England) and his Welsh counterpart Julia Platts, Adam Burt – Novo Nordisk UK Director of Market Access and Public Affairs, and Anne Cooper, Chief Nurse at NHS Digital.

Sat in a large circle around the room looking in on the ‘fishbowl’ a small circle of national diabetes leaders, Guy and an empty chair. We witnessed a flowing conversation about what leadership means to them, their key skills and talents, their inherent curiousness about what is possible and passion, drive, determination to see it through. Tidal waves of learning and tips to cling onto and apply back at base. Natural talent for leadership is important but so is the desire to continually improve – a bit like managing a chronic condition – there’s always something to work on.

“Always have three lines in the water” (Anne)

“Believe everyone is doing their best” (Adam)

The networking opportunities presented by this programme and the residentials are going to make such a difference, the sharing of ideas, resources and the developing relationships nationwide are going to have a huge impact on local and national diabetes care. Coffee breaks, around the meal tables, in the bar, dawn walks, in the formal sessions – so much to share.

Thought provoking sessions on the second day opened our minds to using local and national diabetes data to measure the impact of change and reflections on influencing others, the assumptions we make and the different strategies we could use.

We considered our projects and what was holding us back using a tool as simple as asking ourselves “How can I…….?”. We asked ourselves how would huge companies solve this problem? How would they use their company values, strategies, social media presence? We sabotaged our own ideas – why have I not thought of this before?! An idea that appealed to many in the group, an idea that will no doubt be featuring in future team away days across the UK.

All too soon it was time to leave. Time to commit to our plans before we meet again. Key themes of involving others, raising profiles, refreshing priorities, restoring energy by getting off the dancefloor and onto the balcony. The need be kind to ourselves; to focus on, reflect upon and apply the learning so enthusiastically delivered by Guy.

With bulging to-do lists and buzzing with ideas we are whisked away in different directions, back to our diabetes worlds. Nothing is too much trouble at Ashridge. You are made to feel special, a privileged guest who feels humbled to be part of this experience. The grandeur, the care, the knowledge. Thank you DUK, thank you Guy, thank you Novo for making it all possible.

Find out more about the Clinical Champions programme
Find out more about Sarah’s interest as a Clinical Champion

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