An interview with Alla Kashif

International Women’s Day 2020 – interview series

In celebration of International Women's Day, we interviewed five women from Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust.

In this second interview, we spoke with Alla Kashif, finance manager for research services, and asked her about what inspires her, if spreadsheets can ever be exciting, and the struggles of juggling a career and family.  

What do you do?

I’m the finance manager for research services within the financial management team which is part of the Finance Department.

I’m a qualified accountant, and on a day to day I provide financial advice, support and guidance to the associate director of research, the research office and grant funding holders. 

Research at the Trust is quite varied and therefore has many different streams of grant funding. There are a lot of caveats around what you can spend funding on and what you can’t. So, part of my role is making sure that what’s being spent is as per the conditions of the grant and reporting back to the funding providers. 

Describe your typical day.

It’s always so different and varied with research, which is nice. One day I could be dealing with the research office, or I could be speaking with consultants, or senior research nurses. Other times I’ll be looking at specific projects or grants, helping with costings, drawing up a forecast or dealing with external audit queries.

I also work closely with the Trust charities because they also generously fund some streams of research staffing and infrastructure.  

Some days I might get a lot of external queries because we do a lot of collaboration with other organisations, like Imperial College. That might involve checking the status of a project, the finances, the schedules and invoices. 

I have to remember a lot of detail in my role because there’s lots going on at any one time and you’ve got some quite big grants and others which are relatively small which I constantly have to switch between.

So, it’s not just all about spreadsheets?

Yes, most of it does involve spreadsheets! I love Excel spreadsheets – who doesn’t? 

A lot of the information is captured in spreadsheets, so they are kind of like my best friend, whether that be for calculating or capturing data. As well as using financial and reporting systems.

What inspired you to get into your chosen career?

Originally, I actually wanted to go into law. But then I did Business Studies at A-Levels and I really enjoyed the different aspects and elements to it including the finance and marketing.  

So, during my A-Levels, I decided I wanted to do a business management finance degree. When I was looking for degrees, I was trying to find something quite different to the usual 3-year course and I came across degrees that had work placements. 

And that’s how I came into NHS finance.  I went into the NHS finance placement scheme. Before that I had no idea about careers in finance within the NHS – it’s not something I ever thought was an option.

What excites you most about your job?

I don’t think most people would ever put the word exciting near the words accounting or finance! But for me what’s exciting is where I work, the NHS and the people that I represent. 

I know finance is not direct clinical care, but we do support the people providing clinical care – helping those decisions being made, the savings and efficiencies and providing the managers with the information they need which makes what we do really crucial. I think it’s quite empowering knowing that I can support that. 

And for research in particular, it’s seeing that the work I’m doing to support clinicians from conception, coming to fruition 3-4 years later in the form of published studies.

So that makes me quite happy and proud knowing I was involved in that in some way.

It’s also the people that I work with that make the job exciting - consultants, nurses, the research office, clinical teams and other people in finance. I don’t think I would ever get that level of variety in any other finance related job. It’s very unique. 

What do you enjoy most about working at the Trust and what do you think could be done better?

It’s something everybody probably says – the people. The people who work here are great. Everyone is really passionate about what they’re doing, trying to achieve the best, and everyone is supporting each other along the way. 

Within the finance team, a few of us have left but then come back again. So, it’s quite a testament to the organisation and to the department – the number of people who have tried roles elsewhere and then came back.

In terms of improvements, as a finance department it’s something we’re discussing now as a team and as a department. We would like to become more front facing as a department, so people don’t think finance is this scary and unattainable department that nobody talks to. 

We want to provide staff at the Trust with the awareness and training they need so as to not be scared of numbers and financial information. We want to make sure people know that they can do their jobs with our support, especially with the financial climate of the NHS.

 So that’s kind of a little pitch saying, look out for us being more out and about soon!

Do you remember any difficult choices in your career path where you really had to think about the direction you took?

I think there were a couple of points. I’ve already mentioned how I came to do my degree course but at one point, during my placement year I had a choice between working in the financial banking sector or in the NHS. 

At that point, I knew that if I chose to work in financial banking, I would probably end up pursuing something similar afterwards. But I felt that there was something a bit different about an NHS placement. Until then, I’d never heard of finance in the NHS and I think it sat well with me in wanting to work for an organisation that is a public service, and not for profit.

But I did actually leave the NHS for a little bit. I ended up as a finance manager in a university, at quite a pivotal point in the higher education sector, when they had lost government funding and increased course fees. It was a challenging time, but I learned a lot. 

But whilst being there I felt like I wanted to go back to the NHS. I knew that’s where I wanted to be and I guess I missed the pride of working for that kind of organisation, what the NHS stands for and who you’re ultimately serving at the end. You’re not there to try and make a profit. That’s how I came back to the Trust and this research finance manager role. 

How important is it for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you?

I think supporting each other is about providing each other with compassion and understanding, and I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to do that, not just women.

It’s important to be compassionate, understanding and empowering of other people to enable them to achieve their best. To me that means being empathetic and trying to lift each other up so that we can all achieve the very best we can whilst being supportive and kind!

Are there any women, either in your field or outside of it, who you admire and why?

I don’t have anyone specific but in general it’s the women around me. Women, that despite starting families, or taking career breaks, have still managed to strive in their careers or go on to progress into senior roles. It’s the fact, that against all those odds, against all those statistics, those women have still managed to progress through their career. Even if it takes a few extra years, they don’t give up.

I’d like to be in position at some point where I can become a role model for other women. I would love to mentor others and ensure that women are empowered to be able to see what can be achieved even if they’ve started a family or taken a break. 

Do you think as a woman it’s still necessary to decide between a career and children, and what advice would you give to young women in such a situation?

As women, we tend to be our own biggest critics and we’re the harshest to ourselves, so I think it’s important that we be kinder to ourselves, whatever decision we make.

I returned from maternity leave myself a little over a year ago. It can be a really big dilemma because as a woman I felt like I had to make a decision - if I’m not taking care of the children can I be working? 

It’s hard at the beginning when you come back from maternity leave. It’s getting the confidence back that you can do your job and you can do it very well. I think in these kinds of situations, it’s important to have someone to be able to talk to that has gone through a similar situation as you. 

I ultimately found coming back to work really empowering. 

I was also really lucky because my manager had herself just come back from maternity leave the year before. She was a great role model in terms of someone that was very supportive and understood the situation I was in as well as working in a very supportive department. I think it’s so important having that understanding and compassion that, raising a family and continuing a full-time job, is really difficult but it can be done. 

If you could go back in time, what one's piece of advice you would give your 13-year-old self?

For me I think it would be do something I love and feel really passionate about and pursuing it.

It would be to not just go through the education system, ticking boxes and doing what was expected of me. I’d ask myself ‘What do I really want to do, what’s my passion?’ 

I would say be confident, be brave. Try to have lots of experiences, travel lots – and invest in having experiences and speaking to lots of people as there’s so many opportunities out there as you grow and evolve into the person you will be. But ultimately, always trust and listen to your own instincts as this will always be your inner guide to making the right choices for yourself!