My Biggest Mistake: Christina Townsend

Dr Christina Townsend, 46, is chief executive of the NHS Training Directorate and directs the non-clinical training of the one million employees of the NHS. She has an MSc in work design and ergonomics and her study of employment problems of the older executive gained her a PhD. A former assistant director of Ashridge Management College, she later was an independent consultant with the Institute of Manpower Studies on assignments for major UK companies. She joined the NHS in 1984 as director of research, education and training at the then NHS Training Authority.

MY BIGGEST mistake was failing to read the small print in a Leeds University syllabus before opting for my BSc subjects. It led to two of the most painful years of my life.

I was brought up in a small village in Gloucestershire and it was important for me to get away. As a youngster, I was impetuous and tended to leap into things without thinking. At the same time, I was unworldly and rather shy.

After finishing studies at my local grammar school, I decided to do psychology as I was attracted to studying human behaviour. But in the Sixties, university regulations were unbending and, in addition to my main subject of psychology, I had to take a secondary subject. The only choice open to me lay between one of the biological sciences and engineering.

As I hadn't done any of the biological sciences at school and part of me liked the idea of doing engineering, I decided to have a go. But I gave no thought as to what I was letting myself in for, and above all, I failed to spot that it would take up three-quarters of my first two years' studies at the university.

The disenchantment came pretty quickly. How I loathed my first year. The psychology syllabus was great but in engineering, I found myself attending lectures in huge halls with well over a hundred blokes. I was the only female there. Frankly, I was petrified. I felt totally isolated.

As for the subject itself, I couldn't do it - and so I hated it. I dreaded even opening books on the subject. Tackling technical drawing took the most tremendous effort. In tutorials of about 30 students, I just scraped through by the skin of my teeth. I was sure I'd fail the engineering course in that first year, but somehow I made it and that made me very pleased with myself. I began to read the books with less trepidation.

By the end of the second year, electrical engineering dominated the course more than mechanical engineering. It was more conceptual and I began to cope better, especially with electronics. And as I gained confidence, I found the subject more interesting.

Lecturers' attitudes towards me began to change when occasionally I could answer their questions. As the only female on the course, I was still the odd one out, but not in a negative way.

Nevertheless, it was still hard going and I missed out on the lighter side of these two years - years which could have been totally destructive for me. Half the experience was horrible, but the other half was something of a triumph, because I won through and gained my BSc in psychology with engineering. Strange bedfellows.

But I shall never forget the pain. It's deeply etched in my psyche and I don't ever want to experience it again.

Was it a waste?

Not entirely. Living with the discomfort of not doing well is always hard to bear - but if I hadn't gone through it, I probably would have played it safe for most of my career thereafter and would not have ended up in the job I now hold.

Unknown to me at the time, it taught me one of the fundamental lessons for leading a business. That it requires the courage to take risks, but it also calls for a detailed assessment of these risks against the benefits - and the likelihood of success.

(Photograph omitted)

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