My first boss: Dr Hilda Hayo, chief admiral nurse and CEO for Dementia UK

·5 min read
In 2013, Hilda Hayo had three months to save Dementia UK from closure. Photo: Dementia UK
In 2013, Hilda Hayo had three months to save Dementia UK from closure. Photo: Dementia UK

Hilda Hayo is a dual registered nurse with over 40 years’ experience developing and leading dementia specialist teams and services throughout the NHS.

Since starting at Dementia UK in 2013, Hayo has turned a failing charity with a £400,000 deficit into a successful £17 million organisation with over 200 employees and 350 specialist dementia nurses. Uniquely for a CEO, she still has a small clinical caseload and directly supports families living with the effects of young onset dementia.

I’ve tended to be someone who learns from the bad mistakes and behaviour of others. I come from an NHS background and you move around a lot when you do your nurse training and so mentors and inspiring first bosses never materialised.

You have experiences where you say you would love to be like them one day or vice versa. But from my first few placements as a student nurse working in an independent hospital it was ‘I will never be like them!’

I was really shocked how older people were treated on one particular ward on my first placement in 1980. My experience of older people was always about showing respect. Yet the patients with dementia weren’t treated that way and certainly not as human beings.

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I could have left the profession but I decided then to make a difference. The rest of my career has been based on that experience; how to make sure that nursing best practice equates to treating people well.

That is how it’s gone up until the present day where I’m now able to implement nationally all the things that were wrong working under my first bosses at the beginning of my career. For me, it was the internal drive I had as a student nurse while I also had experiences of dementia in our family, which made it even more pertinent.

I certainly had a strange experience in gaining my current role. When I picked up the job description, it wasn’t the right one. I thought I was going along to be a director of dementia nursing, but when it came to the interview, people kept going ‘When you’re the CEO…’

I got in touch with the recruitment agency and they later told me I had been sent the wrong job description. Soon after, I got offered the CEO role. I must have said something right, I just answered as honestly as I could rather than admit that I was in the wrong room.

In truth, the job description was made for me. They were looking for someone with an educational background, who was still practicing as a nurse and had management experience.

As a CEO, Dr Hayo still maintains clinical practice after 40 years in senior nurising. Photo: Dementia UK
As a CEO, Dr Hayo still maintains clinical practice after 40 years in senior nursing. Photo: Dementia UK

As a failing charity, I was told I had three months to turn around Dementia UK or it would close. That sharpened my attention to say the least. I’m also at the sharp end of the role, too. In every position I’ve had, I made it a condition to continue with clinical practice, working around one day per week.

It was so unusual for senior nurses to do that, that I was always given the green light. At Dementia UK, I will either work on the helpline, clinics or offer regional support and this has meant I have kept my hand in throughout my 42-year career.

When I started in 2013, we had 24 members of staff which has increased dramatically to over 200 employees. We were drawing into reserves as well, but we are now a successful £17 million charity.

There are currently around 900,000 people with dementia in the UK today and we are looking at a figure of around 60,000 with young onset dementia. Our 375 specialist dementia nurses are also able to support families living with dementia. The more we have on the ground, the more our profile raises, which brings much-needed funds into the charity.

When the pandemic hit, we were worried as a charity. My opposite number at the Alzheimer's Society, Kate Lee, came in during Covid and she had no dementia background. She hit the ground running and I have a great deal of respect for her.

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Kate wanted more information on the movers and shakers in the dementia world and so we decided to set up a collaboration of the key organisations and charities. We called it One Dementia Voice and Kate led the way in this collaborative approach. By chance, eight of the nine are female CEO or leads.

When I was at the NHS, one of things about big institutions is that there is more likely to be a negative culture without the staff in mind. I learnt how not to treat people and I have made it a condition of every senior post to change that. Treat people as you would like to be treated yourself; you can’t go wrong if you follow that mantra.

On a weekly basis, I cast my mind back to my student days and compare where we are now with dementia. I think to myself that this is what gave me the fire in my belly to truly make a difference to what was going on out there. Sometimes you do need to look back to be able to move forwards.

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