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Reflections on the HLA 20 Conference by Simon Phillips

Reflections on the HLA 20 Conference

by Simon Phillips

How to sum up the experience of organising a conference in 2020 in 600ish words is presenting something of a challenge, particularly if I want to keep it pithy and interesting. For reasons that don’t need to be stated for the umpteenth time, this year has been far removed from anything anyone but the most paranoid prepper was expecting.

When I naively agreed to chair the 2020 Healthcare Leadership Academy Conference in the lead up to the 2019 event (something Johann recently revealed to me was planned so that it could be announced at the conference and therefore I couldn’t back out), I was expecting to put on something broadly similar to last year. Around April it became obvious to us all that in person events were not going to be held for the foreseeable future.

We have all become used to online dinners, movie nights, quizzes and now conferences that the prospect of hosting the event virtually was not necessarily daunting until we set some ambitious targets – holding a two day event, with pre-recorded speakers, live workshops, breakout activities and networking. The aim was to, as much as possible, recreate the interactivity that we have all been missing out on throughout the repeated lockdowns of the last year.

The packed schedule included highlights such as Hamza Al-Khateab looking back on his 5 years living and working in a warzone in Aleppo (which some of you may have been familiar with from the BAFTA winning documentary “For Sama”), Loyce Pace (Executive Director of the Global Health Council and now member of President-Elect Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board) and an in-depth panel on Race and Health, and so much more.

Looking back on a successful conference now I feel like as a team we drew upon the lessons laid out by my predecessor Sida Mao in his blog from the 2019 conference.

Building a team

First and foremost in any effort such as this, recruiting an enthusiastic team to help to deliver it is vital. I am indebted to each and every person who volunteered their time and considerable efforts across such a turbulent period of all of our lives to build the conference into the success it was. While medicine does have strong team working aspects we often find ourselves in strict hierarchies, something I did not want. I aimed to empower the team members to pursue their chosen goals within the team and I think this was borne out by mini-teams forming around different areas of the conference – workshops, submissions, speakers, networking and break activities. Finding people who are willing to step up and take on responsibility, as I was very lucky to do with my co-chair Vassili and all of the other team members, is key to success.


Organising anything requires that you be able to adapt to changes in circumstances, this was particularly true during a global pandemic as we were forced to do everything remotely. Even getting to the event itself, there are always hiccups, some larger than others, but if your team has areas of responsibility and has been empowered to take those forward themselves then you will be surprised at how quickly problems can be overcome.


I make no claims to hold all the answers to any particular question, particularly when it comes to organising conferences! Indeed, several members of my team had much more experience in this area than I did. Achieving a distributive and participative leadership model can be difficult, often it feels easier to simply make decisions alone, however with trust and engagement you can.


We have all struggled with the lack of control over the events around us this year. For those of us in clinical work this has often involved large changes to the way we work and even the specialty we are working in, at least for a period of time. In this atmosphere, devoid of the feedback and motivation that we can all derive from interaction with others, it can feel difficult to keep going. At times I felt the pressure of organising such a large event was too great, at others I was glad to have something to focus on outside of work and current affairs. Throughout it all it was important to focus on the events which were controllable and not worry overtly about those outside of your control. I was fortunate to be able to rely on the fantastically supportive team to share the load and this was certainly the most important factor in keeping us all moving forwards.



Simon Phillips is a Core Surgical Trainee in the Severn deanery, a HLA Scholar 2019-20, Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management and Co-Chair of the HLA 2020 Conference.



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