Four years later, she moved to the community and mental health trust in Durham, before joining the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle in 1996. Now part of Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals, the trust has grown from a turnover of £250m to its current £1.3bn.
‘I probably always had an interest in medicine and public services, but I was never clever enough to master chemistry,’ Ms Dragone says. ‘I took a degree in social policy at Newcastle University, writing my dissertation on Italian mental health reforms. This sparked a real interest. It was an interest in medicine and policymaking that has stayed with me.’
She admits she chose the NHS as a student because she thought of the service as ‘people who had nice values’, but her memory is hazier on why she chose finance.
Nevertheless, her NHS finance career has been a successful one, and has included more than 25 years in senior leadership.
During her time, she has served as a CIPFA project examiner. ‘Doing this, I really did get interested in watching people grow and develop into professionals, and work hard to become better accountants.’
She has also worked on the national stage, chairing the Shelford Group’s finance directors committee for the past couple of years.
She describes the influential nature of colleagues on the committee with characteristic modesty. ‘Some of these directors of finance were just amazing. I also got to deal with policymakers from the King’s Fund, the Treasury and the Department of Health central team.’
While the Shelford work was exciting, she admits: ‘I much preferred to work locally.’ Indeed, the local aspect of working over recent years, as trusts and commissioners pulled together to deliver services to patients during the Covid pandemic, is one of the highlights of her years in the NHS.
‘The past couple of years have been the best of my career. I have loved working with the neighbouring trust directors of finance on developing integrated care. We have been pulling together with no road map and no rules for the first time. It was all about how we should work together. It was a real team effort.
‘They are all local directors of finance who will have worked in foundation trusts and been encouraged to be competitors in the past. But we worked together closely and helped each other through. I think we became good friends as well as colleagues.’
She cites other highlights. ‘I quite liked the foundation trust regime,’ she says, adding that it has allowed finance leaders to be more entrepreneurial. ‘As accountants, we are naturally risk-averse, but the foundation trust regime gave us a chance to be a bit more commercial in our approach. It gave new freedoms to colleagues at Newcastle – doctors innovating and developing services that they might never have been given the chance to do.’
Moving up to a board-level post was exciting, Ms Dragone says. ‘As an accountant on the executive team, you have to find your place. I was lucky to be part of an executive team that is focused on patients and clinical outcomes – there is no doubt about what the direction is for the organisation.
‘My job was to make possible all the ideas they had. They drive the quality of patient services; they come up with the innovations; I need to try to make the money work.’
She also enjoyed meeting celebrities during the course of her work, including the frontman of The Who, Roger Daltrey, in his role as honorary patron of the Teenage Cancer Trust. And she has a cherished memory of former Newcastle and England captain Alan Shearer signing her son’s Sunderland shirt – a huge deal, given the rivalry between the two teams.
Ms Dragone says the lifetime achievement award presented to her recently by the HFMA Northern Branch was ‘unexpected, but a lovely way to end my career’. She adds: ‘I don’t feel it is something I deserved as an individual because it’s my whole team who does my job for me.
‘The HFMA is a great organisation because it brings together people who want to take responsibility for their own development.’
She has some tips for newly appointed and aspirant finance directors. The first is to work hard – a trait she learned from her parents and grandparents, who owned an ice-cream shop.
‘It’s a hard slog to get to a director’s post, so you need to have a strong work ethic. My dad always said that if you have a job you love then you’ll never work another day.
‘I found that job. Every day is challenging, but I never had a day when I felt I didn’t want to get up for work in the morning. The thing that helped the most was my interest in medicine and policymaking – without that, it would be hard to be an accountant in the NHS. It helps you make the right decisions.’
Now retired, Ms Dragone plans to spend time in Italy, catching up with her family and ‘sitting in an olive grove with a glass of Merlot’.
Jackie Bilcliff, deputy chief executive and group director of finance and digital at Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust, will succeed Ms Dragone as chief finance officer.
‘I am really pleased to pass on my fantastic team to Jackie,’ Ms Dragone says. ‘I know that together they will do a brilliant job.’
HFMA members, associates and friends come together again for the biggest and most prestigious HFMA event of the NHS finance calendar.
This course has been designed to identify key topics that will help employees strengthen their financial wellbeing.