As the cuts make everyone’s job feel harder, roleplay workshops can help managers make staff feel valued

The coalition government’s gloves are finally off. Vague references to the NHS “finding savings” and being “ring-fenced” are replaced by a call to cut costs.

‘People want to do a great job but don’t necessarily want to be the chief executive’

NHS London is committed to halving management costs across the capital - over the next three years the strategic health authority has to save £4m. But it is also taking serious steps to encourage staff to stay.

After investing heavily in developing its people over the past two years, NHS London is eager to hang on to the talented individuals needed to play significant roles in the future.

How do you retain senior management and clinical staff facing huge career and job uncertainty, and stop them fleeing to the private sector? And how do you motivate and engage them when there is a pay freeze and when their support teams are dwindling in numbers?

Part of the answer came before the cuts, with a talent management programme designed to coach and mentor senior staff in identifying and growing talent, but more recently this has been reinforced at NHS London with a scheme that uses actors in training managers to have “talent conversations” with their staff.

The aim of the scheme, devised and delivered by Cedar Talent Management, is to provide managers with the tools and skills to ensure these are not the difficult, dashed off conversations they sometimes can be, but instead help make the recipient feel valued - and with a future in NHS London.

Already 240 directors, senior managers and senior clinical staff have been trained, with a similar number to follow over the next six months.

“The aim is to help them feel comfortable with the difference between a talent conversation and an appraisal,” explains NHS London head of leadership and talent management Deborah McKenzie.

“People want to do a great job but don’t necessarily aspire to become the chief executive.

It is important to support everyone in their career development, and we want them to reach their full potential and keep their skills and knowledge part of the NHS,” she says.

Theatrical forum

Cedar devised a one-day workshop where actors roleplay typical talent conversations - about leadership or feedback, for example - encouraging the participants to suggest how to improve them. Driving this approach is the need to change mindset and behaviours.

This theatrical forum approach is regarded as helpful for participants who may usually be the “expert” and find role playing difficult.

“It appeals to people who are more theoretical than activist. It appeals where people are less comfortable. It says: ‘I’m involved but not personally at risk’,” say Cedar lead facilitators on the project Joan O’Connor and Adrienne Rosen.

In the morning, workshop participants suggest better ways to have talent conversations, which are then developed and demonstrated by the actor. In the afternoon, managers co-coach each other and practise their skills.

Various models are used, including Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference, which gets participants to think about how their beliefs and thoughts may colour their judgements.

Any cynicism about the conversations programme were soon dissipated once senior colleagues took part in the workshop, says Ms McKenzie.

“Any initial, and understandable, reservation went after seeing the training day in action,” she says.

Croydon Health Services has already held conversations with both clinical and managerial staff as part of an organisational merger.

Trust chief executive Nick Hulme says: “The process has allowed us to review the senior leadership requirements for the new organisation and to assess all leaders against those requirements. We also opened the process to all consultant staff and it has allowed us to identify potential future leaders.”

Once the conversation training is completed in March, NHS London will review its effectiveness.

Ms McKenzie is convinced this programme will have sufficient impact for organisations within London to want to run it annually, despite money constraints.

“The NHS is going through the most radical changes it has ever seen- this only increases our need for talent,” she says.