The Top Leaders programme is nearly ready to finish identifying the leaders it believes have the greatest potential to make an impact on care in the NHS

Managers with the greatest leadership potential are currently being selected for the Top Leaders programme. The successful ones will be named in the next few weeks and will receive supported career development.

Top Leaders is not really a programme but rather a new way of working with senior people, systematically managing talent in these complex roles

Successful companies have long known the benefits of managing talent and planning for succession. They are unapologetic about telling people where they sit in the talent pool.

We have shied away from this in the NHS, worrying about elitism and whether identifying and nurturing our best will undermine our values. We have left leadership to the market. As a result, we have struggled to attract the kind of leaders we need into our most challenged and challenging roles. And despite having a rich and diverse workforce, we have struggled to deliver the diversity in leadership we want and need.

So, alongside other programmes to support inclusion, board development, and emerging and clinical leaders, the National Leadership Council has developed the Top Leaders programme to support and develop those leaders already in the most complex roles (our top leadership field).

Alongside them a pool of leaders is being developed which is more representative of the communities they serve, to be ready to apply for these senior posts (our top talent pool).

Complex roles are those which are business critical in organisations whose size or complexity means they need to appoint experienced leaders who can hit the ground running. Like every other industry we can’t just hope this will happen, we need to make sure it happens. And we need to be “spoilt for choice” in all disciplines, not only chief executives but the full range of director roles.

The programme builds on the talent and leadership plans in each strategic health authority where similar regional talent management is taking place. This process is designed to help us be better, more consistent and more honest in talking to people about their performance, talent and potential. Top Leaders simply represents the national aspect of the process.

Exceptional talents

Huge demands are placed on senior leaders so they must be highly intelligent and able to make sense of the complexity of the service they lead. They must be able to motivate huge numbers of people, and build alliances, effective relationships and partnerships for success. The people who are exceptional at all these things are those most likely to be invited to join this national pool.

Inclusion in the pool will be reviewed regularly. Being in the pool won’t, of course, guarantee a post or even inclusion on a shortlist. What it will do is provide each person with extra support in making career choices and choosing development routes most likely to be the best preparation for these roles.

We will work closely with everyone in the top talent pool to understand their expertise, hear more about their aspirations, and work with them to plan their development.

Helping people to manage their career will be a major contribution. This will include assignments, placements, learning and networking opportunities as well as identifying the substantive posts that would help them develop the right experience and expertise. We will liaise with current leaders in complex organisations to understand what they are looking for so we can develop people with the right skills, mindsets and behaviours.

In one sense, Top Leaders is not really a programme but rather a new way of working with senior people, systematically managing talent in these complex roles.

The programme will be a resource to NHS organisations looking for senior executives, providing a national dataset about our most promising and high-performing leaders.

Critical roles

We also have an opportunity to be creative, to place individuals or groups of these leaders who work effectively together in some of our most challenging organisations. Perhaps we can then provide communities not well served by the NHS with the leaders they need.

So, the programme will support the NHS in managing crucial talent to make sure we have people ready for critical roles. It will benefit individuals in the pool, supporting them to manage their career and develop the skills and experiences they need. Only then will patients get the most benefit from having the right leaders.

Those who have been chosen should receive invitations to join the programme early in the new year and the complete list of Top Leaders will be published in HSJ a few weeks later.