Involving staff in the appointment process can help to ease the transition to a new chief executive, explain Sally Hodges and Susan Thomas

Tavistock and Portman foundation trust is a small mental health trust that delivers training to the mental health workforce. Our services focus on child and adolescent mental health services and adult psychological therapies.

In August 2007, our chief executive announced his retirement and the trust needed to recruit a new chief executive within the new foundation trust structures.

The trust was keen to ensure the appointment process was open, transparent, equitable and inclusive of the views of our staff and governors. To this end, the trust asked the human resources director and a senior member of the clinical staff group to oversee the process. The main learning points from the process were:

1. Give staff the opportunity to hear candidates' views on management

As part of the interview process, candidates were invited to give a presentation on their ideas for developing the trust. As our staff group had expressed concern that they would not be involved in the appointment process, a small but representative group of staff were invited to attend the presentations. We also offered an additional five places to the governors. There was much competition for these representative places, so we asked the candidates if we could videotape their presentations and make them available to all staff.

We have received very positive feedback about this process. Staff who attended the live presentations said the day was well organised and that their views were valued. Candidates said the process demonstrated our commitment to staff involvement.

2. Invite staff and governor views at interviews

The trust's five non-executive directors were automatically on the interview panel as per the constitution. The trust also decided to invite two governors and a staff representative to join the panel. The governors debated about whether or not one of these places should go to a staff governor. They took a vote and the majority supported the proposal.

3. Develop a staff adviser role for the interview panel

We developed criteria for appointing a staff adviser to join the interview panel. These included:

  • an ability to represent more than one aspect of the trust's services;
  • length of service;
  • previous experience of high-level interview panels;
  • ability to provide balance to the panel (for example, to ensure the gender or professional mix on the panel).

We decided to call the role an adviser and not a representative, as it was clear that one person could not represent all staff.

4. Ask for staff feedback on the candidates

The team developed a rating form for the applicants' presentations. It gave staff an opportunity to rate each candidate on a range of factors and to suggest interview questions. An abbreviated version of the form was given to staff members who came to the video presentations. They were asked to suggest possible interview questions and rate the overall suitability of each candidate.

More than 100 forms were returned. We analysed the main themes and awarded the candidates scores based on the responses. This information was used to generate a set of questions for the interview panel. The trust decided it was inappropriate to give the panel the actual scores for each candidate, as this was akin to giving a staff reference, but we did give the panel feedback on the staff and governors' thoughts about each candidate.

5. Use staff feedback to influence the interview questions

Before the interviews, we gave the panel the questions recommended by staff and governors. Following the interviews, the panel was given the staff's numerical feedback on the candidates. The panel was reassured that the staff scores were broadly consistent with their own decision making.

6. Announce the appointment

A provisional announcement about the appointment was made on the day of the interview, pending the governors' agreement. In retrospect, we should have organised a governors' meeting to follow the interview so that the decision could have been formally ratified immediately. The premature announcement led to some of the governors feeling they were only rubber stamping the decision, even though two governors were on the panel and five were at the presentations.

Appointing a new chief executive in a small trust, where the outcome affects all staff, was challenging. Our current chief executive had seen us through some difficult times and was well liked and respected.

We felt it was critical to involve staff in the appointment process. It is always a challenge to involve all staff in decision-making processes, and this was no exception. The system we developed - with a clearly delegated management team tasked with ensuring that staff views were sought - made the process more inclusive. We worked hard to ensure that staff, governors and the management team had a chance to get involved and the result is an appointment that everyone can feel confident with.