An innovative scheme is allowing managers in big companies to put themselves forward as non-executive directors in the NHS - getting themselves valuable experience for their CVs, as well as bringing their skills and business acumen to trust and PCT boards

The Appointments Commission has been working to increase the diversity of non-executive applicants, including attracting people with business experience. Chair Anne Watts hit on the idea of talking to large companies about how they, their managers and the NHS could benefit from identifying potential non-executives.

With the help of BT, which seconded a manager for six months to help develop the scheme, the Appointments Commission has signed up 30 companies that are prepared to support their managers if they are selected as non-executives.

More than 160 potential non-executives have put their names forward, and 19 of them have become non-executives after going through the normal rigorous selection procedure.

Social responsibility

Appointments Commission chief executive Andrea Sutcliffe says the managers gain by getting board experience in a very different environment, while companies view involvement with the NHS as being in line with their corporate social responsibility policies and are happy to allow staff time off.

"It is not all accountants - although financial understanding is pretty key - but there are lots of other skills needed," she says. People with procurement experience, for example, are very much in demand for primary care trust board jobs, while human resources skills are much valued among hospital trusts.

"Just over half of those appointed are women. They have also tended to come from a younger age group - that's 50 and below - although we are also saying to companies that when they are doing retirement management they should raise it as a possibility with people.

"We think that the pilot scheme has been very successful. The chairs that have got new non-executives are very positive about their calibre and contribution."

So far, it has tended to be larger companies that have got involved, partly because they are committed to developing their talent pool of future leaders. BT, Royal Mail, EDF Energy and the Guardian Media Group have all put forward candidates who have now become non-executives.

New non-executives get a comprehensive induction, explaining their role in the NHS and how it works, ongoing support and an appraisal scheme. As board members, their role is to work at a strategic level, challenging and scrutinising - all useful skills that can translate into a business environment.

An insight

Senior BT manager Penny McCulloch, who was appointed a non-executive director at Dartford and Gravesham trust a year ago, says: "It's fascinating to see the workings of a completely different sector, the different constraints they have to operate under and the number of things they do differently to private business.

"I'm learning things that I can bring back and apply at BT while offering the trust experience from my work at BT."

BT allows her to take time off work for trust board meetings, but she also spends some evenings at meetings or preparing for them. "I've lived in Kent all my life and the decisions the trust board takes affect my family and my local community," she says. "In a large company such as BT, and especially in a finance role, you can sometimes feel very remote from the actual end-user, but at the trust we are dealing with issues directly affecting patients."

Fellow BT manager Allison Seidlar become a non-executive at Hillingdon PCT last year. "The type of board-level exposure that you get really makes you raise your game. You can apply all the learning back into your business and so they benefit as much as you do," she says.

"The role is so satisfying - you are involved with decisions which will actually make a difference to the quality of people's lives."