The new Leadership Centre For Health will build on previous NHS initiatives to develop management careers, says Barbara Millar

The Leadership Centre For Health may be one of the NHS plan's big ideas, but it is hardly the NHS's first leadership initiative.

Managers have seen one a year since the last general election: there was Executive Choice in 1997, a career development scheme for chief executives in 1998 and the 'supermanagers' programme in 1999.

So does the NHS really need another scheme? The leadership centre is aimed at a much wider group of staff than the existing management development programmes. It will incorporate, rather than replace, current programmes.

Carl Hayes booked a series of coaching sessions with Executive Choice when his trust was on the brink of a merger. He was no stranger to the programme. He had had sessions from Executive Choice's then-director, Jan Campbell, in early 1998.

He found them a 'frank, honest and very good experience' and went back for more after realising that the merger would bring new demands.

He emerged with a promotion - to head of business development at Hull and Holderness Community Health trust.

Now ready to consider the next step - to a director's post - he is preparing for coaching once more. 'I still have the same ambition I had before - to be a chief executive by the time I am 35. I am now 29. '

Chris Bamford, who took over the helm as director of Executive Choice in May last year, says Mr Hayes' experience is representative of the 'fab feedback' she gets.

Some 1,000 NHS professionals, up to director level, have accessed Executive Choice's coaching sessions.

The same number have sampled some of the skills workshops, seminars and masterclasses. And the programme has broadened out to appeal to professionals across all the health communities.

Executive Choice is about developing a 'talent bank', Ms Bamford says. 'The programme fits underneath the leadership programme for senior chief executives to provide a pool of people who, ultimately, can move up. '

Meanwhile, it enhances team work and job satisfaction, which can have a positive impact on staff retention.

Pauline Brown and Tim Heywood have dipped into the programme once or twice.

'I found my initial coaching sessions and development plan very constructive and helpful, ' says Ms Brown, director of nursing at London's Homerton Hospital.

'I later attended a couple of workshops and that was it. I did intend to go to some of the other seminars but, in the end, I never had any sort of drive to do that. '

At the time of her involvement with Executive Choice, Ms Brown had been assistant nursing director at University College London Hospitals trust for 18 months.

She then took a career break to adopt two children, before applying for the Homerton job. 'The Executive Choice coaching I had received was of great help when applying for this job, ' she says, 'and many of the concepts introduced in the programme, such as 360degrees feedback, I have since used with my own staff. '

Mr Heywood, general manager, medicine, at Cardiff and Vale trust, also used Executive Choice at a 'crunch point' in his career.

His dilemma was whether to take a directorate manager post in Wales, at University Hospital of Wales trust, 'a significant geographical and organisational move'.

'It wasn't my ideal job but I thought there might be changes coming which could benefit me. I have since had a major promotion and am now in a job I love. '

Executive Choice offered him a chance to 'step outside' his work experience. Now he is managing staff, many of whom face similar decisions.

'I use some of the tools and techniques from the Executive Choice programme with them, so there is a knock-on effect. '

The leadership programme for senior chief executives has been completed by 30 managers in two cohorts. Four more cohorts are scheduled over the next two years.

'The programme has changed shape a little since the start, ' says Professor Blackler. 'We are more confident about what we can and cannot do and we have achieved a better balance on the programme. '

One adjustment has been to add an extra day to the first module, based at Lancaster, which allows managers more time to stand back from dayto-day concerns.

Managers also get to grips with unfamiliar cultures - the first cohort was based with the Metropolitan Police, the second at the headquarters of the Church of England.

The final three-day module focuses directly on managers' own roles, on leadership in general and on the future of the NHS chief executive role.

Ms Bamford says: 'At Executive Choice we have produced real results through coaching: others have had similar success through academic or other programmes.

'The leadership academy is an opportunity to bring a range of development solutions to support 21stcentury leadership. '