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No, but it could be Frank Dobson's supermanager, a breed of high- flyer he is keen to identify and nurture. But what do senior NHS figures think of the ideas he outlined to HSJ, asks Patrick Butler.

Managers were surprised and delighted when health secretary Frank Dobson 'came out' as a sympathiser determined to shake up the 'random' structures of NHS management development.

In an interview with HSJ two weeks ago, he said he wanted to put more effort into management development so that the best managers were steered to the biggest and toughest jobs, and properly rewarded. He said the NHS needed to help managers acquire the range of skills and experience to fulfil both their personal ambitions and the demanding management needs of the New NHS. What is the response of senior NHS figures?

Karen Caines, outgoing director, Institute of Health Services Management

'There are some incredibly demanding jobs in the NHS, and it is the NHS Executive's job to make sure we have a flow of good people to fill them. It's not elitist to manage the high fliers.'

Traditionally, the route to the top has been through the acute teaching hospital career ladder, and the NHS 'has not made a dent in that system', she says.

'In a primary care-led NHS managers must get as wide a training as possible. There must also be closer analysis of the demands of management, and a more rigorous and co-ordinated use of the talent pool across the NHS.'

Ken Jarrold, chief executive, Durham health authority, and former personnel director, NHS Executive.

'It's the first time the NHS 'top table' has properly engaged the issue of management development since before 1974. Frank Dobson is absolutely right - we do need to have a more pro-active approach to succession planning.

'However, it does sound like he's focusing on the most senior people and the most difficult jobs. That's only a small part of the picture. One definition of management is 'anyone who controls resources'.

'On that definition the NHS has 200,000 managers. What we must not neglect is the junior manager in the firing line. You will only find the best managers if you develop from a very broad base indeed.'

Tessa Brooks, director, the leadership programme (formerly the chief executive development programme)

'The NHS has never been particularly good at bringing on managers in a coherent way.'

While the 'strong informal tradition' of mentoring and self-development through courses has had positive results, it is no substitute for a coherent approach to management development, she says.

'The practical consequence is that we have appointments at a senior level where, when they get into post, we have to do remedial development work.'

She blames this, in part, on the post-trainee period, when managers are left to fend for themselves. 'History shows us we lose people because we do not nurture them.'

The NHS must tackle the perception that career advancement lies in the acute sector. 'Individuals are worried about moving out of acute care in case they cannot get back in.'

The NHS needs to know 'where people are in the system' and needs to 'develop the right people for the right jobs'. But, she warns: 'You cannot do management development on the cheap.'

Andrew Foster, policy director for human resources, NHS Confederation

'Frank Dobson's comments are a political sea-change,' says Mr Foster, who suggests managers have felt on the whole 'alienated' from the government.

'Mr Dobson has realised that management is something that needs to be nurtured, that the government has to have a good relationship with managers.' Government needs to fill the space between the trainee scheme and the leadership programme, he says.

'The regional offices need to identify managers with potential and help manage their career.

'The previous government said it wanted aggressive, entrepreneurial managers, and by and large that is what it got. We are saying if this government will create a picture of what they are looking for, it would be a great help.'

Alastair Henderson, national officer, Unison.

'The idea of developing your middle managers to be your future senior manager is important. It's a fairly random process at the moment. But what you do not want to do is develop a sort of 'official blue-eyed boy or girl' syndrome. At the moment it's a system that relies on people having a high profile.

'The danger is that people who have potential are losing out. We need a more structured system to bring out that potential. Just looking for half a dozen 'super- managers' who could manage the six biggest trusts is not much use. Of course there are different levels of responsibility, but you will need high-calibre people to manage a big-ish primary care trust.'

Peter Homa, president of the IHSM and government waiting-list co-ordinator

'There's a lot of good management development work in the NHS. But one of the weaknesses is that is has been fairly ad hoc.

'What is required is greater coherence so there's more consistency and less chance in the quality and breadth of management development activity. It is as important as continuing development for clinical staff.

'The metaphor I like is 'climbing frames' rather than career ladders. Managers will in future move across different domains within healthcare, and primary care is an essential part of that experience.

'Each manager should have a personal career plan, and all health authorities, trusts and regional offices required to have an agreed management development plan that covers all managers.'