Clustering leaders together for mutual support can not only.aid development and deal with management strategies but also be the solution to system problems beyond the regional

Too often leadership development programmes take people out of the workplace, equip them with excellent skills and a sense of empowerment, only for them to flounder on their return to the workplace. At a time when resources for training and development are at a premium, or temporarily frozen, leadership development may seem an unaffordable luxury. Managers need to be sure that any investment they make in high quality leadership development represents excellent value for money. One way managers might approach this is to consider clusters of leaders - two or three talented individuals in key positions - to be developed together.

Quality programmes

The Health Foundation runs a number of programmes for talented individual clinicians and managers, offers them high quality development, time for reflection, connection with bright, committed people and exposure to thought leaders and opinion formers. As leadership development goes, one to think it is about as good as you can get. Yet, we still struggle to explain how these leaders can do more than improve patient care in their sphere of immediate influence - their GP practice, ward team, board, at best their professional peers. While developing individual leaders can undoubtedly be instrumental in improving organisational performance, it is a big ask to make of one person, however talented.

Wider still

We can cite numerous instances of service improvement, such as better services for mothers and babies in Newham and better care for people with diabetes in Southport. But how can these improvements translate into systemic improvement in the wider organisation, in the local health economy, or for the population at large? Finding the answer to this conundrum would indeed be the holy grail of leadership development.

One approach could be to cluster leaders so that they develop together. This way, they can offer each other mutual support, they can share knowledge of their different areas of expertise and they can develop change management strategies for priority areas. Like any good strategy this needs careful thought and preparation. The following checklist of questions will help:

  • Where is our priority area for systemic change? What will yield the biggest budget savings at the same time as improving patient care?

  • Who do we know with clout in those areas? Who are the people who have the respect of their colleagues and the potential to develop into leadership roles?

  • What do we know about the relationship between them? Do they know each other, do they get on? And if we do not know, how might we find out?

  • How can we tempt them to be interested in leadership development?

  • Who needs to sponsor this? Which board member(s) have a particular interest, expertise, and need to see change in the right direction? How do we get line managers on board?

Early days

The Health Foundation is beginning to see this develop in small pockets through successive cohorts of its leadership award holders. Some are planned by far sighted chief executives. Other clusters have happened through individual initiative - one person spots someone they know and respect who can help with the initiative they are pioneering and proposes that s/he gets access to leadership development. The relationship can also be cemented by formalising a mentoring arrangement.

It's early days, but in my view, clustering together strong and dynamic individual leaders has the potential to move systems on quickly and effectively.

Jan Walmsley is assistant director of the Health Foundation.