A tailored assessment toolkit is helping one trust assess leadership qualities, especially when making senior appointments. Madeleine Owen reports

Countless initiatives facing the NHS place ever more pressure on its workforce to deliver better services with greater flexibility and choice for patients. Making this happen when resources are tight is a huge challenge, particularly for those in influential senior positions, both clinical and managerial.

Trafford primary care trust in Manchester believes that in making significant changes to employment processes and embracing principles of occupational psychology, it has a renewed confidence in its ability to rise to this challenge.

"A good place to start is recruiting people with the skills and qualities to lead others effectively," says Trafford PCT human resources director Claire Scrafton. "Like most organisations and businesses, the NHS has traditionally promoted on the basis of technical or professional competence, without really acknowledging the importance of good leadership, or even understanding what it looks like.

"But increasingly the NHS is recognising that it takes certain qualities to effectively galvanise a group of people around one shared vision of excellence."

Fifteen such attributes are defined in the NHS leadership qualities framework. Many managers will be familiar with this, as it has already resulted in organisations such as Trafford PCT rolling out a 360-degree feedback programme for all senior staff. But skills are still developing in using this framework effectively in order to spot leaders who possess these qualities before appointing them to critical senior roles.

Talent spotting

At a time when PCTs are moving towards new ways of working with world class commissioning, Trafford has been redesigning its services and roles in both the commissioning and provider arms of the organisation.

This has led to an ambitious recruitment programme to attract the best talent to new roles and to strengthen leadership.

The PCT has worked with human resources consultants Wickland Westcott to deliver a leadership assessment toolkit. This has enabled recruiting managers at Trafford, in partnership with their colleagues in HR, to construct and run assessment processes to identify candidates who possess key leadership qualities.

Underpinned by the principles of occupational psychology, the toolkit outlines best practice guidelines for conducting an accurate and fair recruitment process. In particular, it focuses on the techniques for observing whether a candidate demonstrates the qualities from the leadership framework.

This allows the PCT to be more certain of the candidate's ability to lead effectively.

Shortlisted candidates are invited to take part in an assessment process at a special centre. This includes tailored simulation exercises such as role playing or case studies and interviews to measure the qualities from the framework. It also uses a range of psychometric ability tests and a personality questionnaire.

With the candidate's qualities being measured more than once across a range of activities, the PCT firmly believes it is the most accurate predictor of future performance currently available. The trust has committed to using assessment centres for all band 7 roles and above, both clinical and non-clinical.

The assessment process can be run with a group of candidates completing the activities simultaneously or during a one-to-one session. Critically, the toolkit enables managers to assess the candidate's leadership qualities and skills, and complements the usual CV and experience-based interviews.

The combination of these approaches allows all avenues to be explored with potential appointees.

The toolkit commissioned by Trafford contains the following:

  • best practice advice and guidance on constructing and running an assessment process;

  • guidelines on objective assessment techniques, which enable PCT staff to carry out the assessments themselves;

  • tips on providing feedback to candidates;

  • pointers on using the output of the assessment for development planning and management of the successful candidate;

  • the tools of assessment (probably the most important part of the toolkit).

Wickland Westcott constructed assessment exercises and interview questions to identify whether people possess the leadership qualities defined in the framework. These include people-management role playing; a detailed case study and presentation exercise; a choice of scenario based interview questions and a bank of competency based interview questions.

Managers trained to use the toolkit can select the qualities they are looking for in the vacancy in question, select the tools and techniques to measure those criteria and manage a professional assessment process to identify the right candidate.

Standard practice

Assessment centres are now becoming standard practice across Trafford PCT and managers are seeing many benefits. Importantly, in the short term the trust has been able to reduce its dependency on consultancy services.

Ms Scrafton adds: "The training provided to our managers in running assessment centres has equipped the PCT with the skills in-house to deliver robust selection processes that, as a model employer, we can be proud of.

"They have also given the PCT's workforce rich information about personal strengths and development needs, which can be used by managers for new team start-ups, team-building events and individual career development activity.

"In addition, the data will inform talent and succession plans as part of the 2008-09 operating framework and also [contribute to] our organisational development plan for world class commissioning."

As a result of using the toolkit, Trafford PCT can recruit and develop people to secure a pipeline of talent. Staff will not only have the experience, track record and professional competence to do a good job, but they will also possess the leadership qualities important for addressing the challenges facing the NHS.