Senior managers feel too burdened with paperwork to develop the next generation of leaders, with many spending less than a tenth of their time on succession planning, an HSJ survey has revealed.

Department of Health workforce director general Clare Chapman last week toldHSJ all NHS chief executives should be spending a fifth of their time on developing management talent.

But in a snap HSJ poll of 168 NHS, private and voluntary sector leaders, most of whom are chief executives or chairs, nearly three quarters said this was not the case.

The survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents would ideally like to spend more time nurturing future leaders, but only a quarter were able to devote as much as a fifth of their time. The biggest proportion - 38 per cent - said it took up less than 10 per cent of their time.

Utopian vision

Many agreed with Ms Chapman's recommendation, but others said it was "pie in the sky", "utopian" and "a wonderful aspiration with little understanding of reality".

Of those spending less than a fifth of their time on leadership, 40 per cent said this was due to conflicting priorities, 38 per cent cited lack of time, 14 per cent delegated it to others, 11 per cent said they lacked the money and 3 per cent needed more guidance on how to do it.

Asked what they would have to drop to spend longer on succession planning, many mentioned routine tasks and bureaucracy. One complained of an "ongoing pressure of routine administrative rubbish and the increasing useless burden of inspection and regulation that crosses my desk constantly and adds little value if any to patient care".

In response to HSJ's survey, Ms Chapman said the NHS needed to free staff and organisations to deliver care while remaining accountable to patients. "Leaders freeing up their time to value and nurture talent is crucial," she added.

The findings come as NHS chief executive David Nicholson is calling on senior leaders to take responsibility for improving the quality of management in the health service. He has repeatedly expressed dismay that job applications for chief executive posts seldom attract more than one appointable candidate.

NHS Employers acting joint director Sian Thomas said chief executives should embrace technology by carrying out coaching sessions over the telephone and recording podcasts. She said: "We have to think more creatively. The younger generation don't expect face-to-face communication all the time."

Overall, survey respondents spent less time on nurturing future leaders than on finance, safety, patient engagement, service redesign and engaging clinicians.

Recipe for success

Manchester business school head of health policy and management Naomi Chambers said boards should spend more time on human resources issues, as "failure or success depends on the quality of your staff".

Management Futures consultancy director Jenny Rogers said chief executives were often scared to develop those in more junior positions in case they became potential rivals and were also reluctant to delegate in case something went wrong and they were held accountable.

She said: "The NHS culture is full of fear. If people make a mistake very often their careers are brutally terminated."

Read more on developing talent in the Board Talk section of


  • Carry out telephone coaching sessions

  • Use external networking opportunities to scout for talent

  • Don't spend too much time checking BlackBerries

  • Record podcasts and write blogs to communicate with staff

  • Hold monthly meetings with middle managers

  • Delegate more - but don't just dump tasks without providing support

  • Encourage the whole board to treat succession planning as a priority

  • Mentor staff and listen to them without passing judgement