Leading from within a partnership may sound like a paradox but with care it can be done. Adam Turner looks at how to go about it

Can you lead from within a partnership? My experience when exploring this question with healthcare leaders developed a variety of philosophical answers. However, one thing was clear: they all agree that healthcare is changing. The significant transformation required in the near future will place an increasing demand on leaders to create effective partnerships, spanning multiple organisations, neighbouring sectors and cultural boundaries.

Following research on the complexities of healthcare education, I was able to delve deeper into this topic and develop practical and supportive resources. I began to define the concept of the “partner leader”.

These tools may be particularly useful when considering the development of future healthcare entities, particularly Health Education England, local education and training boards and the devolved responsibilities of the NHS Commissioning Board.

The expression “in partnership” is increasingly used by many of us in leadership positions within healthcare and associated sectors as we acknowledge that successful organisational partnerships are becoming critically important in order for us to function.

Leaders will be required to transform their organisations into increasingly competitive and business-style cultures, while still demonstrating wider inter-relation. This will require significant changes to the ways of working within the current interconnected eco-systems.

We are already undergoing a transition of leadership style, moving from traditionally dominant and hierarchical styles of leadership into future-thinking, engaging and collaborative approaches, whereby leaders are being tasked to lead between organisations, groups and cultures by utilising increasingly participatory, collaborative and engaging approaches.

With this in mind, how often do leaders working in healthcare partnerships consider:

  • Am I a partner leader?
  • What enables my partnerships to work?
  • How do I effectively engage with my partners?

Are you a partner leader?

We may all be familiar with models that enable us to reflect on our skills as a manager and leader. However, these may not extend to specific consideration for when we are increasingly finding ourselves leading across organisational and cultural boundaries. Exploration surrounding the concept of the partner leader as an individual has enabled the development of five interconnected pillars relevant to their success at different stages of partnership development.

Those who are required to lead from within and across partnerships are able to benchmark themselves against the skills and qualities identified within these pillars in order to consider their effectiveness. The application of these findings may be transferred into tools such as 360-degree appraisal and self-reflection.

These pillars provide a cycle of the skills that a partner leader will require at different stages of partnership development, beginning with conception through to guiding their stakeholders towards the future.

Consider as a leader; how do you bring the group together, balance their perspectives, adapt yourself to the group’s needs, focus the group and then take them toward a collaborative vision of the future?

What enables your partnerships to work?

When working in a partnership it is vital to consider the things that make it effective and demonstrate return on investment. It stands to reason that investing time in enabling the partnership to become more effective will increase the likelihood of its vision becoming a reality.

Action research surrounding effective partnership working has enabled the development of a practical and simple framework of enablers to successful partnerships which are separated into three pillars.

I came across an example of this while exploring the complex partnerships between strategic health authorities, healthcare organisations and the health-education sector. This involved representatives from all key stakeholder organisations working collaboratively to develop a localised framework of partnership working. This included: principles, shared vision, and engagement mechanisms in the form of pledges to one another.

This collaborative agreement transcended formal contractual relationships and acted as an enabler for positive partnership working at higher strategic and aspirational levels.

Those involved in partnership working, particularly when transcending organisational boundaries, should ask:

  • What is our shared vision?
  • What are our rules of engagement?
  • Do partner members exhibit the right qualities to make our partnership effective?
  • How do we measure and evaluate our outputs?

These questions should be asked as part of the development of, and also, when providing a health check of any partnerships existence. As your partnership begins to effectively deliver, it is then time to focus on measuring outputs to demonstrate return on investment.

How do you effectively engage your partnerships?

A final consideration is that for partnership-work to be effective, leaders need to consider a mapped and proactively managed model of engagement. One case study saw a strategic group demonstrating the previously identified partnership enabler principles which then moved forward to develop its own effective model of engagement.

From a technological perspective, you may liken the model to that of a computer network whereby a central hub extends its strategic reach and productivity through linked stakeholder nodes and then their wider networks. This is enabled by linked individuals, constantly testing and refining information through various mechanisms of engagement.

Through development of this model, the group extended its influential network into other stakeholder groups when developing the partnerships vision and associated work-streams.

Consequently, stakeholders felt a greater affinity with the partnership, which led to better outputs.

An important finding from this study was that nothing can replace the effectiveness of face-to-face meetings. In addition, there is a lot to be said for going out and working with partners in their own environments, understanding their cultures, why they are how they are, and therefore how best to engage with them to get the outputs the partnership needs.

People need to feel part of the partnership. This is not possible through electronic communication alone.

Now is the time to ensure that new partnerships begin effectively, while also refreshing existing partnerships to ensure they are fit for the future.

Ask yourself and your stakeholders: how do we lead effectively within our own partnerships towards the future vision for healthcare?