How creating a strong leadership programme can help nurture staff and encourage future leaders in a changing NHS. By Deb Chafer

With the creation of clinical commissioning groups, clinical support units and changes in provider organisations, managing the talent pipeline in the NHS is an increasingly important issue. Not only does the health service need to identify, encourage and attract new talent. It also needs to support existing employees to develop the skills needed to meet the health service’s current challenges.

Leaders need skills to help the workforce deal with the complexity, diversity and pace of change facing the NHS. They need to be able to help shape the organisation by defining a strategic vision and then delivering it.

One way the NHS could be helped to this point is through the use of a leadership “compact”, such as that developed by the NHS Leadership Academy.

What is a compact?

A compact would describe what a health service employee should expect from their leaders − and what they would expect when it came to leadership behaviour. An employee value proposition would also describe what organisations will give back to staff who are performing strongly in the workplace.

‘Compacts can ultimately make it possible to professionally, analytically and systematically ensure the NHS has the staffing it and its patients deserve’

These simple propositions form part of just about every single world leading organisation’s talent management strategy. They are used to help attract, develop, reward, retain and nurture staff and future leaders. They are effective in any economic environment, support robust growth but are scalable in any potential downturn or reconfiguration, and are flexible in terms of investment in rewards and talent management programmes.

The truth is all organisations will have a leadership compact in some form. By answering some key questions − “What’s it like around here?”; “How do you get on in this organisation?”; “What gets rewarded?”; ‘What gets punished?”; “Do honest conversations take place?”; “How is poor performance managed?”; “How is new talent sought and promoted?” − any member of a workforce can quickly find out an organisation’s compact.

Global research shows that about a third of organisations have an unwritten or unplanned compact along these lines. NHS organisations are no exception.

Delivering a compact

This is something that could be valuably changed. Compacts can ultimately make it possible to professionally, analytically and systematically ensure the NHS has the staffing it and its patients deserve. This happens through understanding staff and defining and delivering compacts that have true meaning to them. Compacts should describe attraction, development, reward, retention, support and nurturing, and be conveyed widely − particularly through organisational behaviours and performance.

Organisations considering creating compacts might start by thinking about these seven checkpoints and related actions:

  • Create the right organisational readiness, conditions, vision, buy in and outcomes. Ask how much time the organisation’s “top leaders” will spend on this activity. How much time will managers spend on this approach with their staff? What is the staff resilience picture? Are there interim succession plans in place for all critical posts? Where does the organisation aspire to be in 12, 24 and 36 months?
  • Organise champions and managers. Engage and consult staff, align with all other organisational strategies, development programmes, determine “give and get” opportunities and maximise potential activities. Has a whole organisational development mapping exercise to align strategy with business and workforce plans taken place? Do staff want this to happen? What do they say success will look like and how will they know if you’ve got there? 
  • Market the concept, competency and behavioural frameworks. Develop tools for maximising potential for the whole workforce and nominate people to go on development programmes. Consider workforce planning: succession planning, marketing the brand and employee ownership. Consider the framework that will be used: which tools, techniques or HR policy? What is the narrative that will make this real and emotionally connecting for staff? 
  • Potential and performance. Agree what “potential” behaviours and performance look like in your organisation; agree measurement and diagnostics. What will constitute development needs and what do all staff require (skills, competence and behaviour)? How will potential be spotted? What diagnostics and metrics will be used? How will it be triangulated, tested, stretched? What key principles will be held on to? 
  • Action − plan, train, implement, feedback and learning. Has a plan been created with staff? Are they trained in having honest appraisal conversations that cover maximising potential? Who will be steering the project? How will learning be spread, and what will progress look like?
  • Capture data − triangulate, quality assure, analyse, act on data. What data needs to be collected during conversations? How will the quality of that data be checked? What gaps or opportunities will this data reveal? How can local data be aggregated into organisational data? What will succession and development plans look like?
  • Test and review. Refine, track, learn, share, look at return on investment and revise. How will governance be provided to the process? How will return on investment be tracked and ensured? What will happen with learning, and how will revisions and reviews in process or approach be tackled?

Potential to develop

This list of checkpoints and suggested actions may be easier said than done, but it is worth noting that the NHS has many highly intelligent individuals in its ranks and so the health service’s leadership has enormous potential to improve and develop.

‘The health service has a proven ability to learn, flex and reposition:’

Furthermore, the NHS has one of the largest workforces in the world − full of diversity and rich experience. Again, this means there is plenty of opportunity to develop and draw on talent. The NHS is home to some of the most dedicated and vocationally driven people, so there is no shortage of passion to bring about improvements.

The health service also has a proven ability to learn, flex and reposition: in the past decade a range of key performance drivers have led to difficult leadership compromises.

In any case, it is clear that it is time to focus on staff. Peter Lees from the Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management perhaps put it best when he said: “If we look after our staff they will look after our patients.”

Deb Chafer is head of talent and resourcing at the NHS Leadership Academy. Follow her on Twitter at @deborahchafer