Working for foundation status is like growing up - you learn from personal experience

A while ago I promised to share my trust's experiences of working towards foundation status. Things are hotting up for Sussex Partnership and we are getting closer to our goal. If all goes to plan, we could be authorised by the beginning of August. So I thought I would give an update on how it has been going in recent months and then give you more analysis later on.

Becoming a foundation trust feels a bit like growing up. It does not matter how much other people tell you, you really do have to go through it yourself. There are all sorts of obstacles and potential pitfalls along the way, which either by accident or design will test whether you and your organisation are up to the increased autonomy and responsibility that reaching the goal brings.

Board rules

One of the most important aspects is exploring how the board operates, including whether you have worked together on long-term strategic plans and can demonstrate appropriate challenge between board directors, not as two distinct groups of executive and non-executive directors, but as individuals, each with something to contribute.

In preparation for this, we are currently strengthening our board with the appointment of a new chair. The way the NHS used to appoint trust chairs and non-executive directors left much to be desired, and the process became politicised.

The Appointments Commission was set up to make sure the old boys' network ceased, overseen by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. They do an important job. But sometimes the baby gets mixed up with the bath water, and now the process can be so far removed that it is possible for a new chair never to have met their chief executive (with whom they will need to have an extremely close working relationship) until after appointment.

Arranged marriage

I am pleased to say this has not been my experience, and it has been my pleasure to spend time with outstanding potential candidates. But it can still feel like an arranged marriage, with the parents liaising with potential bridegrooms without taking account of the needs of the bride.

I have talked to local authority chief executives and they say the introduction of a new council leader can feel similar. A new relationship must be formed overnight. One has to brief, encourage and support, seek guidance and offer advice, all the while being aware that they have the power to remove you, but not the other way round. And that if things go pear-shaped in delivering the organisation's obligations, you will be accountable, not them.

Foundation trust boards are meant to be akin to public limited companies, where shareholders work with the board to appoint the chair. The chief executive's role is to run the company and the chair's role is to run the board. Their relationship is therefore critical.

The Catch 22 for us is that we must use the old arrangements to find our new board leader, while having to prove ourselves fit to operate as a foundation trust. I am trying to see this as part of the testing process, but it will be good when it is over and I can meet the new boss.