Following a report from Cambridge University's Judge Business School, NHS chief executives are being urged to spend more time - up to one day a week - on developing future leaders.

Is this also a job for NHS boards?

On the one hand, boards are urged not to get overinvolved and not to take on "operational" tasks, and non-executive directors often complain about the extent of their remit and about routinely having to exceed their notional time commitment.

On the other hand, it is frequently said that one of the most crucial roles of a board is recruiting the chief executive or equivalent.

As chair of a school governing body a few years back, my main task at the time was to oversee a happy transition following the retirement of a popular and long-serving head teacher to the recruitment of her replacement. We were ultimately successful, but also lucky: there was not a large talent pool to draw from.

More recently, as chair of a European membership organisation in the health sector, the challenge was to appoint a successor to our director who had been in post for 26 years and had an irreplaceable set of personal networks. Again, we pulled it off, and the organisation now goes from strength to strength.

Succession strategy

In neither case, however, could it be argued that succession planning had been at the forefront of our minds, as it perhaps should have been in the time leading up to what were, after all, relatively predictable events.

In fact, succession planning and talent management arguably fall within two of the four generic tasks for boards anyway and therefore should not really be considered as new. They should be a core part of strategy and investment discussions and decisions (which all would agree are board responsibilities).

In terms of supervision of management (or monitoring of performance), progress on nurturing talent, as demonstrated by the existence of effective training and development programmes, turnover rates and strength of candidates on the shortlists of vacant posts at all levels and all parts of the organisation are examples of appropriate board-level key performance indicators.

Adding value

In addition to succession planning, there are a number of key areas where it is legitimate for the board to contribute and where they can add value. First, the board has an important role in setting the organisational cultural tone. Its statement of principle, for example around valuing the workforce, needs to be backed by a sound strategy for workforce development that is monitored robustly.

Second, the NHS has long held a poor record on diversity, particularly for promotion at senior levels. Non-executive directors in particular can provide challenge here in terms of strategies and programmes that unwittingly reinforce an unacceptable status quo.

Third, and again using the specific expertise of some non-executive directors, more creativity in the content, format and focus of management and leadership development programmes, while not interfering in the detail, would be helpful. We have all been participants at boring seminars - and in my day job no doubt I have been guilty of delivering some!

SHA involvement

In both the examples given earlier, successful recruitment depended on external candidates coming forward. In the NHS, the strategic health authority has an important role in helping to bring on talent in the regional system in partnership with local organisations. Boards can help by providing intelligence about their own talent management programmes and signals about their requirements ahead of time to support the SHA here.

Finally, there is a role for all board members to act as mentors, in some cases to NHS managers outside their own trust.

Although it is called a unitary board, there are four distinct categories of members or constituencies on NHS boards: the chair, chief executive, executive directors and non-executive directors (and perhaps a fifth category on primary care trust boards - the professional executive committee chair).

Talent management is a perfect example of a strategic challenge where, rather than leaving it all to the human resources director (after all, we do not leave finances to the finance director), pooling the respective potential contributions of each constituency could really bring about a sea change in the quality of leadership talent available to and across NHS organisations and future proof against the day when your chief executive leaves.

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