For a cluster of primary care trusts on Teesside (Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland and Stockton on Tees Teaching PCT), developing their strategy for 2008/13 and preparing for world class commissioning assessment led to a change in their thinking about the nature of leadership and leadership development in their organisations.

To become world class and maintain that level of performance, the PCTs realised that they would need to create an environment in which leadership would flourish and allow everyone to perform at their best.

Improving leadership was seen as key to driving reform and achieving sustained change. Led by Sara Hartley, assistant director of organisation development, the steps they took to “kick-start” leadership development in a new direction represent a case study in embedding behavioural change.

“We needed a new approach,” explained Ms Hartley, “something that felt very different and that would challenge people’s comfort zones. The behavioural aspects of leadership are fundamentally important and we wanted to give every senior leader the opportunity to access a range of diagnostics that would develop their understanding of themselves and their impact on others.”

Believing that behavioural leadership would need to be demonstrated across all levels of the organisations, Ms Hartley put forward a proposal for constructing and selling a new idea of leadership and management.

She was given the go-ahead and a framework of new attributes was created that reflects the PCTs’ agreed values and beliefs, and collectively describes what “good” leadership should look like.

Her next step was to establish a baseline assessment of leadership strengths and development needs at both organisational and individual levels, as part of a Tees-wide capability audit. Ms Hartley approached talent management consultants Wickland Westcott.

“We wanted to work with a company that could bring a private sector perspective, but who also had a solid understanding of the way the public sector works and the NHS in particular.”

Beginning with assistant directors and senior managers, Wickland Westcott designed a development centre process that would:

  • assess each individual against the new leadership and management attributes
  • present participants with a stretching development experience
  • be delivered on a confidential 1:1 basis at an off-site location
  • give each participant an opportunity for self assessment and career discussion
  • provide them with accurate, objective feedback
  • assist them with development planning
  • enable them to spot talent in others
  • give the PCTs an overview of leadership strengths and development needs to inform strategic decisions.

Despite understandable concerns over the timing of the launch, which took place against a backdrop of organisational restructure, Ms Hartley forged ahead on the basis that participants would receive feedback that could be of great value to them as they settled into new roles.

Briefings were held to explain how the development centres represented the first step in a leadership development programme that would form part of the PCTs’ drive to attain world class status.

Not unexpectedly given the atmosphere of uncertainty at the time, prospective participants voiced concerns, sometimes quite forcefully, about how the data from the assessments would be used. They were assured that they would be the only recipients of the development reports that would be written as a result of their assessments and Wickland Westcott would not share data about individuals with the organisation. Only common themes in strengths and development needs would be reported. Participants would be expected, however, to share their individual reports with their own line managers.

A team of consultants created a bespoke process which engaged individuals in a mix of specifically designed exercises and psychometrics, including a test of managerial judgement.

Wickland Westcott consultants Diane Allsopp and Georgia McHardy explain: “It was essential to the success of this project that participants encountered challenges that gave them an opportunity to demonstrate the desired leadership behaviours. Our design therefore included a carefully crafted case study exercise that was content rich and face valid. Participants recognised the scenarios they were tackling and although the organisational setting was fictitious, it was firmly set within their own sphere of operation – a PCT environment. When we hear comments such as, ‘That could be us, couldn’t it?’, we know it’s working.”

Over a period of four and a half months, Wickland Westcott consultants met 75 assistant directors and senior managers and in spite of some initial apprehension and concern, most participants were pleasantly surprised by the experience: they enjoyed the challenge presented by the exercises and greatly valued the investment in their development. Most importantly, they began to get a realistic view of what would be expected of them in the future and the nature of the challenges they might face.

When they returned for a follow-up session with their consultant, they received feedback and a personal development report detailing their strengths and development gaps against the leadership attributes. Their consultant also helped them to begin work on their development plan in preparation for the follow-up meeting with their line manager. Ms Hartley received a great deal of positive feedback.

Once the development centres were completed, Wickland Westcott produced an analysis of common themes for Ms Hartley, which clearly demonstrated key strength areas, but also highlighted those areas where the PCTs were weakest, representing a risk to the achievement of their strategic goals.

Did leadership development gain the momentum anticipated? It was always meant to be part of an organisation-wide assessment of capability, but as time went by, Ms Hartley began to receive enquiries from the senior managers who had experienced the benefits themselves. They asked her when their own direct reports would be eligible to take part, a clear sign that they wanted the momentum to continue, recognising that once sufficient numbers had been through the programme and were actively engaged in development, a “tipping point” would be reached when a new form of leadership would emerge and change “the way we do things around here”.

Top tips for embedding behavioural change

  • Visualise the behaviours that will be needed in the future. Engage others in discussion and capture the desired behaviours in a clear and meaningful framework that describes what ‘good’ will look like;
  • Get senior level endorsement for your development programme.Without this, participants may fail to appreciate the value of the programme and may not understand its importance. Have a board level director or the chief executive make a statement of introduction either in person or via letter or video.
  • Baseline current strengths and development gaps against your leadership framework so that individuals will understand both what is expected of them and also how they currently measure up to that expectation. A development centre approach will give participants valuable feedback that will enable them to see where they need to channel their development efforts;
  • Ensure the development centre process is safe and constructive, but also stretching and challenging, providing individuals with a realistic preview of what they will be facing in the future. If you outsource development centres, choose a partner with a track record of this kind of work across a number of sectors, not just the NHS. They need to quickly understand the complexities of your organisation and can bring a useful external perspective;
  • Secure line manager engagement.This is vital to the success of any development programme and without it, your aims and objectives may not be realised. Brief line managers on the purpose of the development centres and on what their direct reports will gain. Explain their role and responsibilities and make a follow-up meeting between participants and their managers part of the process to ensure that development plans are then channelled into other talent management processes.
  • Communicate honestly and openly. Explain to participants how the development centre process fits with the OD plan and with organisational strategy. Tell them what to expect and be very clear about how data generated about individuals is to be used. No hidden agendas.