Now is the time to invest in NHS leaders

Guest blogger:

Karen LynasKaren Lynas, Head of Delivery/Deputy Managing Director at NHS Leadership Academy 

“With the NHS facing huge challenges in emergency, acute and primary care, finances squeezed and a new commissioning landscape to navigate, now is the perfect time to invest in developing leaders.”

NHS leaderhip banner

What is the thing you wish you had known before you took the job you’re now doing? If you could write a letter to your younger self about how to prepare for it, what would it say? Would it be about the skills and knowledge you needed but didn’t have − and didn’t know you needed until you started? Or about the people you would be working with and how you needed to learn a bit more about yourself to manage them well and positively? Would it be about the energy, enthusiasm, tenacity and resilience you were going to need? Maybe it would concern how to network better? Or perhaps something else entirely.

We have such a diverse range of leadership roles in the NHS that understanding the role you are about to move into can be difficult; preparing for it even harder. The truth is we haven’t yet done what most industries do routinely and what many FTSE 500 companies describe as one of their “differentiating success factors”: provide structured development to spot, nurture, train and support leaders in their organisations to prepare them for their next role.

If you are really lucky, your organisation will do this − and there have been some excellent regional initiatives supporting people in transition. But the NHS has never put industry-wide, sufficiently resourced, high-quality leadership development in place − a system that would prepare people for their next role rather than help them once they’ve moved. Until now.

Be prepared

NHS leadershipThe leadership role is complex at every level. Getting it right is tough and getting it wrong is disastrous to the people who most need our support. So the NHS Leadership Academy is attempting to change that. We have put together five national core programmes, from entry level to the most senior leadership roles in the service.

Open to all those working in health and care and NHS funded care, these programmes exist to help prepare you for your next leadership role, and successful completion leads to an award that demonstrate your readiness to do the job.

I know the questions you’re asking. So what? Why now? Accident and emergency departments are bursting at the seams, nurse staffing levels are under real pressure, GP surgeries are packed, elderly patients are stuck in hospital because social services are under pressure, finances are constrained and the squeeze is getting tighter.

Why choose now to take people away from their jobs to develop their leadership potential? What’s the benefit of investing all this money?

The answer is these challenges make it precisely the time we need to do it. This work isn’t a distraction from solving the problems we are all currently facing − it is a big part of the solution. We have a whole new architecture being led in many parts by people new to the role and struggling to find their way through what they have inherited − they need support, wisdom, knowledge and experience.

A simple solution

We have staff working in provider organisations who truly can’t continue to do more of the same − just harder and faster, while getting those around them to do the same. They need new solutions, new skills, new knowledge and new ways of leading, engaging and motivating others.

If the NHS is to survive as a service that meets the changing needs of our population, then it also needs to change to meet its own needs. I don’t think we should expect those leading our services, at whatever level and from whatever profession, to be able to do that without real support and development. That includes learning from the best in the service, from other industries and from other health systems. It includes looking at their challenges with new eyes and fresh ideas; rethinking how the way they lead can liberate and engage the people who work with them.

It is this kind of radical thinking and support that will contribute significantly to moving us from where we are now to a safer, more sustainable, more effective, response and innovative NHS.

So let’s not leave it to chance anymore − moving into a job you think you might know but have never been properly developed to do. Where you are expected to have all the answers when you barely know the right questions, or absorb through osmosis all you should know about the impact your leadership has on others. And whether that is good, bad or indifferent.

You deserve to be supported to learn with others about how together we can start to change the way we work right across the system. Invest in your staff and they’ll look after the rest − it’s that simple.

(This article was originally published on the Health Service Journal website on 20 May 2013.)