Hopson: How can we best support and nurture NHS leaders?

Source: NHE Jan/Feb 18

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, shares the views of several NHS professionals who have succeeded in becoming well-rounded and talented leaders after participating in the Aspiring CEOs programme.

Despite planning more meticulously than ever before, winter pressures within the NHS are taking their toll. An increased demand for services due to respiratory problems, flu and the norovirus, combined with funding and workforce constraints, has created high levels of pressure for NHS trust leaders and frontline staff working tirelessly to deliver the best patient care possible.

Once again, it has fallen to NHS staff to go above and beyond to deliver high-quality care under intolerable pressures. Vacancy rates across the service are growing, and there is a rise in the number of staff taking long periods of sickness leave from stress and burnout.

Performance figures for the first week of January saw the worst performance on record against the four-hour target in A&E.

Under these difficult and challenging conditions, how can we protect morale and ensure that staff, who are working flat out, are supported, nurtured and developed? And how can we get better at keeping them?

A key priority must be to slow down the merry-go-round of NHS trust senior leaders. Provider chief executive roles, in particular, are hard to do and difficult to fill. The average tenure of a chief executive at an NHS trust is just 18 months. Good leaders are vital, but there is no long queue of willing and able replacements waiting to fill the gaps that emerge.

The question is, how do we adequately prepare future chief executives for the challenges they will face?

Aspiring CEOs programme

The Aspiring Chief Executives programme has had a positive impact on nurturing chief executive talent. A collaboration between NHS Improvement, the NHS Leadership Academy and NHS Providers, it was created in 2014 to ensure a strong, ongoing pipeline of well-prepared candidates for the role of NHS trust chief executive.

Two cohorts of 14 graduated last year and out of 28 participants, 10 (36%) have been appointed to lead trusts since undertaking the programme – a high success rate within just a year of graduation.

In a joint Aspiring Chief Executives report, ‘Supporting the leaders of tomorrow,’ our organisations gathered perspectives from a number of graduates, who have since become chief executives, on their experience of the programme and the impact it has had.

Samantha Allen, chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS FT, outlined how this scheme programme felt different to other development programmes and how the importance of service to others – patients, carers and colleagues – was at the forefront.

“We weren’t there to simply learn about leadership or the technical aspects of being a chief executive. It was more than that – it was about demonstrating leadership in the service of others,” she said.


Personal development and growth

The programme champions personal growth, resilience, impact and development, with many participants reporting an increase in their own self-awareness and personal impact.

Deborah Lee, chief executive of University Hospitals Bristol NHS FT, explained: “The programme challenged me in ways I have never experienced and prompted me to really think about my leadership: what was it for? How would it manifest? What was it like to be on the receiving end of me?”

Silas Nicholls, deputy group chief executive of Manchester University NHS FT, highlighted how “getting under the skin of what makes you tick has been a major feature of my experience of the programme.”

Participating in the programme was a privilege, said Cara Charles-Barks, chief executive of Salisbury NHS FT, with it giving insight into both the expectations and reality of the chief executive role.

“There is real value in opening yourself up to reflect on the leader you are, the impact you currently have, and embracing the leader you want to become,” added Charles-Barks.

Navina Evans, chief executive of East London NHS FT, argued that thinking about your own development plan and being more explicit about career aspirations was important.

She continued: “If you want to be a chief executive within the next two to five years and your manager supports that goal, this programme could be included in your personal development plan.”

Quality of peers and support network

Many participants commented on the outstanding support and peer network that the programme offers, and the strong emphasis on system leadership, collaboration, patients and diversity. Developing compassionate leadership is also a key pillar. 

Lee shared how she has made lifelong friendships as “the quality of my peers on the programme was phenomenal.”

Suzanne Tracey, chief executive of Royal Devon and Exeter NHS FT, said that, as a newly appointed chief executive, the support of senior leaders is invaluable. “I finished the programme with a support network of fellow chief executives and senior directors that I know I can call on at any time,” she explained.

The mantra of the programme is to develop a new breed of chief executives who take a different approach to address the issues facing the NHS, both now and in the future.

In these challenging times, supporting leadership and developing talent within the NHS has never been so important. As Charles-Barks argued: “I know the programme experience I had will make me a better chief executive, and that’s what our patients and staff deserve.”


For further details on the Aspiring CEOs report with participant perspectives, visit:


Having run two pilot cohorts, the programme will now become a core part of the NHS Leadership Academy’s mainstream programme offer. Further details can be found at:


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