Staying curious with the Shadow Board Programme

Source: NHE March/April 2019

Kirstie Stott, director of The Inspiring Leaders Network, discusses organisational and system curiosity alongside the work of the Shadow Board Programme.

As an executive coach, I always stay curious. When I’m facilitating teams I always ask them to stay curious, but what I don’t do as often is ask organisations to stay curious.

Having said that, organisations that do stay curious and seek challenge and cognitive thought diversity are often the ones which thrive. I see this so frequently within the Shadow Board Programme my own organisation (The Inspiring Leaders Network) works with healthcare organisations and systems on.

We often talk about how we need to hear the voices of staff doing the job, working on the ground; to acknowledge these and to embrace them to prevent senior group think, which can be especially common on boards where there is a lack of diversity in its broadest sense.

The beauty of the Shadow Board Programme is that it enables organisations to really hear at the senior most level a different way of thinking to what are often complex issues. It connects the board to people whom will have come from different backgrounds. And not just gender, ethnicity, or the usual way we think about diversity, but the sociodemographic diversity and views we form through our upbringing and experiences of the world we live in.

One of the problems organisations have is that by the time they are really engaging their people on significant issues affecting the organisation, the organisation is often already well on the road to change – meaning that staff have limited impact, or sense they are not being listened to at all. As we know, this can lead to people feeling undervalued and unable to contribute.

One of the areas of feedback we often hear is that the programme works in real time, with participants working on real issues facings boards today rather than abstract or made up issues. It enables participants to use real board papers in real time, enabling the board to get a much broader range of views on strategic, complex, and critical issues. It enables NEDs and chairs to fuse together the conversations at the Shadow Board with those at the trust board and to facilitate a feedback loop of challenge, solution, development, and learning.

This will be ever more important in the context of systems working and leadership: the need for diverse cognitive thinking to facilitate a more collaborative approach to integrated working, and to step back from traditional ‘organisational leadership’ thinking to truly start with the system first, organisation second. It also helps participants to deepen their understanding on why this occurs, and what some of the constraints current organisational leaders face are. This was evidenced when working recently with a group of system leaders in a Shadow Board Programme, where there was a paper discussing the allocation of some additional transformation funding.

The views from Shadow Board participants had a real impact in ensuring funding was allocated in a way that made the biggest difference to patients rather than organisations. This was welcomed by the executives and demonstrated the benefits of investing in the future system leaders, developing a diverse pipeline of ‘ready-to-go’ leaders who understand and are already contributing to making the long-term plan a reality.

Enabling contribution and curiosity, both in individuals and organisations, needs to take priority for the future. As Brene Brown says in her Daring Greatly Leadership Manifesto: “We want to show up, we want to learn and we want to inspire. We are hardwired for connection, curiosity, and engagement. We crave purpose and we have a deep desire to create and contribute. We want to take risks, embrace our vulnerabilities, and be courageous.”

It feels so intuitive, right and important that we ensure organisations, and the systems they are part of, get this right. Think of the difference we could make to patients and to staff! Curious organisations are truly transformative. The coach in me wants to leave you asking yourself: do I support my people to do this?


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