Survey shows paucity of top NHS talent

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Following a recent survey of NHS provider trusts, more than 90% of respondents expressed clear reservations about the available talent pool for some of the most senior healthcare roles.

Based on 142 responses from the survey, carried out by NHS Executive Search; the NHS Leadership Academy’s board executive search team, a third had reservations about the knowledge and skillset of applicants for five of the most senior executive level positions, with respondents saying they weren’t “spoilt for choice” when it came to candidates for chief executive, chief operating officer, finance director, nursing and medical director positions – with often, only 1 in 5 applicants being appointable.

More than 60% of respondents had failed to find more than two appointable candidates with 23% also saying that in the last twelve months, they had failed to appoint to their chief executive vacancies the first time around, but did however say that once appointments were made they had a high level of confidence in their decision.

Martin Hancock, associate director of the NHS executive search team, said: “Anecdotally, there has been a view that there is a talent shortage across the NHS at senior levels – for example, we often hear people saying that 10% of chief executive posts are unfilled and until now, we have lacked any quantitative evidence as to the picture that sits behind that. For example, a Trust might appoint a chief nurse, but did they do so at first attempt, from a shortlist containing multiple appointable candidates or did they have a tiny field and end up with only one appointable candidate, perhaps after having to advertise more than once?

“Our survey, for the first time, gives us that robust information and while it confirms much of the prevailing opinion, it also highlights several unexpected and perhaps, surprisingly positive themes. It also allows us to see some of the variation that exists regionally and between the different posts we looked at. What is clear is that there is still a great deal of work to be done before we reach a point where providers are consistently spoilt for choice when it comes to making appointments to their most senior and challenging posts.”

The survey, carried out by Pickersgill Consultancy and Planning Ltd (PCP) also showed an unwillingness of many well qualified candidates to take the risk of moving from the safety and comfort of their current position to a new, board level position – highlighting a clear support need within the system.

Martin added: “The Academy’s comprehensive range of leadership development programmes and our own work supporting board appointments will be part of the solution, it’s also clear that there will need to be a wider system effort to support the identification, development and support of both our existing board leadership community and those with the talent and aspiration to take up such roles in the future.”

“The survey has confirmed what we already knew – that more needs to be done around talent management and leadership development within the whole of health and social care. And we are one of the organisations able to help.

“In the coming year, we will be working with our colleagues across health and social care to spread and strengthen the support available to our leaders, not only to ensure that they are successful in their roles but to create a consistent approach and develop top, diverse leadership talent for the future so that anyone applying for a senior role, or is ultimately responsible for a service, has the ability to succeed and are able to give confidence not only to their employers as organisations but to their patients and population as a whole.”

It was felt, by the chairs, chief executives and HR directors who submitted their responses, that both NHS Trusts themselves and the NHS Leadership Academy had a responsibility to put measures in place to improve the quality of the talent pool – offering ongoing support and learning in order to reach those most senior positions.

Jan Sobieraj, managing director of the NHS Leadership Academy, said: “As Martin says, the survey has both confirmed what we already thought and highlighted some key needs to further develop talent and support people in both securing and succeeding in the most senior healthcare roles.

“Talent development is not just an NHS problem, it is a global issue and healthcare systems across the world are struggling to recruit leaders with the right level of skills and capabilities. With this in mind, we are currently working to ensure the talent management processes we have in the NHS are much more effective and the development of talented individuals becomes a core part of our business.

“Not only are our professional leadership programmes and talent management resources already proving to have a positive impact within leadership development, the executive search function that we have at the Academy is continuing to grow and develop. Having an internal search team within the NHS means they not only have great knowledge of the needs of our leaders, organisations and patients, but any spend on them goes directly back into the service.

“In the last two years, we have delivered around forty placements – which would have cost the taxpayer in the region of £1.25m if an external, commercial search firm had been used. We are proud to be able to offer such a high quality service, that is also so much more cost-effective and look forward to using our learning to strengthen the development and support available to our most senior leaders and their appointing organisations.”

2 thoughts on “Survey shows paucity of top NHS talent

  1. The public sector must reap the benefits of this diversity advantage in health to nurture talent, maximise resources, drive innovation and find new, more effective ways of delivering services in collaboration with our communities. For the NHS to be financially viable going forward, leadership must empower the majority to challenge exclusion, where power and privilege reside with the few.