NHS trusts face worryingly high levels of senior vacancies

18 July 2018


A near-toxic mix of pressures facing NHS organisations, coupled with a culture of blaming individual leaders for failures beyond their control mean NHS trusts are facing significant difficulties in recruiting and retaining senior leaders, according to a new report from The King's Fund and NHS Providers.
 

New survey data of 145 trusts analysed for the report finds that executive director vacancies in NHS providers are widespread. 

Key findings include: 

 

Research shows that high levels of churn in these roles has a significant negative impact on the culture and performance of trusts. Leaders interviewed for the report also suggested it results in short-term decision-making, which can paralyse organisations at a time when they should be moving forward to develop new ways of delivering care. 

Over a third (37%) of trusts have at least one vacant executive director role, with director of operations, finance and strategy roles having particularly high vacancy rates or low tenures.

   


The report highlights an 'inverse leadership law', where high vacancies and turnover disproportionally affect the organisations with the most significant performance challenges. In trusts rated as 'outstanding' by CQC, only 3% of posts were vacant and 20% of executives had been appointed within the last year (2017), whilst trusts rated 'inadequate' had 14% of posts vacant and 72% of executives had been appointed in 2017. 
 

NHS leaders interviewed for the report viewed their jobs as both a vocation and privilege. However, they highlighted an increased risk of regulatory 'decapitation', suggesting that consequences of poor performance or failure are perceived to be increasingly 'personalised' and laid at the door of individual leaders by some national bodies, politicians and the media. This can lead to a greater unwillingness among people to take on these challenging roles, and discourage bold leadership once in a role. 

The authors also warn that the leadership of NHS trusts is not diverse and does not reflect the wider NHS workforce or local communities, for example only 7% of very senior managers in the NHS are from a BAME background. Whilst there are signs that publishing data on leadership diversity within trusts is beginning to have a positive impact, pressures on the NHS are exacerbating this problem by causing recruiting organisations to be more risk-averse when considering less experienced candidates, further narrowing the diversity and experience of NHS leaders.  

The authors also warn that the leadership of NHS trusts is not diverse and does not reflect the wider NHS workforce or local communities, for example only 7% of very senior managers in the NHS are from a BAME background.

   

 

The report calls on the national bodies to take action to address leadership vacancies and cultures that deter experienced staff from taking on these roles. It says responsibility for leadership has to be spread across the system, and that an overly centralist approach will not work. It suggests that rebuilding the regional talent management functions previously performed by strategic health authorities should be a priority for the new joint NHS England and NHS Improvement regional teams. National leadership development programmes should also expand their focus to include those board roles that are particularly difficult to recruit to. 

Additionally, there has been a 'changing of the guard' in the last few years, with a large number of the longest serving hospital CEOS having retired and a new generation of talented leaders coming through. With organisations being asked to work together collaboratively in local systems of care greater recognition of the importance of system leadership is needed in appointing future leaders, the report argues. 

 

Suzie Bailey, director of leadership and organisational development at The King's Fund said

"Leaders in today’s NHS operate in a climate of extreme pressure: staffing vacancies are rife, there are widespread challenges in meeting financial and performance targets and demands on services continue to increase.

"The leadership task facing leaders of NHS trusts has also changed, with greater emphasis placed on working collaboratively as part of more integrated health and care systems.

Responsibility for NHS leadership is everyone's business - attracting and supporting the right kind of future NHS leaders should be central to the NHS10 year plan and the work of the national bodies.

Suzie Bailey    Director of leadership and organisational development, the King's Fund

 

"Leaders tell us the job of being a leader in the NHSis still rewarding but is not getting any easier or any less complex, and at present there is not enough support or respect for the people in these incredibly difficult roles. 

"Responsibility for NHS leadership is everyone's business - attracting and supporting the right kind of future NHS leaders should be central to the NHS10 year plan and the work of the national bodies." 

 

Saffron Cordery, NHS Providers deputy chief executive, said: 

"We know that high turnover among chief executive and other board-level roles has a negative impact on the culture and performance of NHS trusts.

"It is no great surprise that the best performing trusts often have stable leadership in place over many years. It therefore can’t be right that our most challenged organisations continue to experience the biggest difficulties in recruiting and retaining leaders.

"We need a new approach to supporting the most challenged trusts and systems to develop their leaders rather than continuing with a revolving door approach. This includes finding ways of enticing high-performing leaders into struggling trusts but that isn’t easy to do when a culture of blaming individuals for perceived failures exists.

We need a new approach to supporting the most challenged trusts and systems to develop their leaders rather than continuing with a revolving door approach.

Saffron Cordery    Director of Policy and Strategy and Deputy Chief Executive


"These are complex roles in complex organisations and we need to recognise and appreciate the significant leadership challenges involved.

"One of the solutions to our leadership challenge is to bring through a new generation of leaders that is more diverse and reflective of the communities the NHS serves. While there has been some progress in recent years, there is still a huge amount to do on this front.

"The data we now publish on leadership diversity within trusts is having a positive impact, but these are small steps and we need to create an environment in which NHS organisations are able to take on less experienced candidates with confidence. Nurturing talent and embracing diversity must go hand in hand."

 

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