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How HR can develop 'systems leaders'

Forget heroic leaders; today's challenges need a more collaborative approach

Public sector leaders have traditionally adopted a ‘heroic’ approach to leadership. Think of ‘super heads’ tasked with turning around a failing school. Today’s challenges such as youth unemployment and obesity demand a broader, more collaborative approach.

Leaders need to recognise the range of different people and organisations involved, and connect effectively with them to build a shared understanding of the issue and collaboratively develop solutions. Such individuals are known as system leaders and are to be found in many positions within organisations.

In a new report on the practice of system leadership in healthcare published by The King’s Fund, Nick Timmins draws on the experiences of 10 senior leaders with proven experience of delivering change in the NHS and related services without necessarily having formal authority over others.

What these leaders all have in common is a strong commitment to an issue and an ability to see the larger system and to reflect openly and honestly about their experiences. Timmins distils some of the core capabilities required in system leadership. These include, an ability to work behind the scenes rather than lead from the front, to tirelessly build trusting relationships with others to benefit the ‘whole system’ and to shift the focus from reacting to immediate pressures to building positive visions for the future.

None of this is easy when the pressures of regulation, financial constraint and organisational targets lead people and organisations to protect their own interests. But, notwithstanding these difficulties, Timmins argues that not enough is currently being done to develop system leaders.

The HR perspective

Timmins’ report includes an interesting debate among interviewees as to whether system leadership can be taught, or whether it simply has to be learnt by those with the inherent skills and personality traits to do it. I would argue it is neither one or the other, but both.

Bringing together diverse stakeholders with sometimes little history of collaboration, different mental models, and different and sometimes competing aims is a high-risk undertaking. Good intentions are not enough; you need skills and opportunities to grow some core capabilities.

HR staff have a critical role to play in this. They can lead and support practices to recruit staff with the right set of values and behaviours to engage and work with others in an open way. They can also ensure that the work culture fosters on-going reflection and collaboration. Recruitment practices could also pay more attention to how individuals introduce new ideas into teams and organisations, and less to the volume of activities they have undertaken. Increasingly organisations will need individuals who can bring people together to think more deeply about the problem at hand and creatively co-design some possible solutions.

Broadening the outlook

Many organisations are consumed by ‘task’. Some do invest large amounts of money on leadership development but all too often the missing element is how day-to-day activities become development opportunities. Rather than focusing solely on training people for their role, organisations can deploy a wider range of strategies with the aim of developing new skills, networks and relationships. Activities such as coaching, shadowing and action learning can be useful. So can bringing in an external facilitator to work with groups of staff to ‘hold up the mirror’ and encourage them to look beyond focus their own section or team.

The King’s Fund is supporting the development of system leadership by bringing health and social care leaders together in a variety of ways to hold more open and reflective conversations. In most cases, the leaders have recognised that they cannot continue with business as usual. They have realised that their own organisational success depends on creating ‘well-being’ across their local care system and developing some very different solutions.

The greatest changes have been secured where leaders used their time together to think through and develop solutions collaboratively rather than seeing the sessions as a forum to engage with others on their own agendas. HR staff could be at the forefront of supporting greater system change by embedding such development activities within the workplace. But perhaps most important of all is the need to promote a collaborative rather than a competitive environment.

Nicola Walsh is assistant director, leadership, at The King’s Fund