Supporting and developing the future directors in health and social care

The inaugural Shadow Board Network from the Inspiring Leaders Network and Yorkshire and Humber Leadership Academy

At the ILN we have worked with a number of organisations across the UK on some of the key challenges the health and social care sector currently faces. Workforce is undoubtedly the biggest challenge at the moment, and one of the workforce development programmes we offer at the ILN is the Shadow Board programme. This programme is aimed at supporting the aspirant directors of the future, working with organisations to identify and develop these people, using a unique blend of modular and experiential learning.

The aims of the Shadow Board Programme:

  • Supporting the development of aspirant directors to enable them to understand and appreciate the difference and transition from a functional specialist to that of an Executive Board Director. Also, helping existing teams appreciate the roles and responsibilities of Directors, enhancing their understanding and making them more effective senior team members who are better able to support Directors, enabling the organisation to both talent spot and succession plan.
  • Enabling the relevant board to have cognitive diversity of thought through real-time thinking, challenges to board issues and decision making. This is done by combining modular learning with the benefits of deep experiential learning – unique to this programme – as participants immerse themselves over several months preparing and participating in a series of real-time board meetings with real papers and real issues. This is the Shadow Board itself.
  • Facilitating cross-organisational learning through the system’s Shadow Boards by bringing different sector leads together to learn and shadow ICS and place-based boards. Also, to begin to build effective lasting and trusting relationships to support integrated care.

Why do we need the Shadow Board?

There is a shortage of board directors in the North of England (1 in 3 have a vacancy) and 31% of current board level vacancies are filled on an interim basis. More shockingly, only 5.1% of Very Senior Managers in the North are from a BAME background.

So, what is it that holds people back and prevents them from aspiring and wanting to take on a board role?

These and many other challenges to the next leaders in health and social care was part of the debate and discussion at the inaugural Shadow Board Network alumni event, hosted in partnership with Yorkshire and Humber Leadership Academy, held earlier in May.

Since its inception, the Shadow Board programme has worked with more than 300 individuals from 22 organisations and 5 systems including Sheffield Children’s Hospital, Rotherham District FT, Bolton NHS FT, a Mental Health Collaborative Shadow Board with SWYPFT, Leeds and York Partnership and Bradford Care Trust, and East Lancashire Care Trust. It’s always been our aim at the ILN to create a network of alumni, bring them together for the greater good to continue their learning, development and support, ensuring that the leaders, directors and board members of the future are equipped to face the workforce challenges in health and social care.

Discussion, debate and development at the Network event

A number of these alumni came along to the network to hear from some excellent and engaging guest speakers; Andrea Overton from YHLA, Daniel Hartley, Regional Director for People and OD at NHS England, Julian Hartley, CEO of Leeds Teaching Hospital and Steve Russell, CEO of Harrogate District Trust. Attendees also had the opportunity to share their thoughts, ideas and experiences, and start a discussion about what a Network could look like.

  • Andrea Overton talked about her experiences of commissioning and working in partnership with the ILN on the programme, and the difference it is making across the region.
  • Daniel Hartley shared some of the work he has been doing around talent and on Regional Talent Boards across the North of England.
  • Julian Hartley shared the impact his work on increasing staff engagement had on increases in operational and financial performance, his work on the NHS workforce implementation plan and his thoughts around the need for a new style of leadership to deliver some of the challenges such as investment in nursing and midwifery and the need to accelerate new roles.
  • Steve Russell set a ‘wicked issue challenge’ for the group – a real (and confidential) challenge – that was worked on by attendees on the day. The development was real, in the moment, and had the Network engaging with a real problem, with real people, in the real world. This approach really resonates with the work we are doing with the Shadow Board.

We need to support system succession planning, it’s not just about organisations

What was clear to me across the day was the similarities across all the sectors in attendance – healthcare, local government and the voluntary and community sector – particularly around current leadership challenges in the system and the support needed.

A number of themes emerged, including having the capacity to do both organisational and system working, the inability of some leaders to let go of a previous culture of competitive ways of working, the pace of transformation leading to little time available for thinking and the current political working environment (a challenge for all of us!).

But what really stood out for me, was the discussion around leadership behaviours and skills needed, and the requirement to define what ‘good’ looks like or have a framework for system leadership. There is a need for better succession planning and development of new leaders, developing a pipeline of these to support systemsuccession planning not just organisational.

A shift from competition to collaboration isn’t as simple as developing good relationships

And when commonality of experiences and challenges were discussed, it was interesting to see that a lot of it was around behaviours. Current culture was one of the biggest challenges to effective system organisational development work, and also perceived gaps and risk in current leadership culture, and the feeling of being disconnected from the lived reality when talking about systems working.

The current challenges of regulation were seen to drive behaviours in leadership that sometimes felt as though it pushed away from the ‘new style’ of collaboration and integration.  We know this to be true and this is why when we work with system Shadow Boards it’s important to also take time to understand and appreciate the constraints in system working, such as organisational regulation and funding flows.

A shift from competition to collaboration isn’t as simple as just developing good working relationships (although this is an essential prerequisite): the constraints are real and felt every day.

Getting people ‘board ready’ 

At the ILN we know that there is a huge learning gap between being a senior manager and a functional specialist, and that it’s not only leadership behaviours that enable and equip people to be directors, it’s the leadership task.

The Shadow Board safely supports people to understand and appreciate the reality of life as board member and what corporate accountability feels like. It bridges the gap in knowledge and experience to support people to be board ready.

It was fantastic to hear from alumni on the day who had gained promotions following their time on the Shadow Board programme, and it always gives me a sense of pride and satisfaction to hear that the work the ILN does has an impact for people and therefore for patients.

What next for the Shadow Board Network? 

The day felt a great success and brought together people from different organisations to work together and to build meaningful, wholehearted and trusting relationships. There was debate, discussion, learning and real-life problem solving, and connections were made across a system that will support and build foundations for future work.

I’d like to thank everyone who attended and the Yorkshire and Humber Leadership Academy as a partner in what felt like the beginning of something fantastic.

We’ll be hosting more Networks in the future, quarterly events and also masterclasses. See our website programme page for more information on the Shadow Board Programme, or get in touch with me at

Kirstie Stott, The Inspiring Leaders Network