Since November 2005, Northern Ireland’s equivalent of the NHS, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, has faced a major reorganisation as part of a review of the province’s public services.
Under the review, the department was forced to consolidate its 18 health and social care trusts into just five.
This meant that hundreds of senior executives faced, at best, applying for similar or new roles or, at worst, losing their jobs.
Rather than risk losing this senior talent before the restructure reaches its conclusion in April 2007, HR director David Bingham consulted the department’s training provider, the Beeches Management Centre, about running a series of personal development programmes aimed at trust chief executives and directors.
“There was a significant group of people facing a big personal change, with no guarantee of what their new roles would be,” explains Irene Hewitt, chief executive of Beeches Management Centre. “They had high-level skills, and we didn’t want to recruit these again from scratch.”
The programmes, which started in January, comprised three elements: a development centre, where executives followed a simulation exercise in which they sat on the management board of a theoretical health or care trust after the restructure; a list of approved coaches available for one-to-one consultation; and the opportunity to complete a 360-degree questionnaire.
The most popular of the three was the development centre, which was set up and managed by occupational psychology firm Pearn Kandola.
“The context of the simulation had to be absolutely realistic, so we worked with people in the NHS to see what challenges the executives might face,” says Ceri Thompson, head of assessment at Pearn Kandola.
They could face culture clashes between trusts that had been thrust together under the restructure, for example.
Not surprisingly, the level of upheaval at the department made many trust executives sceptical of what it was trying to achieve through the development programme.
Hewitt overcame this scepticism by reassuring participants that the information they got out of the exercises was purely for their personal development and would have no bearing on the recruitment process.
The department has now started advertising for chief executive positions, and Hewitt hopes that the programmes have boosted executives’ awareness about where they see themselves in the new structure.
Beeches has also run practical one-day workshops on presentation skills, interviewing and dealing with culture change.
Most importantly, the programme has helped to retain senior skills during a period of major change.
“I can’t think of one chief executive or director who has left as a result of the changes being announced,” says Hewitt.
It has also focused those affected on the fact that there is still a service that has to be delivered in spite of the change.
“This was an initiative to recognise that people would have a personal agenda throughout the reorganisation, but to help them build that into the wider agenda of health and social care in Northern Ireland,” she concludes.
Lessons learned: Irene Hewitt, chief executive, Beeches Management Centre
- Many of the people affected have been committed to the public sector for many years. We needed to show we could support them and be fair.
- People can become paralysed by change.
- Don’t assume that senior executives will be good at job interviews or managing their career – they need help on that too.
The challenge: retention
- A major review of public services in Northern Ireland means hundreds of senior health executives must re-apply for their jobs.
- The department needs to retain senior skills through the transition.
- Personal career aspirations have to be balanced with the wider needs of the health department.