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Circle Health Group and Liverpool Business School: A successful partnership approach for leadership development

Circle health
In the face of unprecedented challenges from the global pandemic and the integration of two healthcare organisations, Circle Health Group sought a partnership approach to empower and connect its senior leaders. This led to a collaboration with Liverpool Business School to develop the “Towards Outstanding” programme.

The programme has proven to be an important investment for 250 senior leaders and counting. Its success lies in its bespoke nature, emphasising relevance to both business and individual needs whilst promoting collaboration between leaders. It has fostered a learning culture where leaders take ownership of their development and has empowered leaders to drive positive change. As such, it contributes to the recognition of Circle Health as one of the top 25 best big companies to work for in the UK – we were in the top 10 last year and the top five this year – while contributing to improvements in retention rates and staff turnover during this period.

Why do partnerships and building good relationships matter?

The programme illustrates the power of partnerships in achieving organisational goals and cultivating a thriving learning culture.

Organisations take a risk when they choose a provider for a sensitive area like leadership development, even more so when it is the senior leaders. They need to be confident they have made the right choice. Circle Health carried out an in-depth and open tendering process with key industry leadership development players. At this first stage, they were looking for credibility and competence. As conversations moved on, what became more important to deliver impact, was the ability to partner and build a strong relationship built on trust. So, what were Circle Health looking for in a partner? The answer begins with listening and demonstrating understanding with a tailored solution which meets the needs of the business. Investing time to talk, to listen and to understand on both sides was crucial. Knowledge of health leadership helped, and Liverpool Business School had worked extensively with senior leaders in NHS Health Trusts. More than this, the programme needed to fit specific organisational needs and be adaptable for implementation during significant change.

Partnerships matter for the long term because they are mutually beneficial, but only if partners are committed to ensuring the benefits. Business schools with a deeper understanding of a business can provide more effective assistance. Similarly, a business can access a rich array of valuable support. Together, they can extend knowledge and practice. Leadership development works best when the responsibility is shared and draws upon the strengths of the participants, business and provider.

This partnership is based on a model of engagement which encompasses distinctive engagement, which is about listening (helping clarify need and then tailoring solutions to fit) and shaping demand with new thinking, relational by sharing responsibility for learning and being open with colleagues and sustainable by adding value.

Circle Health Group / Liverpool Business School

Circle’s commitment to a long-standing partnership with Liverpool Business School was founded on a shared vision of developing empowered leaders who will go on to take Circle towards an ‘Outstanding’ rating for all its hospitals.

Circle Director of Learning and Circle Academy, Jenny McKnight, recognised the: “Time … taken to truly understand the real challenges we had as a business from all contexts has been part of the process looking from the external impact of a takeover and merging of cultures to the personal needs of the leaders.”

Circle priorities

Circle Health had identified critical challenges facing the organisation. The partners were focused on what makes a connected organisation, issues related to recruitment and retention and opportunities for leaders to share experiences, collaborate and innovate for performance.

Liverpool Business School carried out a needs analysis with senior leaders, organisational development practitioners and the Executive Team using interviews, focus groups and network analysis. This provided insights into the culture, views of senior leaders, characteristics of effective leaders, sense of community and empowerment within Circle Health. The findings shown guided the development and evaluation of the programme.

Flow of the programme to meet the priorities

The programme followed a structured flow, addressing challenges crucial to effective leadership. It began with collaborative conversations to assess the current reality and to envision the future. This opened up themes and issues which the later workshops addressed in detail. Leaders questioned how they can lead and shape culture in this context. They translated that into team performance and thinking more widely about managing people in a sector where attracting and retaining talent is a significant issue. The focus then shifts to understanding financial decision-making to develop business cases for growth. The programme culminates in a focus on improvement and innovation, drawing upon discussions from the earlier themes and ideas to take the business forward. Leaders are encouraged to collaborate, reflect, apply their learning and lead with confidence and resilience.

Circle Health programme structure

Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, the agile approach helped to address the pressures that doctors, clinicians and senior leaders in functional areas were under at the time. Focus groups were held at the end of the programmes, which led to a number of changes being implemented. Day 4 now provides the choice of four elective topics. More action learning sessions have been introduced, and having overcome the difficulties of remote working and the enormous pressures on staff
in hospitals, the partners are delighted to have introduced formal capstone projects for recent cohorts. The new programme now looks like this.

Circle Director of Learning and Circle Academy, Jenny McKnight, said, “Liverpool Business School “listened to what we wanted to achieve and worked with us in a rare partnership where they have genuinely delivered what we needed.”

The impact

“I have been surprised at how good it was. Great questioning, lots of open questions and time to discuss and debate has helped me understand the topics discussed. I felt very safe to give feedback, challenge and share stories.”

Through the programme, leaders experienced significant growth in key leadership characteristics identified in the needs analysis: self-efficacy, work engagement and resilience. They reported increased confidence, improved people management skills and a stronger commitment to innovation and change through project work. The evaluation indicated that the programme positively influenced individual, team and organisational performance, and social network analysis demonstrated increased connections across the organisation. Participants valued the relevance, usefulness and safe learning environment provided by the programme, summarising what the participants have told us.

Circle Health programme impact

Learning transfer

Transfer of learning ensures impact is felt beyond the confines of the programme. Together, the partners have created opportunities for leaders to connect, share experiences and collaborate.

The emphasis on interactive learning, safe spaces for exploration and constructive challenge facilitated the development of a learning culture. Leaders expressed enthusiasm for applying their knowledge and sustaining the benefits of the programme. They used action learning sessions and coaching to enable them to take on challenging assignments and drive performance. For senior leaders, the programme supported improvements in patient outcomes and helped position Circle Health as a top employer.

The approaches adopted began the process of creating a sustainable culture of continuous learning and development through the newly established Circle Academy. This has led to using learning and development as a strategic tool for retention. The programme also inspired new initiatives, such as the Managers’ Hub and coaching platform, which further support learning and collaboration.

Recruitment and retention

Learning on the programme has contributed to improved recruitment and retention by enhancing leaders’ skills, engagement and sense of their value to the organisation. The programme also fostered better connections between leaders across hospitals, promoting knowledge exchange and collaboration. Leaders reported increased satisfaction, a willingness to take on challenging assignments and improved resilience. Circle Health implemented various initiatives, such as the Safe Staffing Framework, recruitment masterclass and partnerships with Royal Colleges, to further support retention efforts and create a positive work environment.

These positive outcomes and a collaborative approach have paved the way for future leadership development initiatives and partnerships.

See other articles from Excellence in Practice 2023.

Circle Health Group and Liverpool Business School: A Successful Partnership Approach for Leadership Development
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