Talking leadership: Allison Trimble on building leaders’ authority

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What challenges do leaders in health and care face when they begin to grow their influence and impact, and how can they overcome them? We speak to Allison Trimble, programme director on The King’s Fund’s new leadership programme, Building your authority: influencing beyond your role.

What qualities do you think make a good health care leader?

The ability to keep learning, to know how you learn best, and to be aware of what gets in the way of your learning are critical for leaders who work in environments where change is constant and unpredictable. This type of environment needs leaders who can keep learning as things change; ask the right questions rather than provide all the answers, and work confidently with complexity. This type of leader can lead thoughtfully and purposefully rather than simply react, and therefore can develop and progress their ideas to generate wider impact and benefit. But this sort of learning can be challenging; especially when it requires us to rethink ingrained assumptions about ourselves and other people. It is our own resistance to change that can make learning so hard at times, and yet it is so vital to keep working at this if we really want to bridge the gap between our intentions and what happens.

What sorts of challenges do leaders come up against when they are looking to extend their influence?

When leaders reach the limits of their authority despite having ideas and insights about how to change things, it can present them with a ‘moment’ where they must decide what to do. In this moment, they may be silenced, dismissed or misunderstood – this happens within organisational hierarchies where power may be used to impose decisions or in systems where expectations about collective decision-making are not shared.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges faced by leaders in this situation is how to mobilise their own personal authority to find a way through the situation. In these pivotal moments, knowing how to keep a hold of their confidence, curiosity and competence is essential. This will help them work more creatively with resistance, perhaps, by reframing a problem as an opportunity to do something else or going beyond their role to influence where they can, building alliances with others who can speak on their behalf or finding ways to overcome barriers and remove obstacles.

How do you hope this new programme will help them overcome these challenges?

Our new programme, Building your authority: influencing beyond your role aims to help team leaders, lead practitioners and heads of service who have experienced these kinds of moments to strengthen their confidence to work with uncertainty, ambiguity and the dynamics of organisational relationships.

The programme will help leaders to explore their own leadership purpose; to make sense of the complex issues they are facing, and to test new ways of intervening in teams, organisations and systems. It will support them to build their own capacity for learning about the interplay between personal experiences and what happens in systems, and will create space for them to notice how resistance – both personal and external – can shape what happens in groups and systems.

How does this new programme relate to the Top Manager Programme?

Top Manager Programme (TMP) is the longest-running leadership programme at The King’s Fund. It’s now in its 35th year. It has a distinctive multi-layered learning approach, combining relational and experiential learning. TMP has an extensive alumnus of past and present leaders – many of whom testify to its transformational effect on their work. They also often tell us that they wish they had come on TMP or something similar at an earlier stage of their career; and some reflect a wish that more of their colleagues could benefit from the learning approaches it uses.

We have designed our new Building your authority programme for the senior leaders of the future, who are currently leading a team or function in organisations and may also be required to work collaboratively with peers and system partners. We hope it will introduce the style of learning we use on the Top Manager Programme to a new group of leaders, and support a shared approach to learning in organisations where senior leaders may have been on TMP.

How do you hope those who take part will benefit, in both the short and long term?

In the short term, we hope the programme will offer a space for leaders to work reflectively with some of the more challenging aspects of their role and that it will strengthen both their confidence and their competence to work differently. In the longer term, they will become part of a network of peers from across the wider health and social care system, including the third sector, who will have shared the experience of learning about their personal and systemic challenges.

Building your authority stands alone, but it could also provide a foundation for the TMP journey so that leaders can begin to develop the personal awareness and reflective practices that underpin the Top Manager Programme. By introducing these skills at an earlier stage of an individual’s career, we hope our future senior leaders will be better equipped to deal with the increasingly challenging demands of their role.

Find out more about our Building your authority programme