Talking leadership: Marcus Powell on supporting leaders in health and care

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Marcus Powell joined The King’s Fund as Director of Leadership and Organisational Development in February 2016. We talked to Marcus about why he joined the Fund, his view on the leadership challenges in the NHS and the role the Fund can play in supporting leaders to deliver high-quality care.

What drew you to the role of Director of Leadership and Organisational Development at The King’s Fund?

I’m fascinated by leadership and, over the past 15-20 years, my career has focused on developing leaders in all sorts of different contexts. Before joining the Fund, I was Group Director of Human Resources and Organisational Development at Nuffield Health and before that, I spent five years as part of the leadership team at Ashridge Consulting, a division of Ashridge Business School.

I started my career at Marks and Spencer where, by the time I left, I was responsible for learning and organisational development for a workforce of more than 75,000 people. These roles have given me a breadth of experience, from working within large organisations to deliver organisational development strategies, to working as a consultant for global organisations such as Unilever, Barclays and Schroeder’s.

I don’t think there’s anything more important in health at the moment than developing leaders’ capability and confidence to lead, given the need to deliver high-quality patient care and the pressures facing those working in the NHS. Within this arena The King’s Fund is well respected, so when this role at the Fund came up, it was a fantastic opportunity for me to continue my journey developing leaders and to build on the Fund’s commitment to excellent leadership in the NHS.

What do you think are the challenges faced by health and care leaders today?

The challenges are absolutely immense. Leaders in the health system are facing enormous financial pressures alongside growing demand from an ageing population with increasingly complex needs, as well as regulatory and political pressures.

Currently the NHS is not a health system but an ill-health system and it’s clear that – to deliver high-quality care for patients – the health service needs to change, and indeed already is changing. We need to focus on prevention as well as cure and to look at how we work across health and social care boundaries; the pace of this change is only going to speed up.

Many people choose to work in health because it’s a vocation to care for patients, but all of these challenges can make it a very difficult place to be. I think it’s the job of a leader to create an environment where these pressures are minimised so that people can actually get on and do the job that they joined the health service to do, something that’s becoming harder to do in an increasingly tough environment. The consequence of this is that we’re seeing a huge talent vacuum where leaders are leaving and people aren’t joining the health sector.

What do you see as The King’s Fund’s role in helping leaders to meet these challenges?

We understand the context – the broader picture – because of our work to understand and help shape health policy. We can help leaders to make sense of that bigger picture – the regulatory environment, the political environment, the financially constrained environment – and that perspective makes us unique.

The health system is undergoing fundamental change, with services being delivered through more interconnected and interdependent organisations, requiring collaborative leadership across traditional boundaries. Delivering high-quality care will need much greater involvement from patients to help shape services, as well as a recognition of the vital contribution from the volunteer, third sector and other community groups. The King’s Fund has a vital role to play in supporting these emerging leaders, alongside leaders from the NHS.

Does your background give you a particular take on how to enable excellent leadership in health and care?

My experience of working with leaders in many different contexts means that I understand how leaders operate in complex situations, and health and social care is probably among one of the most complex environments.

I’ve also learnt that the people who are in a system know it best – others can give a new perspective but those inside it are the experts. Our role is not a teaching role – that implies a lack of skill or knowledge on the part of those people – the key is giving leaders the confidence to believe that they can find the solutions to the issues they face.

What's your aspiration for leadership development at The King’s Fund?

I want to build on the Fund’s reputation for high-quality, innovative leadership development, supporting individuals, teams and organisations to build their leadership capability to deliver excellent care for patients.

Using our expert knowledge of the wider context of health and social care, we will work with leaders as partners, supporting them to use their expert knowledge of their own organisations and contexts to unlock their own ability to tackle the challenges they face.