Due to the intensive and demanding process required, Board assessment and Board coaching is usually only undertaken by organisations with the confidence and energy to invest in their own long-term performance excellence.

One such organisation is Birmingham Community Healthcare Trust (BCHT) which provides high quality, accessible and responsive community and specialist services within Birmingham and the West Midlands. Its dynamic Chief Executive, Tracy Taylor, applied in 2007 for BCHT to become a pilot Community Foundation Trust. Hers was one of just six that were chosen for the national pilot scheme, launching BCHT on a journey of reflection and external assessment that is still not quite over: the Trust is currently nearing an end to the public consultation on its proposals, and hopes to be awarded Community Foundation Trust status by the end of 2012.

Earlier this year, having already been though a whole series of assessments as part of the journey towards Foundation Trust status, Tracy decided to invest in a programme of board development. She commented: “We’d already had a focussed diagnostic on Board capacity commissioned by the Department of Health and carried out in 2008/9. But that was a couple of years ago and the time felt right now to take stock of how far we’ve come on our journey. Our Board members were used to being assessed and having feedback. But this time it was different: it wasn’t about external assessment. It was our process, commissioned by us for us. We wanted, in a confidential environment, to look at the challenges we face in the coming months and years and to make sure we’re as well placed as we possibly can be to deal with those challenges.

“Baz Hartnell of Starr ran the programme for us, with a colleague, Penny Lock, and the whole process was exceptionally well done. All our Board members were able to express their views and raise any areas of concern. We discovered that there was one single underlying common theme that had the potential to become a real issue if we didn’t tackle it. Baz made sure that this was addressed in a wholly supportive, constructive and professional manner. Everybody felt able to contribute in the group forum. Nobody felt aggrieved or uncomfortable or frustrated and we were able to come together as a team and go forward in a really positive way. I think that, as a result, the Board has moved to a much stronger place. We’ve proven we have the impetus and ability to deal with tough issues. The fact that we can be honest and critical and still work together comfortably as a team makes it much easier for us to use our energy positively for the future. There are huge challenges ahead for the NHS and we have to be free to concentrate on the really important things. The development session with Baz confirmed our strengths as a Board and helped focus our planning for the future. We are mindful of the challenges that lie ahead and confident that we’re well equipped to meet them.”

The challenges of coaching at this level of are not for everyone, but the rewards are well worth it. Baz concludes: “trying to achieve the seismic shift in paradigms that are sometimes needed if a Board is truly going to be fit for purpose can be tough.  It goes beyond knowledge: it’s all about experience and capacity to influence. As a Board coach, you need the presence and authority to be able to hold someone’s feet in the fire if the situation demands it – but be able to do it with dignity and compassion, and in a way that facilitates positive change for the individual as well as the Board. The sessions can be physically and mentally draining, but the value-add is immense. That’s why I do it: the satisfaction comes from being a catalyst of change and seeing a good Board emerge as a Great Board.”

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