Governance Game Changers: how healthy governance steered the NHS through the pandemic

Company secretary

2 min read

The Governance Game Changers series provides governance professionals with the opportunity to network and learn from their peers over drinks and nibbles. On 21st February, we were joined by guest speaker Katie Neumann, Head of Board Governance at NHS England. Here are our key takeaways:

1. Even the best-laid plans can quickly be thrown away

The onset of the pandemic posed historic challenges to governance professionals in every sector, but few faced challenges as direct and immense as those working in healthcare. Katie reflected on how their newly published long-term plan for NHS England was quickly overshadowed by the pandemic - underlying the fact that, although diligent preparation is a must, events can conspire overnight in a way that changes everything. Therefore, you need flexibility in your approach and mindset so that you can react quickly in the face of a crisis.

Daily incident meetings provided an opportunity for senior leadership to focus on and drive the incident response, with the onus on the governance team to prompt consideration through the board (at the appropriate time) of the long-term perspective and incident recovery.

2. Engage the CEO and chair

Having the chair and CEO onside is never optional. However, it’s especially important for governance professionals working in the public sector, where months of careful preparation and planning can be halted by external events and/or shifts in public and political views. On these occasions, governance professionals often look to the CEO and chair to hold the line, emphasising the investment that has already been made to discourage shifting focus elsewhere.

The CEO and chair’s powers of persuasion aren’t just limited to the boardroom: they have an important role to play in boosting employees’ morale and selling the plan to staff. Katie shared an example in which the timeline for a major merger project was accelerated, placing pressure on staff who would be responsible for meeting the new deadline. Here, keeping the CEO and chair abreast of staff sentiment and morale made all the difference as they were then able to pre-emptively engage staff over their concerns and work out a plan to implement the merger on time.

3. Your network is your net worth

The job of a governance professional can be an isolating experience for many as they work diligently behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of the organisation. Yet, governance professionals working in siloed isolation are missing a vital part of the role: gathering staff concerns and sentiment and bringing them to the board’s attention. This network can be invaluable, as Katie noted the great help it offered during the darkest days of the pandemic. No longer able to rely on being able to simply walk across the office for a quick catch-up, having an established network ensured Katie could effectively keep in touch with colleagues throughout the organisation when remote.

Another challenge mentioned by Katie was the danger of being spread too thin during a crisis. Here, she shared that learning to effectively delegate and trust people to deliver what you need were major markers along her learning curve. As she moved through various roles within the organisation, Katie found herself trying her hand at jobs she would later have to delegate; appreciating that different people bring new ideas was crucial to releasing control and giving people the freedom to make innovative improvements.

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