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Go Back Pushing the Boundaries | Supporting Aspirant Talent to Reach Their Potential

Unlocking potential

Launched in 2014 the Pushing the Boundaries: Aspirant Talent programme has been a key NHS NWLA development offer helping North West senior leaders gain confidence in their development. The programme was aimed at those individuals working at sub-board/governing body level whose potential was to step up into a more senior role that was identified by their organisation.

It was designed to assess and support the development of the ‘Essential Ingredients’, the leadership qualities needed to lead across the newly evolving health and social care system. With the final cohort finishing the programme in March 2021, this case study explores the bespoke approach and impact of this unique intervention.


On engaging with our member organisations about their talent management and succession plans, a key theme which continued to appear was a concern that applicants for Board and Governing Body roles were not always ‘job ready’ to progress into these posts. The evidence demonstrated that, although talented, applicants sometimes lacked the key requirements needed in the changing environment of health and care. Feedback told us that members were conscious of the impact of this on the resilience of their organisations’ succession plans.

To develop and become ‘job ready’, leadership development needs to concentrate on the leadership attributes necessary for the future leadership of the health and care system. The NHS NWLA developed the Essential Ingredients with input from our members, using current research and leadership development expertise. Aligned to the Healthcare Leadership Model, they include; resilience, innovation, creativity, strategic focus, moral purpose, entrepreneurship, authentic leadership and collaboration.


Research tells us that only 10% of leadership learning is attributable to formal leadership programmes, 70% arises from workplace challenges and experience, and 20% from relationships with others (to include coaches, mentors and peers). For leadership development programmes to have maximum impact, they must consider:

  • Context; A critical component of successful leadership. A brilliant leader in one situation does not necessarily perform well in another.
  • Mixed methods: Classroom style programmes alone do not achieve the best impact. Work-based development is crucial, “adults typically retain just 10 percent of what they hear in classroom lectures, versus nearly two-thirds when they learn by doing.”
  • Behaviour and mind-set; an effective leader often requires not only a change of behaviour but also a change of mind-set.
  • Measures: development programme success can only be declared if there is a robust measurement of results.

Taken from Pierre Gurdjian, Thomas Halbeisen and Kevin Lane. Why leadership-development programs fail. 1 January 2014 and Lombardo, Michael M; Eichinger, Robert W (1996). The Career Architect Development Planner (1st ed.). Minneapolis: Lominger.

The impact of leadership development programmes is significantly enhanced by good mentorship, on-the-job learning, and exposure to corporate experience, both within and external to the participant’s organisation. This strengthens the participant’s preparation to work within the system. The Aspirant Talent Programme design was built on this knowledge, offering a variety of learning methods and interventions to support development.

Diagram of tripartite approach

Participants received a bespoke approach to their own development, starting with a one-day assessment and development centre, designed to measure and give feedback on the Essential Ingredients. Individuals received personal feedback on the day and a full written report within 12 working days, as well as a prospectus of NHS NWLA offers and a learning log.

After the assessment and development centre, participants were encouraged to explore and agree development opportunities with their mentor. This was then followed by a tripartite development meeting between the participant, their mentor and a leadership expert from the NHS NWLA to confirm a bespoke development programme.

The personalised development support included access to relevant, internal corporate experiences with the support of their mentor; identifying an external contact to act as a support mechanism in accessing external corporate experiences; and opportunities to access appropriate development from a suite of NHS NWLA leadership offers (one day workshops, coaching and mentoring, etc.).

This video animation further describes our Aspirant Talent programme and its unique bespoke approach to developing senior leaders:


An evaluation was undertaken to fully understand the impact of the Aspirant Talent programme and how participants have benefited from the approach. Alumni of the programme were contacted, and responses gathered by survey and telephone interviews; a selection of the feedback has been collated:

How has taking part in this programme assisted in your leadership development?

  • “Supported me to be more confident and assured in my leadership development”
  • “It gave me greater self-belief and confidence in my own ability, which initially led to me seeking stretch opportunities within the organisation I was working in at the time”

Aspirant Talent is the ideal platform

To what extent has participating in the Aspirant Talent Programme assisted in your career?

  • “I have accessed training, mentoring and coaching which has helped prepare me for my next role. This has improved my confidence and helped me day to day to recognise my impact and become more self-aware and mindful. It has enabled me to focus on the areas for improvement and my career path. I have now been successfully promoted.”
  • “The positive feedback [from the assessment and development centre] helped me understand the positive leadership contribution that I can make to an organisation – a real confidence boost – and it was the platform from which I was able to secure a secondment.” 

Essentially the programme gave me confidence

Participants gave examples of opportunities and support provided by their mentor and/or organisation, and learning from the tripartite meeting:

  • “[My mentor gave me] personal and professional support. Working with me on problems at work and making me think differently about the situation. Feeling personally supported by them in preparation for the programme.”
  • “[As a result of the tripartite meeting] Re-evaluated my role in where I wanted to take it in understanding if I could develop the skills that I needed from the aspiring talent programme in that role. Learnt from the experience and expertise of the NHS NWLA in focusing with my mentor where I could go next in developing a leadership plan and how I could lead others by example. Focused my learning more on a national scale to gain valuable experience in other areas of the Health and Social Care system.”
  • “[My organisation] supported me to acquire an external workplace coach. Identified an opportunity for a secondment to an Associate Director of Strategy position. Asked about my progress on the programme, incorporating the discussion into my appraisal”.  
  • “Deputising for DON at external meetings national and local time off to explore other organisation specific areas of development. Allowed me to present at a business-critical event when tendering for new business, I was awarded the maximum points that could have been awarded for the governance processes I described.”


"The programme consolidated my experience to that point and gave me confidence to move to the next level."

The evaluation has shown that the Pushing the Boundaries – Aspirant Talent Programme was an exciting programme which supported senior leaders to challenge the skills they already had, identify their learning needs and develop the skills they needed to progress. The assessment and development centre provided key benefits around communication and presentation skills, being authentic and creating a focus for self-development. Mentors have been a critical part of the programme for many participants and the tripartite meeting was evaluated as of great value by most participants with specific outcomes linked to forward planning with their mentor and/or organisations.

Dealing with the media came through as the skill which most participants found challenging to deal with and ultimately of the greatest benefit. It was also the most popular of the many courses offered. As a result of attending this programme many have gone on to develop their own opportunities and to seek further development and training.

The final cohort of the Aspirant Talent programme completed their assessment and development centre in September 2019 – have a read of our blog celebrating the success and marking the end of this ground breaking intervention.

The insights and feedback received from participants of this programme have helped to shape our next generation of system leadership development offers in the North West. Find out about our pioneering virtual System Leadership Development centre launched in 2021 and our package of development modules.


Ten Aspirant Talent alumni have shared their learning journeys and insights into the programme – download the document below to read more.

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