Go Back Coaching & Mentoring to Support System Leadership | Autumn NLE

Our Autumn Network Learning Event (NLE) in October took us to leafy Lancashire with a packed room at the Oaks in Burnley, bringing together the NHS North West coaching and mentoring community to explore coaching and mentoring in the context of system working.

The Health and Care environment is changing rapidly, and no longer focused on operating as sole organisations but in wider, integrated systems. Deborah Davis, Managing Director, NHS North West Leadership Academy (NHS NWLA), led an interactive session to consider how working in systems, across organisational boundaries, plays out in coaching and mentoring relationships. Utilising the NHS NWLA System Leadership Behaviour Cards delegates considered what it means to work effectively in systems, and how to incorporate this into their coaching and mentoring practice.


As NHS colleagues we are all aware of the context and where we find ourselves in the public sector, politically and with the developing strategies, from Developing People: Improving Care and the Five Year Forward View to the NHS Long Term Plan. There are lots of documents and policies to help get us to where we need to be. Previously there has been a real focus on ill health services; there is a need to look at the preventative agenda, as described in the Long Term Plan.

In addition we are now developing the People Plan. Not just paying attention to finance and safety but making workforce a key focus. The Leadership Compact has been exploring the behaviours people want to see, and centres around three broad themes: culture and inclusion, infrastructure and support, standards and accountability.


Inviting the first conversation of the morning, Deborah asked tables to consider ‘what does system leadership mean to you and your role?’ Key themes emerged around relationship building and the challenge for some people to make the shift to a system way of working. How can we unlock some of the barriers?

Deborah described some of the outcomes we are seeking through work with systems, which reflected the themes discussed in the room, including:

  • Change mindsets – from competition to collaboration
  • Change behaviours – to relational and affiliative
  • Build relationships – facilitate connections and collaborations in real time in real work
  • Unleash transformation, creativity and the potential of our workforce

How do we create the conditions and safe environments for people to change, with space to fail. Is fear something picked up in coaching and mentoring conversations?



A population-based approach to health now means different areas of focus for system working; holistic, place based approaches working with social care, housing, etc. Deborah examined the differences between linear thinkers and systems thinkers.

 “Systems leadership is collaborative leadership”

In the second conversation delegates considered if this view of systems working resonated with them; asking ‘what are you observing in your organisation and local systems? What are you observing with your clients?’.

Delegates questioned “Do we take enough time to get to know each other, to share perspectives?” Another reflected how linear working can lead to a blame culture. “We need to learn how to talk to each other better.”

There was also consideration on how we measure improvement and success in system leadership. One delegate commented on the perceived restriction on change in the NHS e.g. with communication, technology. Change can really be driven by ‘heroic leaders’. You are lucky if you can do and show, rather than ask first; sometimes you have to give yourself permission.

Structures do work and support safety but can be formal and slow; we need agile networks to support system working. We need to have both. Relationships are key, as people have strengths in different areas. We don’t expect one person to demonstrate all the required behaviours!

Working through transition can be a difficult place to be. Some people will thrive, while others find it really challenging to find their place.


“The shift towards a system wide approach to addressing population health will require leaders who are able to work in a different way.” 

Introducing the System Leadership Behaviour Cards, Deborah explained the 4 themes and the 13 behaviours underpinning these. Find out more about how the system leadership behaviours were developed here.

The cards can be a tool to help to explore and define where a leader’s strengths lie and where more development and support is needed. Delegates tested the cards in conversations to explore how they might support coaching and mentoring practice, taking varied approaches in group discussion, one to one, or individual reflection.

Taking feedback on the cards, delegates were asked ‘Which card?’ – did any one in particular strike a chord. Mindset, resilience and relationships were prominent. Colleagues shared their thoughts on how the cards provide a vehicle to different conversations, put a different lens on an issue. They may create a kinder conversation, providing reassurance that ‘you’re not on your own’. The whole pack could also be used to support different ways of working and culture change; thinking strategically.

An outcome from the discussion was asking “What's the system? Do we think about it differently depending on where you are, it could be at multiple levels, a ward team or network” It's not prescriptive – the cards are prompts. Perhaps the conversation starts by defining what your system is, to nurture thinking and mindset.


Have you used the cards?

Share your feedback and tell us how you have been using the cards. Email us at nwla.systemleadership@nhs.net or complete the feedback survey, and connect with us on social media #systemleadershipcards

Look out for details of future events and access learning from previous sessions on our Network Learning Events page.

More about our System Leadership Cards

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