Transformational change leadership

Tanya Ovenden-Hope

Dr Tanya Ovenden-Hope PFHEA, Director of Education, The Cornwall College Group @UniEducator

Eight years ago I read a research paper on how the NHS could improve the quality and safety of handover of patients from surgery to intensive care using the analogy of a Formula 1 pit stop and expertise in aviation (Catchpole et al, 2007). It was the unusualness of the connection for sharing best practice – racing driving/aviation and health – that drew me to the research. Reading about the success of the new handover protocol, however, made me really think about how expertise from other industries could be extrapolated to improve education. It was therefore with great interest that I watched Steve Fairman’s presentation to the Education and Training Foundation’s Leadership Summit on the similarities in leading the NHS and education.

Steve Fairman is Managing Director of the NHS’s Improving Quality (IQ) department (and an alumni of Further Education (FE)). With colleague Helen Bevan he produced a White Paper (Bevan, and Fairman, 2014) to support transformational change leadership in the NHS. The exciting thing about this White Paper was that it captured key ideas about change and transformation from leaders and practitioners in different industries throughout the world. It was also underpinned by empirical research, which was then applied to a health and care context to enable recommendations for the development of effective change leaders supported by an ‘action list’. Establishing a leadership programme in this way is clearly best practice, as we know that quality is achieved by monitoring, reviewing and evaluating practice, implementing  evidence-based change to improve that practice where needed. In this way not only the outcomes, but also the methodology of the White Paper can help to develop resilient and effective FE leadership in this current period of challenge and change.

The similarities between the NHS and Further Education are clear. Both are public sector providers and, as such, have experienced year on year cuts in government spending, with increasing competition from (sometimes the same e.g. SERCO) private sector providers. This has meant that both hospitals and colleges have had to identify their USP, creating specialist provision by understanding what we are really good at. In my college that has been articulated through specialist curriculum hubs driving, with an ambition to provide world class education and training, underpinned by community and business engagement, partnership development with schools and universities, and wider scholarly activity and research.  It is also becoming increasingly difficult in both sectors to recruit leaders, as ‘naming and shaming’ is common if things go wrong, requiring increasing resilience for those taking on the challenge of change leadership.

An interesting observation made by Fairman is the way in which public sector systems react strangely when pressure is put upon them. For example, he comments that connection to the patient is lost in translation when targets are driving change; it becomes about percentage through put, not what the patient wants or values most. When considering our responses as leaders in Further Education, can we argue that we do it any differently?  If we can’t, should we? For example, as government funding is reduced for adult learners, could we think about the learner, what they would benefit from most and perhaps take a little time to be innovative or creative in our leadership of this challenge? Fairman suggests that this is a new era and power in leadership is attained through emotional connection, shared purpose and co-creation.

Sergio Marchionne, the new CEO of Fiat, turned the fortune of Fiat around and is a great example of a new era leader, whose practice can be applied to all leaders, including those of us in FE. Marchionne did three simple things that were based on one simple question, which we can consider for our own FE change leadership challenges:

How do you connect with those you want to provide your service to (that’s the learners for us)?

Marchionne listened to what his potential customers wanted. He used the old logo known and preferred by the public; it was what they wanted and felt like they had been give Fiat back. He made Fiats safe (all have 5 star safety rating in US and Europe) and he created a Fiat (the 500) that was personalised (a first for a mass produced car) by allowing it to be designed by the public of Italy in an open consultation. These three simple steps, brought about by innovative and creative leadership, have enabled Fiat to flourish. Perhaps it is time we established some steps of our own in FE.

As a final thought, the change enabler actions for leaders identified below may be directed at Health and Care professionals, however they are equally relevant to Further Education. Given the scale and pace of change currently being experienced in our sector, they may offer a good starting point for change. (NB: My addition in brackets).

Bevan and Fairman’s (2014) Five Leadership Enablers for the “emerging direction” in change

  1. Activate disrupters, heretics, radicals and mavericks

Leaders should seek to identify them and engage them in the organisation’s most significant challenges

  1. Lead transformation from “the edge”

Purposefully moving change processes to the edge [of organisations] can result in more radical thinking, faster change and better outcomes

  1. Change your story

It’s about bringing new, different and diverse voices into the change conversation… Change your story and you can change your organisation

  1. Curate rather than create knowledge

A key role for future improvement leaders in health and care [and education] is to curate knowledge i.e. filter, evaluate, contextualise and share knowledge from multiple sources

  1. Build bridges to connect the disconnected

If we are seeking large scale transformational change, we should be bridging networks that connect disparate individuals and groups that were previously disconnected.

Read the White Paper.


Bevan, H. and Fairman, S. (2014) The new era of thinking and practice in change and transformation: A call to action for leaders of health and care. Improving Quality NHS. Access:

Catchpole, K. R., De Leval, M., Mcewan, A., Pigott, N., Elliott, M. J., Mcquillan, A., Macdonald, C. and Goldman, A. J. (2007) Patient handover from surgery to intensive care: using Formula 1 pit-stop and aviation models to improve safety and quality. Pediatric Anesthesia  17: 470–478 2007

Watch Steve Fairman:

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