How to work across boundaries, and why it matters

Authors: Tosca Fairchild and Acosia Nyanin

Tosca Fairchild is Regional Director of Intensive Support in the NHS, and Acosia Nyanin is Regional Chief Nurse for South East, England. They have recently completed the National Leadership Centre’s Accelerate Programme.

A paramedic (left) works with a firefighter (right) in London

Blood donors and fire stations. Midwives and an academy school. Something special happens when people connect across organisational boundaries. As leaders, joining the dots should be one of our most important tasks.

Over the last 18 months, the whole country has worked in partnership to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and all the issues surrounding it. In our different roles in the NHS, we have both seen the hardest times our teams have faced. But it would have been so much tougher without the support of the whole public sector in our hours of need.

People united by purpose

In many ways, the pandemic gave us an opportunity to cut the red tape that sometimes stops cross-organisational working. In the NHS, we felt we were part of a much larger team with local authorities, armed forces, police services, fire and rescue services and more. The shared purpose of responding to the pandemic focused us all on a common goal.

This didn’t happen by chance. The dots were joined up by people at all levels who recognised the urgent need to work as a single team. The interconnected information, issues, and trends became clearer. Many leaders at the most local level took the opportunity to step forward, lead, and contribute to the response at a local, regional, and national level. Among them were young women and men and people from an ethnic minority background.

The solutions we came up with benefited greatly from diversity of perspectives and life experiences. The results were more inclusive and more connected to the communities we are privileged to come from, be part of, and serve.

Tosca Fairchild (left) and Acosia Nyanin (right)

Top tips for joining the dots

As leaders, how do we create an environment and team that joins up, connects, and works together? We have four key tips.

1) Find your network

Personal networks are so important. Your future network will often already exist in some form, but it rarely will come and find you. So ask around. We are all happy to help people connect.

Networks can sustain you. You will have different networks for different things. There are those for sharing concerns and seeking honest feedback. And there are those that are about communities of practice and learning from other sectors.

2) Bring in diversity

This is particularly important for senior leaders. Make sure you are hearing information from different people, perspectives, and teams. Finding interconnected information doesn’t happen by accident, and it won’t happen if you only listen to the same people and places.

What are users and citizens thinking about? How do you lead and serve communities you don’t understand? Ask yourself the hard questions, and take action to learn more if you don’t have a clear answer.

A theme from the Accelerate Programme has been the importance of doing this proactively and building your “book of numbers” of people that know you. If you can keep people from different places in mind, you can bring them in and recommend them to others.

3) Identify — or build — a common cause

Responding to COVID-19 was our common purpose. Rebuilding our communities and services is hugely important in our current work. As leaders, we must help our people understand and describe purposes behind our work, not just the tasks themselves.

Sharing our purposes with others is often the spark needed to join the dots. Ultimately, it’s all about improving lives, and using that as a driving force can help us overcome the barriers we put in our own way.

4) Support the action

As leaders, this is the key. Our jobs are about creating these networks and supporting the right behaviours at all levels. Follow through, and reflect regularly on how you’re doing. It helps to share your ambition with others: a line manager, a mentor, your team.

Optimistic about the future

The pandemic has been — and still is — an incredibly difficult, draining challenge for the country. Despite all the significant challenges still facing us, we remain optimistic about the future. If we really take the lessons from the last two years — collaboration, shared purpose, diversity of thought, the impact of good leadership — we will do great things across public services.

Find and build your networks. Work together, ideally with people with very different experiences and backgrounds. Celebrate and make the most of diversity.

We can do wonderful things when we join the dots.

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