Case Study

Honing a leadership team at The Department of Health

We coached the team heading up the UK Department of Health’s Workforce Strategy division, whose role is to ensure the NHS delivers high quality compassionate care. We met together and apart over a period of 12 months, addressing a range of topics and left them clearer and more unified around their joint purpose, and more disciplined in their work with each other and key stakeholders.

Context and objectives

The Department of Health (DH) leads, shapes and funds health and care in England, working with 23 agencies and public bodies. We worked with the Workforce Strategy Division’s leadership team, consisting of the Director and four Deputy Directors. Its remit is to ensure the health and care workforce can deliver high quality compassionate care, ensuring that quality of care is as important as quality of treatment. The division’s staff and leadership team are located in Leeds and London.

The Director asked us to support his new team’s development; the intention being to provide excellent leadership and management to staff as the role, purpose and structure of the DH shifted in response to a number of significant reforms. He wanted the finer details of the coaching agenda to come from all of the team, not just him. We agree that it’s critical that a team, its leader and its coaches are all engaged in establishing the direction the coaching should take – the purpose and process. It’s also essential to work ‘systemically’, attending to the various systems in and around the team that influence its ability to deliver on its objectives. And, of course, the team and its stakeholders are busy people, so the coaching must be an efficient, impactful use of time.

The approach we took

We met the Director and his Deputy Directors individually and in sub-groups to understand the nature of the team’s challenge, address any questions and concerns about team coaching and to get a feel for the team dynamics. The team provided existing staff survey data and completed our High Performing Teams Questionnaire.

We then ran five sessions with the team as a whole, 4 – 8 weeks apart. Topics included:

  • Getting clarity on where interdependencies existed in order to better understand the purpose of this team
  • Clarifying and aligning the team around a core, shared purpose to generate and use energy efficiently
  • The Division’s organisational development agenda to create coherence and consistency
  • Alternative allocations of work across the team
  • Raising the team’s collective and individual profiles in response to stakeholder feedback
  • Enhancing the team’s ability to coach itself for its ongoing team health


To help us, we drew on:

  • The Director’s 360° feedback (to encourage feedback within the team)
  • His boss (to generate discussion of external perspectives on the team)
  • A second, interim staff survey
  • Our observations of the team in action

Our final session occurred shortly after the Director announced his move to a different Departmental role. The team analysed before-and-after data from our High Performing Teams questionnaire to assess progress and identify any remaining gaps. We explored ways to maintain momentum into the team’s next phase and we reviewed the coaching itself. Afterwards, we also met with some of the team one-on-one.

Liz and Richard’s team coaching was really helpful in working with us to clarify the role of the team (particularly alongside other teams that people were part of) and to build the relationships and understanding to work together more effectively as a team. The commitment that we made to ourselves and to the coaches was important in making sure that we kept focused on these team issues. Richard and Liz then provided an independent perspective and a challenge on team and organisational dynamics which helped us make more progress
Director, Department of Health

The impact we had

The Director and his team believe the coaching has helped them become…

  • Sharper on their joint purpose
  • More unified and clearer on what it means to act as a team
  • Better, more disciplined and efficient communicators
  • Better at handling significant differences of opinion when working together
  • Better at naming and addressing flaws in their own ‘team process’ – for instance, when the team goes off on a tangent or fails to address difficult topics head on
  • More proactive in managing their individual and collective profiles across the organisation
  • Less reliant on their leader’s advice and guidance

Key Challenges

No team coaching engagement is without its challenges. On this occasion our key challenges
can be summed up in six common questions:

  • Are we a team? Some of the team had remits with obvious shared interest and others didn’t which raised differing perspectives on ‘team’ and how team coaching could be useful. Through activities designed to delineate true areas of interdependency, the team clarified what to attend to collectively to benefit the department as a whole.
  • What is team coaching? Initially, some of the team expected more of a ‘teaching’ relationship than ‘coaching’ per se. They were looking for us to evaluate and educate them, using case studies and management theory. This
    created uneven engagement. We needed to clarify expectations and to test the team’s appetite to continue. Coaching is more of a collaborative, adult-to-adult relationship – more ‘done with’ than ‘done to’. Once we all recognised this, we all brought more humour, challenge, energy and openness to the work and achieved more focus and learning.
  • What are we hoping to gain from team coaching, and how are we going to get it? It took longer than expected to get the whole team together and we were eager to deliver tangible progress. Consequently, we crammed too much into our initial session, rather than ensuring everyone was aligned around shared objectives and a rough ‘roadmap’ for the coaching. We were trying to start building so the team could see some results, but we’d yet to lay sufficient foundations.
  • Given our competing commitments, where should this work come in our collective priorities? Everyone involved had very busy schedules and some very different areas of focus. This created understandable tensions as to which team to prioritise and some guilt at time away from the teams they led. Over time, it became clearer that coaching is a process directly relating to day-to-day work rather than a separate stream of events which made relevance and time commitment easier.
  • What about my own individual needs? We met with all team members individually at the start, and with some at the end of the coaching. Meeting one-to-one throughout could have delivered additional value and attended more directly to individual needs.
  • What’s our stakeholders’ stake in the coaching? A team’s stakeholders are the primary beneficiaries of quality team coaching. The Director’s manager offered valuable insights, but the coaching could have been more impactful had we had more contact with him and with some of the team’s other key stakeholders.