David Kovar, Graduate Management Training Scheme (GMTS) alumni, shares his experience of being an Action Learning Set facilitator for GMTS and the impact it had on him.
When I was asked to write this blog, I thought it would be straightforward, especially as the main topic is supposed to be me and I should, in theory, be an expert in the subject matter. As it turns out, having had some time to reflect on my time as an Action Learning Set (ALS) facilitator, limited as it has been, I’m still unsure as to where to begin.
I joined the NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme (GMTS) in 2009 in the South West of England as a General Management Trainee. I still remember my time on the scheme well and think of it often, sometimes fondly and sometimes not so fondly. Though we all like to believe that time on the scheme is challenging but somehow idyllic, sadly that is not always the case. It can be hard, it can be frustrating, and it can be lonely. It’s crucial that trainees are well supported, both professionally and emotionally, and an ALS is a really important part of that support framework, I only wish I had known that when I was on the scheme.
I have had a lot of different experiences since I’ve been in the NHS, and safe to say a lot of ups and downs. Thinking about the topic at hand, I have two main reflections of my time, from that first day walking into 2gether NHS Foundation Trust in Gloucestershire, to today as I’m preparing to leave my current role and start a new challenge. The first is how little I knew on that first day, and how much I’ve learnt and still have to learn. The scheme has a fascinating ability to both galvanise and humble you in equal measure. You start thinking that you are the ‘best of the best’, and you quickly realise that you do not know anything. I still remember the first time I was told patients were ‘breaching’, I nodded solemnly and seriously, whilst thinking ‘what on earth is this person talking about?’.
My second reflection, and perhaps more relevant to this blog, is how I regret not taking advantage of my time on the scheme. I was in an ALS, but I didn’t really engage in it, I had lots of other learning opportunities, and I let many of them pass me by. I can’t give you a good reason for this, perhaps it was just a poor decision or just a lack of insight, I’d love to blame youth but I was in my 20’s and should have known better, but it’s definitely something that I regret and wish I’d done differently. I’m now a programme manager for the scheme, and have had one trainee graduate and am currently looking after another two. I do my best to make sure they don’t make this mistake, and that they recognise how lucky they are and what a fantastic opportunity the scheme really is.
This brings me onto why I wanted to become an ALS facilitator. I suppose my reasons were two-fold, firstly it was a great professional development opportunity, and a chance to do something different. I’m a senior operations manager in the acute sector, and though one could never accuse life of being boring in this line of work, I think it’s fair to say that eventually you need something other than Referral to Treatment (RTT), Emergency Department (ED) performance, money and governance to fill your days and more importantly your mind. So, when I saw the opportunity, I jumped on it. The second reason comes back to my reflections on the scheme, I love working with trainees and I wanted an opportunity to make sure they got the most out of the scheme. Incidentally, this is not to say my experience was down to my facilitators, it was definitely a personal thing, but I was determined to make sure that future trainees got more out of their ALS than I did. Suddenly, I was in Leeds surrounded by a group of diverse and brilliant leaders, all of us embarking on this journey together.
The induction programme was a great experience. I walked in thinking ‘if I can manage the on-call of a major trauma centre, I can do this no problem, and I could, but that didn’t change the irrefutable fact that, once again, I knew nothing. That is a very humbling place to be as a senior manager, feeling like a trainee all over again, but it’s also liberating and quite exciting. The days were informative and intense, a real bonding experience with my fellow facilitators, and I think we learned more about each other in those three days then we do about some of our closest colleagues. I was really struck by the openness, the honesty, and mostly by the trust we all developed for one another.
Before I knew it, it was nearly Christmas, and I was back in Leeds about to meet with my first set. When you’re in my kind of role, you are constantly risk assessing and scenario planning in your head and as I walked into the room, I thought ‘what am I going to do if none of them want to talk? Or if they’re disruptive? Or they hate each other? Or hate me? What if one of them cries? What if they ALL cry?’ I’m still not sure what I’d have done.
Luckily for me, I have a wonderful group who are open, honest and engaged. I just hope I can keep it that way. After the introduction in Leeds, we were in London doing our first full day during which I was thankful to have my brilliant buddy with me for moral support and insights. Neither day in Leeds and London went exactly as I’d planned – the story of my career. I’m really excited to work with these trainees over the next two years, to see and support their growth, and hopefully help them through the hard times.
Though I’m at the early stages of my journey as a facilitator, I feel like I’ve already learnt a lot, even if I thought I knew some of it already. The first thing is my complete inability to sit quietly and not offer advice and solutions, this has been my biggest personal struggle so far. It’s partly just how I’m built, and it’s also a tell-tale sign of an operations manager. Secondly, simple as this sounds, it’s the power of listening. You can see the impact that a room of people simply letting you talk and taking in your problem has on the presenter, like watching a weight lift off their shoulders. Thirdly, it’s the power of group dynamics and bonds, which in both my group and my buddies group are strong – a real testament to the adage that we are each other’s greatest resource. This is true of the group and also for the facilitators, who do – and I suspect will – continue to lean on one another a lot over the coming years.
I can safely say that becoming an ALS Facilitator is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my time in the NHS. The programme has already been hugely rewarding, and I’d recommend it to anyone in any role that involves line management, developing people or working in groups. The support provided both by the Academy and by peers is brilliant, and you never really feel alone or out on a limb. What I would say though, is that you need to be prepared to invest, both time and energy. But if you are, I would strongly encourage you to apply, or at least to enquire and find out more.