Leadership development: Taking the lead

Last week, Personnel Today reported that the Royal Bank of Scotland has joined the hordes of organisations to have pledged considerable amounts of money – but even greater levels of faith – into developing leadership skills within its ranks. HR director Neil Roden declared that the multi-million pound business school the bank is creating would be an “investment in belief”.

Like Roden, many senior HR executives get heavily involved in building leadership development initiatives at their companies. But how many of them embody the skills they are trying to embed into their workforce? Surely if employers are going to spend millions on leadership training, the people organising the programme should aspire to those values?

Too seldom is this the case, according to Steve Miller, a former HR practitioner and now managing director of training company You Selling You. “HR professionals are very poor at recognising their own self-development,” he explains.

“They tend to regard themselves as secondary in the commercial process to other functions such as the sales director or the operations director.”

The consequence is that, in developing leadership programmes for the rest of the organisation, HR tends to leave itself out of the equation, depriving itself of the potential benefits. John Fay, managing director of training company SFL, estimates that only about 30% of organisations actually invest in leadership training to make their HR staff better leaders, while the other 70% train HR in leadership so that it can train other people.

This is a gross oversight, says Fay. “In the past, HR has not got involved, but it should have more leadership development than anyone else. Its role is about growing people, after all.”

Walking the walk

SFL has been working with national chemist chain Lloyds Pharmacy to build leadership among pharmacy managers. Although the programme has not focused on HR alone, HR and training staff have been through SFL’s programme so that they can maintain employee interest in the training once SFL has left.

“When we run programmes, we have to be held to account because we’re not just going to be talking about them but ‘modelling’ them ourselves,” explains Steve Harvard, Lloyds’ director of training. “HR has to have credibility and the underpinning skills – HR professionals have to be strong facilitators.”

But sometimes the emphasis on ‘facilitator’ is too strong. HR practitioners are so busy handing out feedback sheets and monitoring attendance that they do not get as much out of these leadership programmes as their counterparts in other departments do.

“With HR professionals, it is often a case of do what I say, not as I do,” says Rowan Bradford, client director at occupational psychology and consulting firm Kaisen. “It comes down to their ‘self-concept’ – who they see themselves as. They tend to be motivated by being supporters rather than leaders.”

This is not helped by the fact that HR practitioners rarely get an opportunity to show their leadership mettle in the same way other professions do.

“You do not get a huge number of people to lead in HR until later on in your career, particularly if you’re a specialist. Your exposure to leadership is very different from someone who, say, is a store manager of a supermarket when they’re 21,” adds Bradford.

In addition, employers tend to fast-track talent into ‘growth’ areas, such as sales, rather than HR. “How many graduate recruitment schemes push their brightest and best into HR?” asks Bradford.

“Organisations need to push talent into HR so it can build a cadre of people who believe in themselves as leaders,” he says.

Andrew Dyos, HR director of mobile phone company Genesis Communications, believes that HR plays a crucial role in helping employers to get the best out of leadership development, but only by HR people being strong leaders themselves. “If you are going to run a leadership programme, you put a leader in charge,” he recommends.

“I look back at my career and think about how many times I’ve attended leadership programmes that had merely been ‘managed’.”

When Genesis implemented a leadership training programme, the role of HR was to diagnose where leadership would benefit the company most and come up with a common language to define what leadership meant to the organisation.

Align to business

However, successfully driving a leadership programme means embodying its values long after the trainers have done their work, adds Harvard.

“Often HR is guilty of patting itself on the back after running these programmes, but that’s when the real work starts,” he says. “HR is back in the workplace, measuring the impact of the programme and aligning it to key business issues,” he says.

Before, during and after a leadership initiative, the key thing for HR to do is build credibility. This means escaping from the back office and developing relationships with other business leaders in the organisation, says Miller.

“Writing a strategy is one thing, selling it to the business is another. As long as HR continues to underrate itself as a function, it won’t get anywhere.”

The most inspirational leaders in HR are those who communicate well, exude confidence, and are not shy of dealing with other parts of the organisation, adds Miller.

So the next time the business is building a budget for leadership development, make sure HR gets a slice.

What makes a good leader?

Having developed HR’s leadership skills, how can you nurture leadership in the rest of the organisation? Ian Jessup, senior partner and co-founder of training and development consultancy Interact, offers some tips:



  • Leadership is a people skill – Understand, interpret and respond to others’ language, attitude and behaviour. Ensure your recruitment process is designed to identify individuals with these attributes.
  • Leaders do not have a single style – They develop a flexibility of approach, behaviour and communication to situations, opportunities and, above all, other people.
  • Understand the importance of coaching Individuals displaying the right attitude should receive coaching and mentoring to help them adapt to the company culture.
  • Provide opportunities to shine – Ensure potential leaders have plenty of opportunities to develop communication and presentation skills.
  • Encourage flexibility – Leaders must be able to communicate their vision in a variety of ways to provide meaning for each and every person in their organisation. Ensure they work in an environment where this is encouraged.
  • Promote teamwork – Leaders are more interested in others than themselves. They are more apt to listen than to tell, and strive to learn before they teach.
  • Promote an open and inspiring culture – Leaders provide the ‘where’ for an organisation. Their people provide the ‘how’ but they can only do so if leaders also provide the ‘why’.
  • Communicate internally – Leaders must have the ability to transfer learning across your organisation. Encourage this by allowing potential leaders to experience work in a variety of teams and departments.
  • Gain the support of senior management – Good leaders should personally identify those who can become their successors. Ensure that potential leaders have regular access to senior management for advice, support and professional development.
  • Support continual development – Leaders never stop wanting to learn and never stop being prepared to apply what they learn.

Case study: Genesis Communications

Mobile phone company Genesis Communications had traditionally been run by entrepreneurial individuals with a strong leadership style.

According to HR director Andrew Dyos, this created a culture that revolved around one individual’s leadership style, rather than nurturing influencing skills in others.

Rather than focus on the chief executive and management board, as many leadership initiatives tend to do, Dyos asked staff from all levels to apply to participate on the course, run by training company SFL.

The HR team identified that around 20% of employees (as opposed to the original 10% they had budgeted for) would improve their leadership potential by attending SFL’s programme. Among them were several members of Genesis’ own HR department. The HR department’s role in building the leadership programme, according to Dyos, was to sell the concept to the board, position the scheme internally and create the common ‘glue’ that would make the leadership training most effective.

The results have been impressive – changes to the way sales teams work has increased customer conversion rates by 12%, while the accounts department has collected 45% more cash from debtors over the past three months because the manager tried things that she would not have or did not consider before, thanks to the course.

Most importantly, the HR team has got something out of it too. Genesis’ customer service trainer, for example, has decided she would like to step up her skills to encompass management coaching. Other HR professionals on the scheme have simply “raised their game”, says Dyos. “It has raised their self-worth, awareness of their abilities and their potential.”

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