An individual approach to leadership

The business

The Highlands and Islands Enterprise network (HIE) is responsible for economic and community development in an area that covers more than half of Scotland and is home to 435,000 people. Last year the organisation invested more than 110m. HIE’s head office is in Inverness and it employs about 550 people.

It has been through significant changes in recent years. First, taking on a major new role when, in 2001, it launched the Careers Scotland career guidance service. Second, it has been running an efficiency drive. Through this, HIE aimed to optimise its use of new technology, disperse jobs away from Inverness to more remote areas, and reduce its headcount by 100.

The challenge

“The network is a highly devolved organisation, and managers have a fair degree of autonomy in deciding how best to run their own units,” says Susan Myles, HR director at HIE. “While this brings many benefits, we lacked a consistent approach to leadership and management. There wasn’t a well-defined HIE style.”

Cohesion is always going to be an issue in an organisation where employees stretch across an area bigger than Belgium. E-mail and video conferencing can help with the management of employees based on a remote island, but it can only go so far. Added to this, HIE covers an enormous range of activities under the heading ‘development’, and employs people with widely differing skills and attitudes.

These problems had always existed, but the changes since 2001 were compounding them.

“We lacked a method for realising the leadership potential in the organisation,” says Myles. “We promoted technical experts to management roles but didn’t develop their leadership skills. Our performance management system was flagging up poor managers, but it wasn’t helping the good ones become excellent.”

The solution

The organisation had been discussing a leadership development programme for seven years, but Myles decided the time had come to act. With a budget of 700,000 over three years, she selected a team of consultants to run its ‘Achieve’ programme.

The programme began in June 2005. It involves managers taking four, week-long, off-site courses in a single year.

“We’re certain that this structure is a key part of its success,” she says. “The impact just wouldn’t be as strong if each block was shorter, or the programme more spread out.”

At these courses, the participants cover issues such as how to embody the network’s values and beliefs, identify the unique contributions each individual brings to leadership, and learn the skills required to get the very best from people. Between these modules, participants have executive coaching sessions to reinforce the learning.

Myles emphasises that the programme doesn’t aim to clone the perfect manager. “Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. We want participants in the programme to understand the changes they need to make to become as effective as possible, but we recognise that these changes will vary from one person to another,” she says.

The outcome

Myles uses an informal ‘climate’ questionnaire every six months to test the employees’ reactions to the programme. She then matches these results against HIE’s overall goals. Its success is also measured on an individual basis.

About 40 senior employees are currently on the programme, and a further 60 are awaiting their turn. According to Myles, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Participants have described it as night becoming day. Everyone has been so enthusiastic, which is great to see,” she says.

If I could do it again…

“I would have fought for more money so that the programme could be delivered more rapidly,” says Myles. “Some people are not going on this programme until 2007 and, having seen how well it works, I would like to bring them on board sooner.”

She offers two tips to anyone considering setting up a similar scheme:

  • Don’t compromise just to get something delivered. “It took three attempts to get our scheme approved, and we really had to stick to our guns to get our preferred option,” she says.
  • Don’t push water uphill. “Some managers won’t want to go on the programme, so accept it and move on,” adds Myles.

Employee perspective

Elaine Hanton is the head of renewable energy at HIE. She has been with the organisation for five years, and was promoted six months ago.

“I have worked in renewable energy for many years so I’ve got all the technical knowledge,” she says. “However, I lacked leadership skills
and experience.”

Hanton is halfway through the year-long programme. She has been on two, week-long courses, and has had individual and group coaching covering the nature of leadership, how to deal with others, and self-awareness.

“I’m so much more aware of my responsibilities than I was. The teaching has been great, and it’s a really safe environment in which to try out things that I wouldn’t dare try in the office,” she says.

Guide to implementing a successful leadership development programme in 10 steps

  1. Define the need in business terms. How will leadership development help my organisation achieve specific valuable end results?
  2. Work out where the gap is. Do people lack skills or is it a behavioural issue?
  3. Involve participants and their managers in the diagnosis and design of the programme.
  4. Consider all the options. Does one size fit all, or are the problems individual?
  5. Specify evaluation criteria from the start. How will you, participants and the business judge success?
  6. Thoroughly assess participants during or prior to the programme to help them make the learning relevant and help them buy in to it.
  7. Make the design modular. Short learning sessions should be interspersed with work-based assignments.
  8. Don’t preach – teach. Focus on learning, debating and insight, not peddling a model of ‘ideal’ leadership.
  9. Follow up with individual coaching. It translates general theory into individual action back at work.
  10. Measure, evaluate and feed back learning about the programme.

Patrick McHale, director, Veredus Leadership Solutions

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