Are your leaders engaging with their followers?

Most organisations may view good leadership as the key to success, but to live up to their own employees’ expectations, many leaders are going back to the training room.

In recent years, effective leadership has been hailed as the panacea for all corporate ills. So how can training help?

“With a fantastic training programme, a person has the potential to go from good to great,” says Kim Parish, chief executive of the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM), part of the City & Guilds qualification scheme. It works with both private and public sector organisations, including the Armed Forces, and issues ILM-accredited qualifications to other leadership training providers.

“The returns from a well-run leadership intervention can be enormous. It can be a ‘road to Damascus’ experience for individuals, because they will understand what it truly takes to be great and be a leader in an organisation,” adds Parish.

Positive effects

This training-based ticket to greatness is not just good for leaders, it seems. According to research, a balanced and happy work environment can have a positive effect on staff retention, motivation and commercial performance.

A four-year study in the US by Sirota Survey Intelligence reported a direct correlation between staff morale and stock price increases.

The 2005 research focused on 28 publicly-listed trading companies with more than 920,000 combined employees. It found the 14 companies with the highest rates of morale achieved an average of 16% growth, while others in their industries notched up an average 6%. Six companies defined as having low morale saw an average increase of just 3%.

Recent ILM research warns UK businesses risk losing young talent because of old-style, dictatorial management practices. A YouGov survey in July 2006, called Young People’s View of Managers, of 496 18- to 24-year-olds in full-time employment found 60% said they most disliked managers who look for someone to blame, while 86% wanted a manager who would inspire them.

Employee motivation and retention are key concerns for companies, and the leadership training model reflects this, shelving the “I didn’t get where I am today” line in favour of a more team-centric approach that engages staff and encourages a shared vision.

“Leadership training enables people to appreciate the difference between leadership and management,” states Kasmin Cooney, managing director of training provider Righttrack. “It encourages people to be more deliberate and self-aware in their daily activity and to project their vision more clearly.”

For Professor Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, chief executive of the Real World Group – a training company and spin-off from Leeds University – being an engaging leader is about ditching the ‘great man’ persona and embarking on a team-led approach that focuses on increasing the discretionary effort of employees.

She defines this as the desire of employees to give their very best and, at times, go beyond the basic requirements of their role. But what does it take to get this level of effort from an employee? The key to an ‘engaged’ approach lies in the genuine belief that people will want to give their best if you create an environment where they can contribute effectively, says Alimo-Metcalfe.

Real World Group, which works on long-term leadership initiatives – particularly with respect to culture change – has recently completed a three-year investigation into key leadership styles, which moves away from the ‘heroic’ model (traditionally white male CEOs) to encompass the gender, cultural and ethnic mix of contemporary organisations.

Concept of leadership

The study, which involved more than 4,000 people from the public and private sector, examined the concept of leadership from the perspective of staff at all levels, and particularly, from middle to top levels within UK organisations.

The study devised 14 dimensions of leadership styles that motivated staff. The most important was a show of genuine concern about the needs and aspirations of staff followed by empowerment (delegating and trust) and an accessible and face-to-face approach.

But this more empathetic approach should not be misinterpreted as some sort of pink and fluffy leadership style, says Alimo-Metcalfe. “True engagement is about sophisticated understanding. It’s about understanding ideas and creating the right environment,” she says.

Cooney says Righttrack’s engaging leadership courses focus on individuals having a clear vision and the ability to communicate that vision to others.

“Good leadership training should help individuals motivate others to embrace the vision, to move towards it and to live it to conclusion,” Cooney says. “Leaders will become aware of the positive traits that are essential and be able to compare their own natural inclinations with the ideal. Where there is a shortfall, knowing what is missing and why it is essential, will encourage people to develop and raise the bar.”

Most experts would agree that recognising both positive and negative personality traits is a key element of leadership development.

Training firm Impact Factory offers an individually tailored programme that develops the inherent and highly individual leadership skills that people already have in some aspect of their lives, says Bronia Szczgiel, who runs its leadership programme. “The role of a good training programme is to close in on those traits, bring them from the subconscious to the conscious and hone them so that delegates feel able to use them in their personal leadership arena.”

Blending programmes

Combining a leadership programme with coaching is also important, according to Cooney. “The ideal blend is a modular leadership programme – for example, three or four two-day modules with coaching to support the leader following each module. This ensures that leaders integrate each of the different leadership areas – not just into their busy schedules, but also into their thinking.”

Paul Winter, chief executive at The Leadership Trust, a non-profit-making body that has been around for more than 30 years, believes a leadership coach should have direct relevance to the individual. “We have just launched a directors’ programme that matches personal learning with business imperatives,” he explains. “The course features a group of coaches who are all tutors with the Trust and have been main board directors.”

So what do leadership courses cost? For groups of eight to 15 delegates, costs range from £1,500 for a two-day open programme, to £3,000 for a three-day course, with a top-level directors’ programme typically costing around £8,000.

Regardless of the money being thrown at leadership, however, the overriding key to its success will be a company’s cultural commitment. “We advise our clients to look at how they will support leaders and assimilate them back into their organisations,” says Winter. “Companies should be doing the same ROI research with people as they would with other things. Unless an organisation is prepared to work with a programme, it is not going to see any return.”

Case study: Bradford City TPCT 

Bradford City Teaching Primary Care Trust (TPCT) began working on an engaged leadership programme in January 2005, with the aim of improving the way its teams worked together and service levels. Following the news that all four Bradford TPCT divisions would be merged into the Bradford and Airedale TPCT on 1 October 2006, the programme was widened to include managing and understanding change.

Real World Group, a training spin-off from Leeds University, was brought in to develop the programme. Led by professor Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, it began implementing three main interventions: a 360-degree feedback leadership questionnaire, catalysts, and team leader workshops.

Some 29 people from various divisions – including community nursing, patient involvement and clinical governance – were selected as catalysts. They were given the tools to create an engaging culture within their team, and tasked with coming up with ideas for team leader and manager-led sessions on maintaining high service levels during change.

The catalysts spent time with other public and private sector organisations to study best practice, including: Bradford Social Services, Sainsbury’s, police, ambulance, the Alhambra Theatre and the library.

These findings were included in so-called liberating leadership toolkits, used by the catalysts to generate change at a local level. These toolkits developed leadership awareness of different learning and working styles and increased patient focus. Real World Group also held development workshops for 80 of the TPCT’s team leaders.

Sandra Knight, acting chief executive at Bradford and Airedale TPCT, says the 360-degree questionnaire was extremely useful for confirming certain aspects of leadership style and highlighting areas for development. She also reports that team leaders subsequently felt more confident in working across the TPCT, which was crucial as divisions were being merged at the time.

By Nadia Damon

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