Debbie White is scathing about the leadership qualities of many managers. The senior HR manager at mortgage specialist Cheltenham & Gloucester (C&G) says that too often they are willing to accept mediocrity and fail to recognise the enormous influence they can exert on an individual’s performance.
“I think there’s some truth in the saying that ‘leaders are born’; not everybody can do it well, but unfortunately a lot of people think they can.”
This sounds surprising coming from White because the implication seems to be that some senior managers on C&G’s newly launched Inspirational Leadership Programme (ILP) are incapable of becoming good leaders.
But her point is that learning leadership skills is not straightforward. “Good leadership that drives high performance is very, very difficult and rarely found. It needs concentrated effort. Understanding the needs and motivations of those that work for you is essential; motivating people to want to achieve things with and for you is a sign of good leadership; unfortunately, many mangers abuse their position and mistake this for good leadership.
The ILP was launched 18 months ago to encourage senior managers to make the transition from leaders in a hierarchical sense to those who inspire others within the organisation to perform to the best of their ability.
White believes it is important to go beyond the mechanics of management such as holding team meetings, carrying out personal appraisals and setting targets. She says the danger of being restricted to this is that it fails to deve-lop those who are meeting targets yet have the potential to do much more.
“As a manager, you can tell people to do things and make things happen but you’re not necessarily motivating them. That’s the fundamental difference. Leadership is getting underneath people, understanding their motives and pressing the right buttons at the right time so that you are maximising the potential of each individual.”
She says good leaders need strength of character to confront under-performance as well as to bring out the best in people. “My view is that every under-performer is recoverable, provided you spot it in time and do something about it. But a lot of managers are willing to live with mediocrity and say ‘if that’s what they want to do you should let them get on with it’,” she says.
This attitude may partly explain one of the biggest problems facing the HR department at C&G, which is part of Lloyds TSB. A strong corporate philosophy of valuing and developing staff by offering as wide a selection of learning opportunities as possible, is marred by a lack of awareness about this.
Despite White’s criticism, there were no glaring weaknesses within C&G’s management to trigger the need for ILP. This arose out of the development of a continuous training initiative, called Management Track, which has modules for staff wanting to take the first step up the management ladder through to middle management and beyond. Although some modules are applicable to senior managers, White says there was nothing to meet their specific needs.
“When you’ve been in a job role for a certain time, it’s very difficult to admit that you have training needs. We said that if we’re really taking leadership seriously, we need to invest time and money in the senior management population. We had a whole portfolio of materials available to them but we didn’t know for certain whether we were equipping them properly to do the job.”
Another reason for launching ILP was the intensely competitive market in which C&G operates. It was founded more than 150 years ago and White describes its culture as paternalistic. With numerous new players now entering the mortgage market, she says it is probably experiencing the most testing period ever.
“As a result of that, like many other businesses, we have to make changes. We have to be more fleet of foot and look at the way we do things and recognise that our culture needs to evolve and change. Effective leadership at all levels is key.”
White says C&G prefers bespoke training because it can be applied directly to each individual’s job. “We try to get away from lots of theory.”
But because inspirational leadership was a new area of training for C&G, training development consultants Roffey Park were brought in for much of the delivery. C&G’s own management tools and processes have been incorporated into ILP. “One reason we wanted Roffey Park was because it could bring in current thinking and good practice from other organisations,” says White.
C&G has already rewritten the middle management part of Management Track to reflect key ILP messages, and White believes the programme has the potential to help lower levels of management as well.
Some theorists suggest that leadership only applies higher up the organisational hierarchy but White disputes this. “Our view is that wherever you have influence over people as a supervisor, manager or director, within that role you should be leading people to perform to the best of their abilities.”
She says that supervisors at C&G are generally responsible for between 10 and 15 people, and the span of control tends to narrow as you go further up the management hierarchy.
White explains that the new version of Management Track for middle managers, which incorporates ILP, is now being rolled out following a pilot study. “It is a 12-month programme and the idea of using sponsors and buddies (see box above) is being retained.”
C&G’s 40 senior managers have only just completed or are still in the process of completing ILP and White says it is too early to link it to any business performance indicators such customer satisfaction levels or labour turnover.
At an individual level, the impact is being monitored by comparing 360-degree feedback on each participant at the beginning and end of the programme as well as the progress they make in executing their development action plan (see box on page 19).
White says the initial results are very encouraging but the most noticeable impact of ILP has been on C&G’s corporate leadership. “It has given senior management almost a new form of identity,” she says. “Before, we were a disparate group of people who rarely got the chance to meet because we work in separate offices and department. Now we hold monthly meetings, where we share best business practice and comment on various issues.”
She adds: “One of the ideas behind ILP was trying to get senior managers to recognise the importance of the position they were holding and get away from the sense that ‘it is done to me’. We had, in the past, imposed our own ceiling but the attitude from above was ‘we want you to change things’. ILP has broken the ceiling.”
How the inspirational leadership programme works
ILP consists of six forums, which cover leadership, driving improvement, winning commitment, getting results and enhancing team effectiveness.
The final forum is a presentation by the participants about how they identified a workplace problem, the solution they came up with, and the methods used to execute it.
“The aim of the assignments is to help the participants integrate their learning from the forums into the workplace,” explains senior HR manager, Debbie White.
The programme starts with 360-degree feedback and analysis of different leadership styles. Each participant then prepares their own development action plan to help define their learning needs within the context of their particular business area. Progress is reviewed at each forum.
One of the key benefits of the programme has been the way it has increased the cohesiveness and networking opportunities among the 40 senior managers taking part. This is done by splitting them up into groups, with each one having a good mix of people from across the business.
Each group is sponsored by one of C&G’s senior directors, who help put the programme into the context of the business. Participants choose a ‘buddy’ to work together with on the assignment between forums.
ILP is spread out over a year, partly to enable participants to digest what they learn during each forum, which last up to two days.
Leadership debate: role models
C&G is using training to nurture its next generation of leaders, but it will probably need role models as well to ensure its success, according to new research.
Steve Kempster, director of leadership development at Lancaster University, argues that leadership is learned through observing notable people, as well as through formal development training.
He describes such people as ‘notables’ and says their influence is revealed in the personal reflections of numerous leaders from all walks of life, including management. “Followers draw from the attributes of the notables they value. Such learning often occurs unconsciously through the lived experience from a range of contexts,” he says.
He argues that the influence of notables reflects changes in society and, as a result, the concept of leadership as masculine, heroic and even bullying is now outdated because subordinates end up feeling disempowered and undervalued.
Instead, a new set of notables is emerging who symbolise a learning centred approach that incorporates shared responsibility, joint decision-making, coaching and other support.
Kempster’s paper, entitled New Leadership on the Horizon, was commissioned by Video Arts to coincide with the launch of two new training programmes.
C&G’s senior HR manager, Debbie White, says role models are likely to be incorporated into the company’s leadership programme in future.
“For example, if somebody is showing great strength at influencing people, we may want to do something that would capture what that is like on the ground. We may run ‘surgeries’, where the star players can give examples that have actually worked,” she says.
She agrees there are dangers if leadership is insensitive to the needs of the individual. “You can’t make everybody jump to the same level otherwise you get some who feel exploited. It’s up to the leader to find out what people are motivated about. It’s saying ‘let us position you to where you want to get to’,” she says.
CV DEBBIE WHITE
- 2001 Senior HR manager, C&G
- 1998 Training and development manager, C&G
- 1990 Training officer, C&G
- 1988 Training officer, Heart of England BuildingSociety
- 1980 Cashier, mortgage seller and field trainer, Halifax Building Society