Customised leadership training: Why bespoke is best

Change is one of few constants in the modern workplace. And, as many executives struggle to engage with staff in a changing world, increasingly organisations are turning to leadership development programmes to help them reconnect.

But, this rush for leadership training is driving many organisations to expensive and ineffective programmes that are too often quick fixes for specific problems when what is needed is a carefully planned and strategic approach.

Leadership development should be based on very specific organisational needs as the requirements of any programme will vary between organisations.

Victoria Winkler, an expert in leadership at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says a detailed skills and leadership audit should precede any training activity.

“Organisations need to think carefully about why training needs to be done and where the leadership gaps are within an organisation.

“Our research shows that customised in-house programmes work best, because they are usually tailored to the needs of the organisation or the individuals involved,” adds Winkler.

A key issue that should be addressed across the whole of UK plc is how future leaders are identified and groomed. Winkler believes that leadership development should be aligned with other internal systems so it becomes intrinsic to the way companies operate.

“There’s a big issue around the talent pipeline and how you can be sure that it runs through the organisation,” she says. “It’s so much easier if organisations can build competent leaders from within.”

However, most HR and training professionals will be rooted firmly in the ‘here and now’ of their own organisation when it comes to leadership, and designing a customised programme or choosing the best partner to work with can prove challenging.

Bill Shedden, director of Cranfield’s centre for customised executive development, says many firms rush into training because some sort of significant organisational change has prompted them to look at leadership.

“A bad experience can have incredible repercussions on an organisation so interventions should be designed to meet the company’s specific needs. Employers need to think about leadership on a number of different levels,” he says.

He advises employers to drill right down into the organisation to find out exactly what the problems are before they start looking for solutions.

“The focus of the training must be on the needs of the organisation. Employers usually require a tailored programme because each organisation has different needs and strategic goals,” he adds.

Competitive edge

Ultimately, leadership development can be crucial in the commercial future of a business, but understanding what it means and how it affects a particular organisation is the big question.

“Organisations are looking for initiatives that will give them a competitive edge and one area where they can do this is by increasing the quality of management and leadership.

“You really need to think about what you mean by leadership and be acutely aware of what the organisation needs. There’s always a context to leadership and companies sometimes ignore that,” says Shedden.

Bob Stilliard, director of executive education at Ashridge Business School agrees planning is crucial. But he believes the majority of employers don’t think enough about the needs of the organisation or individuals.

“People always underestimate the time needed to plan what needs to be done. That can be a big problem because the participants turn up to the course and don’t really know why they are there.”

Robin Ancrum, a consultant at Values Based Leadership, says employers must properly understand what they want and need before starting any development.

“Organisations have to create an environment where the people at the bottom and the top can be influenced by development and understand their role in the organisation as whole,” he says.

Although there are no easy answers, training professionals need to be clear about what they need, use proven partners, plan carefully and think about the level the programme should focus on.

Legal services commission leadership programme

When a staff survey at the Legal Services Commission (LSC) revealed a lack of confidence and trust in the organisation’s leaders, executives decided to implement a tailored development programme to help them reconnect with employees.

The public body, which is responsible for legal aid, has about 1,700 staff and a budget of around £2bn. It found its leaders were out of touch and lacked the vision to inspire the ‘grassroots’.

Consultants from Roffey Park management college were drafted in to formulate a tailored leadership development course that would build the skills and knowledge of the LSC’s top 160 managers.

Over a period of 18 months, the managers joined a leadership development programme, which included a 360-degree appraisal, a two-day development centre and several workshops centred on their ability to manage staff, including a Leaders for the Future session.

The course involved a residential element, the use of professional actors to help managers practise good leadership and an extensive psychometric phase to improve motivation.

“We wanted to incorporate development centres into our leadership programme to give people an opportunity to experiment as part of their development,” says Alan Littlefield, HR consultant at the LSC.

The average scores for the LSC leaders in the latest staff survey are up 8% and employees’ understanding of the organisation’s core values and goal are far more engrained than before.

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