Ditch the targets and invest in leadership training plans

With the UK’s managers under relentless attack for their ineffectual
performance perhaps its time to recognise that best practice and innovation are
not intuitive and that training can make a difference

"Management training in Britain is too little, too late, for too
few," claimed prolific management guru Charles Handy. But the interesting
bit is not that he said it, but when he said it – 1987. Has anything really
changed since then?

Sometimes to accept an unpalatable truth we have to hear it from an
outsider. I suspect Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt knows this and
that it is one of the key reasons she hired Professor Michael Porter – one of
the world’s leading business strategists – to tell the DTI why we lag behind on

British managers have been under attack in the media as ineffectual and
amateurish. We have been told by both Newsnight and Hewitt that the management
style of TV’s bumbling David Brent is sadly close to the truth. So, as Porter
delivered his initial findings, the collective sigh of relief was almost
palpable when he appeared to stop short of delivering a harsh verdict on
British management.

Instead, Porter highlighted the need for more unique strategies and ways of
competing, and called for greater innovation. However, in deriving his data on
innovation almost entirely from the UK’s contribution to US patent
registrations, he may have missed a trick or two.

Business innovation in the UK over the past three to four years has involved
more than the meagre levels of research and development to which he alluded,
and the failure to invest in creating ‘unique value’ for British products and
services, with continuous cost-cutting setting the economy on a path of
diminishing returns.

Innovation is also to be found in the changing styles of business and
organisational leadership that are difficult to reflect in the largely
quantitative data he referenced. Last year’s Council for Excellence in
Management and Leadership report to the DTI clearly identified a lack of
strategic thinking, communication, leadership, and motivational skills as key
factors in the under-performance of British managers.

Thankfully, many organisations in this country have moved from transactional
to transformational forms of leadership, and from a top-heavy directional style
to more devolved forms of management. This is beginning to counter-balance the
kind of static and introspective management Porter described.

But it will take time for the results to filter through to the broader
economy. HR professionals still have much to do – of the four million or so
managers in the UK, only 20 per cent have management qualifications and around
20 per cent of small firms and 4 per cent of large organisations provide no
management training at all.

Our own experience shows that succession planning is a major issue for many
organisations, especially at board and senior manager level. Without
investment, successors have a long lead-time before peak performance, which can
have an adverse impact on their organisation’s chances of reaching its true

Non-investment here has a lasting and expensive impact. If the Government is
really prepared to ‘back off’ – in Professor Porter’s words – from economic
target-setting in favour of a more proactive and dynamic private sector, then
considerably more investment will be required in middle management and
leadership development.

The acquisition of technical skills and training is all very well, but if
few British managers are prepared or equipped to assume responsibility, any
investment in R&D and innovation will make very little difference.

We should take Porter’s principles on ‘clustering’ and apply them at the
organisational as well as at the community level. Empowering individuals to
lead and innovate, even at lower levels of an organisation, need not be a
recipe for organisational chaos.

Rather, it would allow best practice to move smoothly up and across an
organisation, as well as down.

It would also mean senior management spending fewer hours issuing directives
that get lost in the works, and provide a boost to productivity where it really

By Claire Spencer, Head of research, TSO Consulting

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