Allowing managers to import outside ideas into their organisations can
threaten the established culture, yet also bring massive benefits. Training and
development professionals can help broker such changes – but, say Catherine
Bailey and David Butcher, it takes courage
Consider the following advice: most of what managers now need to learn comes
from outside their organisation or, for that matter, from outside their
This may sound like management guru-speak, but ignore it at your peril.
Most executives take it seriously, although what they mean when they talk of
"getting an external viewpoint" is subject to a number of
interpretations. They range from "broadening the thinking",
"benchmarking practice", "seeking out the leading edge",
"injecting innovative thinking", to "breaking out of the
Whatever the slant, the underlying aim in getting this external view is to
be better equipped to challenge and change the way the business operates by
bringing in or developing people whose ideas are counter-culture.
Organisations want people who can think outside the box, are prepared to ask
the unaskable, to challenge the intuitive core. In other words, they want
people who can think and act with a degree of irreverence – or at least they
say they do.
Businesses exploit several routes in pursuit of the external perspective.
Importing fresh blood, seconding key individuals, using seasoned mentors and
widely experienced external coaches, making comparisons through benchmarking
activities and, of course, enabling their managers to participate on open
enrolment development programmes.
But despite the apparent value and investment in these activities, there is
much evidence to suggest that organisations have considerable difficulty in
making good use of them – of being able to work with ideas and people with the
power to challenge culture and transform the business.
Managers imported at senior level frequently do not survive. Seconded
individuals can be left struggling with re-entry. Coaching relationships can be
more conducive to cultural collusion than challenge.
And executives who are provided with off-line development opportunities
often feel that their insights are poorly used, their efforts to inject new
Management development programmes are still the most common route to
building the external perspective, not just because they are structured
learning processes, but also because they are economical with executive time.
They vary greatly in the way this is achieved. Sometimes the external dimension
remains a background feature of the learning environment, coming into its own
in the bar once the formal learning has finished for the day.
At the other extreme, programmes designed specifically to nurture the
external view offer more than simple exposure to wider experience.
If they are to succeed, they must challenge current thinking sufficiently to
create a mindset shift for participants and, of equal importance, develop the
capability to use that well.
The more ambitious and challenging the programme, the more it should enable
managers to work with the paradox of an external viewpoint. What those managers
then offer their organisations is both the promise and the threat of
If they are to be capable of introducing ideas with the power to transform
they need the skills to act with the political stealth to nurture the idea
until it is unstoppable.
In our view, management development processes designed to create and reap
the benefit of external mindsets have to accommodate this paradox and extol the
virtues of political skills.
It is very much the development territory. If they stop short of
anticipating and preparing managers to use the external perspective, the job of
enabling irreverence is only half done and valuable development wasted.
Open general management programmes, when they are designed to achieve this
aim, can do so with dramatic effect.
These outcomes are made possible by having both the mandate and the time to
challenge each participant personally and deeply to think irreverently.
In each of these cases the programme served to suspend company culture
sufficiently to generate, evaluate and legitimise counter-culture ideas. It
enabled managers to see how to extend their influence and then create change
using the necessary stealth until the organisational benefit was clear,
unassailable and welcomed.
Programmes like this are at their most potent when attended by ambitious
managers, sufficiently robust to respond well to the illuminating personal
This allows the development process to be stretched to its full potential,
and the true power of the external perspective to be applied when each
executive returns to his or her unsuspecting business. Then, whether it is
welcome or not, the influence of that perspective can become unstoppable.
For the perpetrator, however, pain and pleasure is experienced in more or
less equal measure and it is, therefore, no light undertaking.
Clearly, development processes must somehow overcome the tendency to reject
external viewpoints. Different routes need to be evaluated and practitioners
need to consider their own role in the process.
Management development and training practitioners naturally play a pivotal
role in brokering effective development and use of the external perspective.
They can influence culture, senior management thinking and behaviour, provide
access to challenging development opportunities, select the right people, and
provide learning support.
Managing the paradox
How much of a challenge this presents to management development and training
managers may in itself be an indicator of the organisation’s ability to use the
external view well. This being the case, these professionals may find they have
to manage the paradox for themselves.
So what should we make of the advice about the importance of an external
perspective? Radical ideas, good intent, capable managers and investment are
simply not enough for organisations to really benefit.
Irreverence is essential, but it spells danger. Development processes that
accommodate the paradox of the external view are probably the best bet for
businesses wishing to counteract their own contradictory tendencies in this
Management development and training practitioners can make a major
difference to their organisation’s capability to use well an external
perspective and the irreverent views it generates. The question is, are you
What can management development and training managers do?
Top tips on fresh thinking
– Get senior managers to think about what it would take for truly powerful
and radical management ideas to be on their personal agendas
– Challenge unthinking culture-guarding responses – not least in themselves
– Critically evaluate the use and limitations of routes that offer an
– Create development opportunities that explicitly nurture counter-culture
– Use providers who demonstrate their own ability to challenge
– Target development at both the organisationally well-placed and the
ambitious "misfits" who are able to make most use of it
– Prepare and support managers to work with the paradox that using the
external view entails
New thinking put into practice
Experiencing wide-ranging ideas gained insight into changes needed
Bronwyn McKenna is director of services to members at Unison. As a solicitor
heading up legal services and looking to move into general management, McKenna
saw an open development programme as the opportunity to counter the apparent
rigidity and narrowness that is often associated with the rigours of a legal
training and approach.
She found that exposure to wide-ranging management ideas and private sector
thinking helped her identify necessary changes in her approach to her role.
After the programme, she led performance improvement reviews of a major
national function in the union. She drove an initiative to identify how the
union could use new technology to build a stronger sense of connection with
And, most significantly, in terms of challenging culture, she imported
customer relations management techniques to improve service to members and
The result is impressive. Reviews have resulted in improved focus and
performance. In one area, an annual deficit of £950,000 has been converted into
a surplus of £25,000.
Measures of members’ satisfaction with new and changed services are very
positive. The website has been rated in the top 10 sites world-wide covering
McKenna’s growing reputation as one of the organisation’s
"thinkers" has led to being invited to contribute to a prestigious
strategic project entirely outside her own areas of responsibility – no small
praise for someone coming from a function which typically does not encourage
And within a short space of time, she has been promoted to director with
responsibility for 95 staff and a total budget of £9m.
Exposure to different approaches provided sharp insights
Michael Voigt is front-of-house manager responsible for 25 staff and
reception services at Mayfair’s Connaught Hotel. Seen as someone who could do more in the business,
he attended a major business school general management development programme.
He was keen to be more influential in instigating changes to increase
Voigt soon found the limitations of his traditional management style
challenged by others, and exposure to very different approaches provided sharp
insights for him.
Inspired to reduce staff turnover and improve profitability, on return to
work he set out to involve his staff in driving through their own service
improvement and cost reduction ideas. But he was working against
After great initial caution, people were suddenly very involved. Task groups met outside work time.
Staff turnover more than halved from 58 per cent to 23 per cent and service
improvements accounted for several percentage points increase in revenue per
As for Voigt, his managerial credibility took a major step. Sponsored by his general manager to speak at
Legends in the Industry – an industry event for 500 general managers – his
profile has been raised in a way he could not have imagined and the innovation
he inspired in his business has drawn considerable attention in the industry.
Benchmarking and testing brought the confidence to make a real contribution
Cliff Mallard is a business unit manager at Timken-Desford, a £25m-turnover
business which employs 150 people in the manufacture of steel components for
the motor industry.
A sustained period of sale and resale and the introduction of a lot of
change added to the uncertainty and insecurity felt throughout the business.
A major challenge was in the offing: the business needed him to reduce
variable and compressible costs by 40 per cent in 18 months and it was clear
that reductions on this scale required radical changes.
Mixing with others on a public management development programme,
benchmarking and testing himself on the programme helped Mallard change the way
he thought about his role and the real contribution he could to make.
It gave him the confidence to take action and be prepared to make himself
more prominent and visible.
Freeing himself temporarily from the culture enabled him to find new ways of
thinking and behaving that supported fundamental organisational change. He came
to see, for example, that "disagreement doesn’t have to be conflict",
and that forcing decisions was not the way to achieve the radical changes
The outcome? Two months ahead of target, the project has achieved a 39 per
cent cost reduction. As a result, the US parent has transfered manufacturing to
the plant, securing the future of the business.