Leadership training: Marching to a different beat

How training providers are turning to unusual methods to stand out from the competition.

With the market for leadership training so competitive, it’s no surprise some suppliers are differentiating themselves by offering some unusual courses, to say the least.

“What we do is not ‘wacky’,” says Mike McCarthy, managing director of Corporate Battlefields, a company that uses historical sites, such as that of the battle of Waterloo, as a learning backdrop. “There’s an enormous base of understanding about how leadership works. We simply deliver that in a different way.

McCarthy believes you cannot teach people about leadership in a classroom – to get a better insight, you need to have an empathetic engagement with it. “You don’t learn to be a leader with theory the best way is to contrast and compare yourself with people who have already done it,” he says.

Discovery learning in Africa

Understandably, engagement levels are higher on the battlefields than in the training room, but McCarthy insists the programme doesn’t dwell on emotion. “We don’t labour the heroic or the ghastly – we’re there to get people to think about their business and themselves, not the story.”

Chris Howe, a director at training firm Changemaker, which takes delegates to a Masai tribe in Kenya, claims that this form of discovery learning enables you to create solid business messages and understanding in ways that are more powerful than conventional methods.

“If you go on a normal training course, someone stands at the front of the classroom and gives you knowledge – but you don’t value it nearly as much as you do when you have discovered it for yourself,” he says. And while some organisations may question the value that hanging out with the Masai can bring to leadership, Howe insists there are many. These include: knowing and understanding your own contribution how to delegate responsibility (and resisting the urge to retrieve it) and feeling responsible for succession planning.

Meanwhile, Alison Noble, training director at Evolutionary Training, a company that uses horse whispering as part of its leadership line-up, advocates the paddock as the place for people to learn. “We use a very innovative concept to explore leadership theories, people and leadership skills,” she says. “It’s very experiential and interactive. This training enables us to get a clear idea of each person’s style, and people get very open and honest feedback from a horse.”

Unsurprisingly, Stephen Archer, founder and director of Spring Partnerships, which also uses horses in leadership training, agrees. “You realise how sensitive other people are to nuances in your behaviour,” he says. “However, with people you have more credit. Horses don’t rationalise you’re either leading it or you’re not.”

Understanding the mindset

He says this form of training enables individuals to understand that the leadership mindset is about consistency, clarity, purpose and persistence. “It’s very easy to slip when you’re horse whispering – something which happens in the real world as well. We use horses as an example of [the need for] consistency and effectiveness.”

Open programmes are widely available, but bespoke courses that follow a company’s objectives are the most effective, according to McCarthy, who claims the price of a one-day Corporate Battlefields programme would equate to a one-day London-based leadership course.

This also enables learning and development to tie in ‘before and after’ assessment and support with the trainer, which Noble claims is a common feature of this form of leadership tuition. “We usually consult with the person who has initiated the programme to see what they think the individuals’ needs are, and also talk to the managers themselves – maybe sending out a questionnaire before the course. We normally follow that up four to six weeks further down the line.”

While Masai tribesmen, horses and Napoleon’s tactical blunders may offer valuable lessons in leadership, it can be difficult to convince businesses that a trip to a battlefield is not simply a day out. Evolutionary Training is currently producing a promotional DVD to convey a similar message about horse whispering, and plans to host an open-day for interested companies in May 2008.

At £2,000 a head, the Changemaker trip to Kenya tends to consist of senior and high-potential individuals, but Howe insists that a five-day leadership programme in a UK hotel with expenses could easily prove comparable. Horse whispering, which requires no previous experience, is usually a one-day programme. Evolutionary Training offers a one-day open introduction to leadership course for junior managers for £259 per person (+VAT), with a two-day building leadership skills programme for middle managers upwards. Bespoke courses are also available. Spring Partnerships offers tailored programmes, which are priced according to the number of delegates and follow-up content.

Case study: Carlsberg UK

Carlsberg UK used horse whispering to hone the skills of a range of managers, enrolling them on a week-long course run by Spring Partnerships where classroom training was complemented with horse whispering.

After a brief introduction, delegates were given a series of commands to carry out with the horses.

As the day progressed, it became apparent that the horses only responded to clear objectives, the clarification of expectations, and sticking to the plan. “No-one in our team had any experience of working with horses, and clearly the major challenge we all faced was that horses simply didn’t understand us,” explains Carlsberg sales director Jayne Wade. “It was an amazing experience and a hard-hitting realisation of the importance of being empathetic.

“Learning to talk in a completely different language was a huge challenge, but it really brought home the importance of delivering really simple, clear instructions to team members. I carry around my coaching notes wherever I go, so I am continually reminding myself to use the techniques I have learned and put them into practice. I reinforce my skills at every opportunity and, because we have all been through the same course, there is a huge amount of support among the management throughout Carlsberg.”

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