Finding and developing organisational leaders is no easy task. Yet it’s probably the most important one facing learning and development departments.
As England football fans found out last year, leadership is a vital ingredient in success, and finding the right people within an organisation who can lead is an incredibly tough task.
Identifying potential future leaders and developing an in-house training programme to equip them with the skills they will need is something that many businesses are struggling to come to terms with.
Understanding the whole concept of leadership and what it means to an individual organisation is the first step in designing any training.
Ken Rowe, a corporate psychologist at business psychologists YSC, works with 40% of the FTSE 100 and says that actually spotting the right people and deciding who should be put through leadership training is half the battle.
“It’s very difficult for companies to decide who to invest in and who will make the best leaders. Just because someone is good in their current role doesn’t mean they will make good leaders in the future,” he says.
Rowe says that although leadership comes in many forms, there are a set of underlying qualities to help identify potential leaders.
However, designing a programme to train-up the next cohort of managers is far more difficult. “The characteristics of good leaders might seem simple, but it’s difficult to coach this in a practical way. I think we need to get better at evaluating people to work out what they need from leadership training and if they have the qualities to become good leaders.
“Tony Blair is an excellent example of the modern corporate leader, because he was able to identify key issues at such an early stage and then unite people around the cause,” he says.
Rowe warns that training can often be too prescriptive and he believes it must let people question and challenge issues to help them evolve their own leadership style.
“Clearly, leaders now need the ability to lead in different ways, for different roles and different situations. Flexibility is hugely important now because it’s not enough to simply learn just one style then use that wherever you go,” he says.
Professor Iain Densten, director of the Leadership Centre at Lancaster University, says that many training courses don’t work because leadership is romanticised out of all proportions.
He says the usual one-dimensional approach emphasises the hero leader style and forces all managers to think and act in the same way.
However, leadership is a hugely complex issue and effective managers need to be able to have a range of approaches to motivate their staff.
Densten thinks companies need to do far more work at the planning stage to decide exactly what sort of behaviours they want to promote and the type of leaders they want to create.
This requires much more planning, and the training should be focused on achievable goals that are realistic for the organisation.
“There needs to be a knowledge base around leadership and the type of learning required for an individual organisation. It’s not just about learning the latest buzzwords, and there needs to be some really deep-thinking about where the organisation wants to go,” he says.
“People think they will do a bit of leadership training and then go and change the world, when really they need to be a bit more realistic. It should be about getting managers to think and learning how to influence people.”
Once a company has decided exactly what it wants to get out of the training, it must then ensure the course is very focused on the specific needs of the organisation and its managers.
Development teams also need to make sure that what’s being taught is actually proven and that managers on the course can take something tangible back to the workplace.
“Success needs to be measured long-term and based around what the organisation wants to achieve. Lots of the training should be about being adaptable and teaching managers to change styles to suit the situation or the organisation,” he says.
Kasmin Cooney, managing director of training firm Righttrack, says that good leadership development can create a common language for the future direction of the company and act as a base for innovation.
She says the starting point for any training should be the buy-in of the most senior people, who should be involved at all stages. Once the most influential people have completed the course, they should then be on hand to support lower management levels.
Cooney says: “The board of an organisation should always be aware of the changes in behaviour that are happening within an organisation, and so it makes it ideal if they complete the training.”
“To be truly beneficial, leadership training needs to have a good balance of theory, skills and behavioural development,” she adds.
To help with the transfer of learning, Cooney believes the training needs to be linked into practical assignments as a way of adding realistic elements to the course. Again, she is quick to point out that training can often preach a certain way of doing things when in reality the key ingredient for good leadership is flexibility.
“Different leadership styles are needed for different situations. A one-style-fits-all approach does not work, and a good leader knows which style is best suited to dealing with a situation.
“When dealing with different situations, the chosen approach has to come from within and cannot be forced or faked, as it is incredibly obvious when this happens,” she says.
“Management and leadership are not interchangeable. Many people believe leadership and management to be the same thing, but this is not the case.”
The training needs to take into account the organisation’s values, business objectives and culture, with a clearly defined set of outcomes that managers want to achieve.
Development should also be very participative so that delegates can share their experiences through a mix of profiling, work-based assignments and group action learning sets.
It is also essential that delegates are supported through the whole experience and allowed to digest all the information at their own pace.
“People also need to understand why they are actually on the course and what they are meant to achieve. This is incredibly important, and for the programme to be successful, delegates need to have buy-in with the programme,” Cooney says.
“Good leadership motivates and inspires to create new ideas, driving people to success. Leadership generally challenges people to step up and change their behaviour to work more effectively as a team, as well as challenging them to keep improvement going.”
To measure success, Cooney says that firms should conduct staff surveys before and after the training, or simply look at how it has impacted on turnover levels.
Dr Simon Western, author of the book Leadership: a critical text, identifies four main categories of leadership over the past century: the controller, the therapist, the messiah and the eco-leader.
He says that in any one organisation or individual, one category tends to be dominant, and that organisations need to think about how they want to grow and what sort of leadership category they want to establish.
“It’s hugely important to get away from this messiah leadership concept because there are lots of other ways of doing it. Too much training is focused on the idea of the hero leader coming in and solving all the problems,” he says.
Western says mentoring is a vital part of any training and organisations need to use more ongoing coaching at the grassroots.
David Cumberbatch, director at Xancam, a firm of business psychologists, says the ability to deal with change and still make progress are vital qualities to train in future leaders, and that firms need to make training more specific to their own circumstances.
He says it’s important to identify leaders of the future at a very early stage by looking for people who are hungry to grow as part of an overall talent strategy.
“Leaders are vital to where an organisation is going. It doesn’t matter if they are people leaders or thought leaders but they will have a pragmatic effect on the organisation. It can often mean lots of different things so I think it’s very important that any training is tightly focused on what the company needs to achieve,” Cumberbatch says.
Case study: Barclaycard
Training the trainers has proved a key part of developing senior employees at Barclaycard, after the international firm introduced new ways of looking at learning.
Susan Coulson, head of learning and development at Barclaycard, manages a team of more than 40 internal trainers, who are responsible for designing and delivering all development.
She says that professionals need to change the perception around leadership training, make learning a priority for senior staff and encourage ongoing training.
To do this, the learning and development team needs to be at the cutting edge of training themselves and able to demonstrate tangible results to learners.
Working with The Training Foundation’s Trainer Assessment Programme (TAP), the department was restructured to provide greater consistency, higher skills standards and better ways of making knowledge stick.
“It’s vital that we accelerate that difference in the training team, because developing them enhances their capability to enhance the skills of the entire workforce,” Coulson says. “Many of us realised that we’d been adopting a predominantly tutor rather than learner-centred approach.”
Each member of the team worked through a personal development plan in preparation for a three-day delivery skills refresher course, with specific standards to achieve.
After the course there was a 32% uplift in the delegates’ assessment scores across the style, structure and activity profiles.