As a young graduate, Christopher Bones was convinced business could be managed better and, idealistic 24-year-old that he was, he believed he was the man for the job.
As he takes on his new role as principal at Henley Management College, this level of passion and enthusiasm is still evident, but it’s now backed up with 22 years of hands-on experience.
His CV is certainly impressive. Having worked with a diverse range of organisations, including Grand Metropolitan, Shell, Guinness/Diageo and Cadbury Schweppes, he has seen action on an international scale.
Starting his career in industrial relations, his most recent post at Cadbury Schweppes had the impressive title of ‘group organisation effectiveness and development director’, under which Bones helped to redesign the company’s business model to ensure that business results were delivered following the acquisition of global gum company Adams.
Whatever the business and whatever the challenge, Bones says his former employers have all shared one common feature.
“The thing that characterises all these businesses is that they take HR and people development seriously,” he says. “Shell is still hugely committed to investing in people management, while Guinness and Grand Metropolitan both see people and organisational development as part of their business strategies.”
Having undertaken practically every HR role possible, Bones has maintained his focus on the human factor, even when stepping outside the function.
“You might be used to looking at HR strategically, but you’re also managing people yourself,” he says. “And, hopefully, you practise what you preach.”
Bones claims there was little surprise among those who know him that he had taken up the reins at Henley, and he acknowledges that the college takes people management even more seriously than all his previous employers.
But importantly to Bones, Henley isn’t a state-funded ‘ivory towers’ institution, concerned purely with research and hypothetical theorising. Without the academic roots of some of its peers, the college is proud of its practical ethos.
“We spring from the practising end,” says Bones. “We describe ourselves as the business school for practising managers. The fact that we don’t have a university background is a distinct advantage.”
Given today’s international MBA market, Henley’s positioning is fortunate. Traditionally, MBA students are in their mid-20s, and while they may be passionate about learning, they can lack real workplace experience. Henley, however, tends to attract the more experienced student – the mid-30s manager who comes direct from the workplace and is keen to gain new skills and knowledge to move their career on to the next stage. An impressive 98% of Henley students are still at work while they study at the college.
“We are working with people through a combination of academic development and reflection on real experience,” says Bones. And while young MBA applicants are in decline, Henley’s intake remains consistent. Moreover, changes in the European higher education system may also mean that, in the future, international students will want to take the masters degree at a later stage in their career.
Taking the course at a later stage has beneficial effects for students, claims Bones. He argues that individuals returning to education at this stage are better placed to achieve more senior positions because they can combine teaching with a real insight into business. These students are also more likely to successfully complete the course.
“If you think about who is more likely to succeed in part-time distance learning, it’s those who have the experience and insight into business and not those who have to be told what to do because they don’t have that experience,” he says.
This pragmatic approach to management education is typical of Bones’ style. He has come out firmly against what he describes as the ‘fad’ of leadership development, arguing that the term is being used erroneously to cover what are essentially good management skills.
“The bad news is that leadership is more nature than nurture,” he says, “If you want to get to the top of an organisation, then you need to demonstrate things such as drive, authenticity, integrity and self-belief. Those things come with you as a package early on – that’s why big companies can look at 20-year-old recruits and see their future leaders.
“Of course, we should develop people, but by putting everyone through ‘leadership’ programmes we’re missing the point. You don’t need hundreds of people at the top of an organisation and you need everybody to have good skills. We should be happy to call them management skills.
“Leadership and management are two different things,” he concludes. “To be a great leader, you need great management skills on top of your natural talents.”
Concentrating on leadership development also has the negative effect of addressing the needs of the few, he says, as it can place the aspirations of an entire organisation on the hoped-for performance improvement of those people.
Bones emphasises any organisation wishing to improve the way it operates must address ‘the many’ – the majority of managers and employees – rather than ‘the few’. This is because good management and teamwork can and should happen at every level, he adds.
To help organisations achieve this, Henley provides customised support for organisations in both the public and private sectors. “As an education provider, we want to understand the challenges they have,” says Bones. “We want to work with their managers to understand the problems and help solve them.”
At its basic level, management is a series of dilemmas and choices. Henley aims to help managers make the right choices for themselves, their organisations and their shareholders or stakeholders.
Bones says it is in the interest of both private and public sector organisations to ensure their managers are well equipped to make these decisions, and as part of its work to further management practice, Henley is addressing subject areas such as stakeholder considerations, reputational relationships, project management, innovation and knowledge management.
“Ultimately, these sort of topics are going to define the key management issues of the early 21st century,” says Bones.
Since this work is client led, Bones perceives great value in the college’s research. “The challenge to business schools is to work in areas that are relevant to the experience of a practising manager,” he says. “That’s something we do well and which will be a key differentiator between us and other colleges.”
Bones is also keen to ensure that the interventions and initiatives created by Henley are seen to have a clear benefit for every organisation involved.
“I don’t believe in return on investment in training,” he says. “I think that’s a piece of financial gymnastics. The best thing a training intervention can do is to be a part of achieving a bigger goal for an organisation. There should be processes in place so that people know that goal is achieved – that the outcome is not a mythical number, but something everyone can see.”
Embedding mechanisms lay at the heart of many initiatives Bones carried out at Cadbury Schweppes, ensuring organisational change occurred as intended rather than allowing trainees to return from development programmes and lapse into previous behaviours.
Coaching was delivered to managers to help them realise new skills and approaches in the workplace, and course participants were asked back for follow-up sessions a few months later.
“If you’re not prepared to do those things then what can be a very powerful investment is potentially a waste,” says Bones.
Henley already offers this kind of support to its clients and the service will extend to cover everyone who comes into contact with the college. Even MBA students may be allocated coaching support.
This is a facility that could prove particularly useful for distance learners, where the challenge of fitting the educational programme around work can lead to a higher drop-out rate. Bones concedes the service requires extra financial outlay, but the cost is not significant and secures real payback from the investment already made.
Under Bones’ leadership, Henley is set to realise a unique identity among management training and development providers. There is a clear no-nonsense, practical approach in evidence. This extends from the intake of MBA students through to the development of new qualifications, such as the Certificate in Coaching.
With a range of ideas and an eye firmly on the competition, Bones will undoubtedly enjoy his time at the college.
Christopher Bones’ CV
- 2005 Principal, Henley Management College
- 1999-2004 Group organisation effectiveness & development director, Cadbury Schweppes
- 1992-1999 International organisational development manager, personnel controller, Asia Pacific; HR director international, HR director Europe, group compensation & benefits director, Guinness/Diageo
- 1987-1992 Last two roles: HR director for the Retail Enterprise Group, HR director, Grand Met Estates, Grand Metropolitan
- 1982-1987 Senior employee relations adviser, Stanlow Refinery (Jan 1985 – Aug 1987); Industrial relations adviser, road transport (Jan
- 1984 – Dec 1984); Employee relations adviser, distribution (Jul 1982 – Dec 1983), Shell
- Education: Dulwich College, Aberdeen University (MA Hons degree in English & History)