Turning branch managers into leaders at Rentokil Initial

City and Guilds

Brigid Hodges, director of talent at hygiene and pest control firm Rentokil Initial, winners of the 2011 Personnel Today award for excellence in learning and development (L&D), explains how the company built a leadership development programme for its branch managers from scratch.

Rentokil Initial has come a long way since the appointment of its new leadership team in 2008. Staff had been working in an environment where there was not much training and next to no leadership development.

Four years on and the company is seeing the success of a multi-pronged approach to leadership development, which was initially piloted on branch managers in its UK pest division.


The programme, which won the company Personnel Today’s 2011 award for excellence in L&D, included a wide variety of modules that ranged from mentoring and classroom learning to the slightly wilder idea of “horse-whispering”.

Personnel Today investigates whether horse-whispering is really a useful leadership tool:


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While horse-whispering isn’t the only tactic the company has used to develop leaders, it does demonstrate a key element of the programme – tackling emotional intelligence.

“Self-awareness is incredibly important for leadership,” says Hodges. “We pinned a lot of our thinking on that as one of the main principles for the programme.”

She adds that people can find this tactic quite compelling because, if they start looking at their own behaviour, they can then broaden that out to look at how they influence other members of their team.

So how does horse-whispering help develop a leader? Hodges explains that dealing with a large animal does have its lessons.

“When it is done right, it puts across the message of emotional intelligence extremely well and everyone has a sense of awe and respect when dealing with a half-ton animal. The horse is someone in your team; you’re trying to guide them to do something.”

Staff buy-in

In some respects, Hodges counts herself lucky that the leadership programme started from scratch. It meant that, when horse-whispering was presented to the employees, most of them were willing to give it a go.

“If you have nothing then people are intrigued and curious and they’re up for trying stuff,” Hodges comments. “We’re not tainted with having done lots of programmes before of mixed quality and we’re very particular about how we’ve set it up.”

The horse-whispering made up a small element of a much wider programme. Branch managers were put through a 10-month development scheme called the “living leadership programme”, which was divided into six key areas:

  • emotional intelligence/self-awareness;
  • the customer experience;
  • HR skills for operational managers;
  • finance;
  • coaching skills; and
  • personal impact.

These were delivered through a number of different methods, such as experiential learning (horse-whispering), traditional classroom learning, group work/discussion, pre- and post-course reading, case-study work and something called “action learning”.

Action learning was a mentoring system for branch managers aimed at improving the flow of information between divisions, an area that had been identified in the training-needs analysis as something that needed to be addressed.

Participants were divided into groups of between six and eight and assigned a mentor from a pool of managers the next rung up the ladder.

Hodges explains: “The action-learning sets were littered throughout the programme. Every month, they came together for a half day in that set. It was set up specifically to address issues in their workplace that came back to some aspect of their personal style and interpersonal skills.”

Embedding learning

These sets were also used to make participants reflect on what they had learnt throughout the programme, to help embed the learning.

Rentokil Initial win the 2011 Personnel Today award for excellence in learning and development.

In their action-learning sets, the branch managers were set two tasks at the end of the programme. Firstly, they had to submit a 500-word written assignment describing their experience and the impact of the programme and, secondly, each set had to give a presentation to senior management detailing what they had gained from the training.

This not only helped them consolidate their learning but it also provided them with exposure to senior management, which may prove valuable in their future careers.

Hodges says: “Reflection is absolutely key in terms of learning; getting people into the discipline of doing it can help embed some of the behaviours they need to think about.”

While the initiative started in 2009 with just 64 branch managers from the company’s UK pest division, it was extended to all UK divisions and Rentokil Initial’s South African business in 2010.

Evaluation of the initial trial found that participants felt the programme had boosted their confidence and improved their management capability.

In particular, managers said that the programme had helped them deal with their emotions and respond to situations better.

Effects of the trial

As a result of the trial, Rentokil Initial saw a reduction of 67% in the number of disciplinary cases and a 16% improvement in attrition for technicians.

And, while branch managers were the target of the original programme, Rentokil is now looking at developing leaders throughout the business.

Hodges explains why branch managers were seen as the best place to start: “We have more than 1,000 branch managers across the company and we thought that if we could grab that network of 1,000 people and start to make a difference with that group and create a community then we’d really start to leverage good results.”

So, after implementing a leadership development programme from scratch, what’s next in line for the talent team? Hodges says that the next area they will be looking at is how to encourage innovation.

“At the harsh level, we’re cleaning toilets and killing rats and we can be grandiose and say we’re being hygienic and keeping people safe, but at the roots of the business we’ve got people on national minimum wage and we have to start to think what that means to us in terms of innovation. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

While innovation is a future concern for the talent team, it seems that it is an area they themselves are venturing into. Mentoring and horse-whispering may not be brand new ideas but in a company that had nothing in terms of leadership development, the talent team’s varied approach and focus on the individual may have been an innovation of its own.

The 2011 Personnel Today Award for excellence in learning and development was sponsored by vocational education provider City & Guilds.

The deadline to enter the Personnel Today Awards 2012 is approaching fast. View the categories or submit your entries here.

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