by Peter Bartram
The age of the rock star leader is over. Business schools are now shaping leadership education for executives who put teamwork before ego
Directors who believe training for leadership begins and ends in the boardroom need to think again. When business is grappling with a new agenda of issues—everything from recession to sustainability —it needs leaders at every level, not just at the top. And that means the whole nature of business education for leadership is changing.
“Anybody who is in a position of influence we deem to be a leader,” says Paul Stobart, chief executive of Sage Northern Europe, the business software provider. “Consequently, leadership becomes a very important set of skills, competences and behavioural attributes that affect an enormous number of people in a company.”
So far, 144 of the 2,500 staff at Sage Northern Europe have been through the company’s personal leadership programme. Stobart takes it seriously enough to have invested a fortnight of his own time to become an accredited trainer on the programme.
He is in no doubt about the value that the programme is delivering. “When people in an organisation believe that their leaders know what they are doing and where they are heading, and that the leadership around them is inspirational, then that flows through into revenue. It is a very fundamental driver of performance.”
Stobart’s view that leadership must become more democratic is shared by a growing number of educators and trainers. “There has been a wider appreciation of different forms of leadership with an emphasis on authentic leadership and turning away from the charismatic leader,” says Dr Annette Fillery-Travis, director of programmes at Middlesex University’s Institute for Work Based Learning.
Sally Pulvertaft, managing director of distance learning provider ICS, adds: “The age of the leader as rock star is over-leaders are facilitators. We are seeing more requirements for leaders to work collaboratively with their staff, suppliers and customers-shared challenges and shared rewards.”
Dr David Pendleton, co-course director of the high performance leadership programme at the Saïd Business School and a founder of Edgecumbe Consulting, says: “What you need are leaders without an ego who play on their strengths but also recognise their weaknesses and surround themselves with people who complement them.”
Pendleton believes too much emphasis is placed on trying to create “super-leaders” who excel at all of strategic, operational and inter-personal leadership. “But complete leadership is more likely to come from several people acting together as a complementary team than from one individual acting alone,” he says. “The best leaders are not well rounded-but the best teams are.”
The changing nature of leadership education and training is only one of several shifts in the business education landscape. Kate Jones, founder of UK executive coaching company Inspired Lives, foresees business education shifting from “just in case”, where skills are learnt and stored for a rainy day, to “just in time” where the focus is on what managers must deal with in the “here and now”. She says: “Business education is becoming an amalgam of pre-taught skills and a vital support structure to help put those skills into practice effectively.
“Most senior management don’t need to sit in a classroom to learn how to handle things. They derive greatest value from sharing the burden of their thoughts when the pressure is on. I doubt very few survivors in hard times would claim classroom training alone saw them through. It’s down to keeping the boat on an even keel, focusing on what you need to know and do each day, and having the capacity to make tough, timely choices and pick up the pieces.”
Business education is becoming less a job of sitting in the classroom than of learning on the job, perhaps with the aid of an expert coach. “Managers and leaders, where given a choice, will select multiple short interventions with workplace support to embed new skills and capabilities,” says Robert Terry, chairman of ASK, a behavioural consultancy that specialises in management and leadership.
And Hannah McNamara, managing director of HRM Coaching, adds: “We find we’re being asked to coach directors on keeping their staff motivated and involving them in the direction of the business. It’s now all too easy for disgruntled staff to use social media to spread their feelings around. This can do an immense amount of harm to the reputation of the company. Rather than focusing on crisis management, leaders are seeking ways to spot dissatisfaction early and nip it in the bud.”
Nick Bentley, chief executive of RiverStone, the run-off insurance specialist, is one director who can vouch for the business value of coaching leaders in a difficult trading environment. When he managed RiverStone’s UK operation, Bentley, who now heads the entire company from New York, ran a coaching programme for his senior team with the aid of Laurence Udell, chairman of UdellGroup, the executive mentoring consultancy.
“The programme helped to align the management team with the company’s strategy and led to better business results,” recalls Bentley. He believes the programme’s success rested on the holistic approach to getting senior executives to explore the consequences of their behaviour and amend it where necessary. There will always be a role for this kind of inter-personal coaching in business and leadership development but, more broadly, business education is changing under the pressure of events.
Chartered director and Sainsbury management fellow Chris Martin believes the intellectual underpinnings of some traditional business courses need to be re-examined. Martin cites the example of finance courses, traditionally based around the economic theory of efficient markets. “This doesn’t now necessarily reflect reality,” he notes. “Similarly, the economics taught on MBA courses tends to portray economic analysis as able to predict changes in a marketplace—which it can do when there are small incremental changes—but when financial bubbles burst, markets behave differently.”
Martin’s point is important because there is a danger that out-of-date leadership courses might only equip managers—like the soldiers of old—to fight the previous war. Nowhere is this more important than in learning how to handle risk. Martin cites the case of how managers were traditionally taught to incorporate risk into their value calculations. “This is normally very unsophisticated and doesn’t cope with today’s reality, which is that there can be some very big outlying risks that could have devastating consequences,” he explains.
But Sharon Bamford, chief executive of the Association of MBAs, says that business courses are starting to change in order to reflect the new reality of an uncertain economic world. “MBA courses are reviewed and changed on a periodic basis and I have seen incremental changes responding to the new market conditions,” she says.
Bamford notes that subjects such as governance and regulatory issues, entrepreneurialism, creativity, innovation and sustainability are all moving up business course agendas. “A lot more attention is now being paid to the Bric economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China),” she adds. “There’s more focus, for instance, on the challenges and opportunities of doing business with China and India, particularly.”
Manchester Business School (MBS) is one that has elevated the importance of the emerging economies in its courses. MBS has recently introduced two new courses—Doing business in China and Doing business in Brazil—into its global MBA. The new courses have been developed specifically to help students become business leaders in the respective countries. MBS has also launched a new media marketing course within its global MBA. It is designed to help students use social networks as a business communication tool.
Meanwhile, Exeter Business School, with an eye on the sustainability agenda, launches its One Planet MBA, in collaboration with the University of Exeter and the World Wildlife Fund, in September. The aim of the course, says the school, is to produce more “planet-minded business leaders”.
But whatever the specifics of a particular course or the method of delivery, in a new world order that lacks the cosy certainties of the past, leaders will need to develop the ability to thrive on ambiguity. Fillery-Travis, at the Institute for Work Based Learning, says: “Without a predictable business environment, planning is problematic and there is a real tendency to carry on doing the same old thing in the hope that the old environment will return.
“But this is nonsense and leaders must be able to sit with the possibility of multiple scenarios and non-predictability. Techniques and tools such as futures research and scenario planning give some form to this type of thinking.”
Pulvertaft agrees that tomorrow’s leaders need to learn how to handle the unforeseen. “Leaders are aware that they need to deal with a high level of uncertainty and be able to make changes quickly,” she says. “So, for example, strategy is an ever-present activity, not simply a one-off job.” And she adds a note of caution: “Learning to fail is critical. If we don’t get some things wrong, we’re not trying enough things.”
Professor Susan Hart, dean of Strathclyde Business School, says: “In practice, identifying and developing emerging leaders is more than just spotting a good manager. A strong leader is someone who commands respect from his colleagues and peers and is able to transfer technical skills and experience for the benefit of the people and organisation around them.”
Recession has meant companies must focus more on what they want from leadership education and development, says Brian Caie, leadership programme director at Sheppard Moscow, which specialises in organisational development and change consulting. “Critical leadership skills which are emerging include authenticity, developing trust and the ability to inspire and energise others,” he says.
“Being able to scan and interpret the competitive environment and acting in an ethical way are also becoming increasingly important. And strategic networking is emerging as a critical competency as management structures flatten into complex matrices rendering old power structures obsolete.”
Education and training budgets took a battering during the recession and are only slowly recovering. But as the economy staggers back onto its feet, more directors will be looking carefully to ensure they find top value for the money spent on education and training programmes.
Businesses’ global budget for leadership and management development is estimated at $40bn (£25bn) a year, says ASK’s Terry. “Estimates of the extent to which that investment creates new, more effective behaviours in the workplace vary from four per cent to the most optimistic 40 per cent.”
The lower figure suggests that some business education providers are not demonstrably delivering value for money. And Terry argues that there needs to be an accepted way of measuring the effect of education and training on workplace performance so that companies can assess the impact of their training spending.
If, as seems likely in a tougher business climate, directors become more concerned about winning more value for money from their education and training budget, the providers could well find they have some learning to do themselves.
John Board The recent financial crisis focused those in business education on two management issues. The first is the behaviour of individuals, particularly evident in the banking sector, who are focused on personal gain at the expense of corporate interest. Secondly, there is the issue of traditional managers who believe an understanding of their own business-such as a paper manufacturers’ knowledge of the paper industry-is sufficient to override their lack of understanding of financial matters.
“In future, we need to ensure that all those studying at Master’s or MBA level, or participating in corporate senior management training, are exposed to a full range of financial topics-so they can, at the very least, have conversations with the experts in those fields-and finance specialists must be made more aware of the broader context in which they operate. At the end of the day, both managers and finance experts will have to put in the graft to ensure they understand each other’s language and viewpoint.” Professor John Board is dean of Henley Business School
Ryan Ahern Organisations and leaders are far more discerning about their training choices. Gone are the days when leaders would simply turn up on a course out of curiosity or because there was money left in the training budget. Now professional development must be closely aligned to the needs of the organisation.
“At the same time, there is a variety of tailored options including coaching, mentoring, online media, shorter and sharper courses, networking opportunities and qualifications that can be adapted to the needs of individuals and organisations. Participants are more willing to share feedback on the value of programmes not only with their immediate circle but also the wider community through social media. When organisations and individuals derive value from business education, there is still an appetite to undertake it.
“At the IoD, for example, we had several thousand people completing the various stages of our Chartered Director qualification in 2010-with more than 1,000 sitting exams.” Ryan Ahern is learning and development director at the IoD
Jean Woodall There is still a tendency to see the leader as an heroic individual at the top of the organisation. Action-centred leadership, situational leadership, transformational leadership, authentic leadership and servant leadership—there is a long tradition of fads or formulae for how the leader should behave. All these different approaches to leadership are more about being rather than doing.
“Yet practising managers are ill-advised to take their eye off doing. Leadership theories cannot always provide a road map for dealing with the turbulence of organisational life. The ability to ‘read’ and understand an organisation’s culture and markets, to draw upon the skills of financial analysis and project management, are an essential part of the mix. In business schools, we try to help our students—many of whom are practicing managers—build a broader repertoire of business and management skills, and become sensitive to the different contexts in which they work. So, no more heroes, fads and formulae in leadership, please.” Professor Jean Woodall is dean of Westminster Business School
Sally Watson Traditional modes of developing middle managers need a good shake-up. In challenging times, it is talent in the middle that determines how successful organisations are at doing more with less.
“Middle managers are the engine room of any business-a vital axis between strategy and operations and a major conduit for communication and action. They are powerful influencers of senior leaders as well as staff down the line.
“It is not enough to develop middle managers in isolation from their leaders. The key is to take an integrated approach to developing their intellectual skills to strategise well, their emotional resilience to manage turbulence, and their interpersonal skills to influence others.
“Business education must incorporate action learning and live business projects to promote engagement between middle managers and their leaders, the benefits being more inventive ways of managing challenges and greater collaborative working across and between levels of management.” Dr Sally Watson is director of executive education at Lancaster University Management School
Michael Jenkins Studies have shown that collective purpose, which gives meaning to work, is the lifeblood of successful organisations and so the ability to express and engage people around purpose is the golden thread that marks out successful leaders. This represents a challenge for leadership education, particularly in traditional business schools which concentrate on the tangible components of leadership and business.
“But purpose and its critical role in leadership should be a key part of any leadership programme as, without being clear where your starting point is, one could argue, there can be no consistency in what flows from it, such as long-term strategy and concrete key performance indicators. Purpose is the starting point for enabling strategic outcomes that are measurable and ‘real’ in a way that appeals to results-driven leaders around the world.” Michael Jenkins is chief executive of Roffey Park