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The captains' view: how to develop world-class leaders and managers post-recession

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Between December 2014 and April 2015, Ipsos MORI surveyed 100 Captains of Industry and followed up with 20 in-depth interviews on behalf of UKCES, focusing on management and leadership skills. Captains are executive board-level directors and chairs from the top 500 industrial companies by turnover and top 100 financial companies by capital employed.  

See the first post exploring the results from the Captains of Industry. 

The quality of management and leadership skills across some of the UK’s largest businesses has suffered in recent years, say the Captains interviewed. In a bid to keep the wheels moving during the recession, companies prioritised developing employees’ technical skills over management and leadership abilities. This strategy created ‘siloed’ organisations in its wake, with employees lacking the management and leadership skills needed to work across organisational boundaries.

Neglecting management and leadership skills, say the Captains interviewed, affects the company’s ability to attract and retain the best talent, to effectively respond to change, and to better meet customer expectations. Although it may have been necessary during the recession, this is no longer a sustainable strategy in a recovering economy.

Having come out of the recession with a heavily specialised and technical workforce, the Captains are now looking to develop well-rounded employees with a broader set of skills. Nearly one-half (47%) of those surveyed say management and leadership skills are their top people development priority. Interviewees emphasised the value of employees that can work across specialisms, bringing the different elements of a business together. Having employees that can collaborate across functions and sectors is what allows businesses to respond to change and identify opportunities to grow.

The attention being given to management development at some organisations is also linked to succession planning. While in the past there has been a tendency to hire externally for senior and middle management positions, the study found some indication that Captains wanted to shift away from that model and instead nurture internal talent. With that in mind, the organisations interviewed were keen for their longer term senior and middle managers to share their experience and help identify and develop future leaders within the company.

The majority of organisations in the study have clear plans to advance management and leadership skills, with most opting for in-house development programmes that are flexible and customised. The Captains cited many advantages of using in-house programmes. They can tailor general management theory to suit the company’s specific challenges, and they can provide a platform for instilling the company’s values.

As for what these programmes look like, there is real variety. Some offer employees the opportunity to broaden their experience, for example by going on secondment to a different department or going on an overseas assignment. One Captain described this as giving “a completely different perspective, particularly for people who joined at a relatively young age and have only seen life from the inside the business.” Others offer mentoring and coaching as a way to instil the company’s values in employees at all levels and to help fulfil the company’s goals on building a diverse workforce. Finally, some organisations bring in specialists to deliver masterclasses and share their experience and skills with the rest of the business.

Although there is recognition of the value attached to developing management and leadership skills, there are obstacles facing companies. Captains that were interviewed almost unanimously agree that time and resources are the biggest restraints. Employees have many competing priorities, and many, such as client delivery, are more pressing on their time than professional development. And while there may be budgets allocated for developing these skills, there is a need to protect these against competing pressures. Finally, brokering internal support for these programmes can also be a challenge, especially when they are relatively new, and when the business appears to be doing well.

One Captain explained that because the benefits of the investment in management and leadership skills is not immediately felt, “it is difficult to make sure it stays in place and doesn’t get pushed aside.” What business leaders also need to work on, then, is their ability to articulate to employees at all levels the importance of developing management and leadership skills, drawing clear connections between that and business performance, as well as how it benefits individual employees.


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