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Britain’s bosses need a little extra says Hannah Hope

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Many British bosses need more help than expected when it comes to managing their firms, but others have stepped in to provide it - according to a new report launched today by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES).

The report outlines the findings from over 30 projects supported through the UK Futures Programme which explored how to improve management and leadership skills and practices. Businesses, Chambers of Commerce, Universities and other organisations came forward with new solutions to addressing the problem of comparatively low levels of management skills in the UK. But when they did, they often found that the needs were greater than they anticipated.

And I’ve experienced this first hand. I was in a classroom one evening with around 20 other managers, getting comfortable ready to begin a seminar on statistics for business and management, a core module on my MBA. The lecturer was displaying a page full of numbers in a spreadsheet set to teach us about statistical methods covering sampling distributions, hypothesis testing and so on and so forth. He began, “So you have your data in Excel and you want to….” But he didn’t get any further because a hand went up on the front row. He stopped to take the question. And it was a curve ball that derailed his whole session. The question went like this, “So, what’s Excel?” He hadn’t been expecting that (you could tell by his face).

Similar to my lecturer, some of the projects on the Futures Programme found themselves re-working their leadership and management course materials and having to go right back to basics first, helping managers write mission statements, prepare business plans and marketing strategies.

It was common also to have to entice managers to take part in Management and Leadership development programmes. Often they weren’t sure of the benefits and in some cases didn’t see themselves as leaders.

None of this is too surprising. UKCES research shows that less than half of Managers (48%) are likely to be trained in any one year compared to 63% for all staff. The Programme focussed on managers who did not usually receive training and their needs were found to be more basic than expected in many of the projects, with many having no form of business plan or marketing strategy. This is consistent with UKCES research which shows that almost 4 in 10 businesses (39%) do not have a business plan.

The projects achieved numerous successes and the really good news is that the report finds that when managers are encouraged to consider their leadership and management skills, it whets their appetite for more development.

Paula Harris, Solicitor and Head of Civil Department at David Gray Solicitors, said of her experience on the training provided for new managers by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG):

“The LAPG provided invaluable training to me. As a person new to management, with no previous training, the course offered me the opportunity to learn the theory of management and develop the practical skills. I have already put many of the new skills I have learned into practice and have the literature close at hand for reference!”

Teesside University led a programme of learning for local small businesses which also hit the right note with businesses including Alison Johnson of GCS JOHNSON LTD who said:

“The understanding of theory, strategy and reflection within the business environment has made such an impact on me, and the way in which the company goes forward. Turnover and profit will still be important, but now I understand more than I did before that the internal strategy of the business is equally important in the company’s future”.

Equally, the ‘bigger’ firms also found real value in providing management development to the firms around them. David Woodhead, of Robert Woodhead Ltd, a Construction company which developed ‘Good to Gold’, a leadership programme for their supply chain, said of the experience:

“We have had great feedback from Good to Gold, and have learned as much about how to work with our supply chain as they have learned about how to work with us. We are on a journey to improve our systems and methods of working to improve our efficiencies. I am sure that our supply chain will reciprocate and this greater understanding will increase trust, and trust will be the foundation of the future.”

The report shows that, while it is challenging to engage firms in management development if they have not done so before, other firms or trusted institutions can use their relationships to persuade them it is worthwhile.  This is of real value not just to the managers being developed, but also to the firms that they do business with, a win win.

So two important lessons here from the UK Futures Programme (and indeed my lecturer). One: establish the capability of your audience first, tailor the offer. And two:  management development is beneficial for those undertaking it as well as those around them.

The UK Futures Programme has generated a great deal of other learning and evidence in relation to what works, and indeed what doesn’t, in enhancing skills among the workforce. Read the full report here.

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