For too many companies, says Colin Chinery, front-line leadership is deficient and its development disregarded or under-resourced. But for those collaborating with external training programmes, the results can be impressive
If this is the golden age of the management theology known as leadership, the articles of faith are more admired than practiced.
Top executives, says a new report, are failing to set clear objectives, motivate and inspire. Nothing revelatory here. But this latest censure came in the month that saw the death of the inspirational Sir John Harvey-Jones, and according to the report’s authors, chartered psychologists Ros Taylor Group, the annual cost to British business of de-motivational management tops £6 billion.
In a South West MAS survey nearly 40 per cent of manufacturers reported that leadership, along with team building and performance, is the major area in need of improvement.
“I was shocked to find that among the level of people with responsibilities many were out of their depth,” says MAS specialist Phil Townsend. Townsend heads South West MAS’s operational leadership programme (OLP), which is action-based, with measurable outcomes. Run over 12 weeks, it culminates in a work-based project to help front-line managers get more from their people and shopf loor processes. Results show participants growing in confidence and ability to lead, while finding how to put new process improvement techniques into action.
The poll’s troubled findings accelerated the OLP roll-out, and the resulting reception from delegates – 50 at the last count – and employers, is enthusiastic.
So impressed was Neil Carden, manufacturing director of Naim Audio, Salisbury, that he persuaded MAS to create a special cut-down version for his team leaders. “We put all 10 on this OLP team leader course – a big investment for a company of 120 people – and each course has been brilliant, and their impact huge.”
Carden was inspired by the enthusiasm to produce change and motivate and develop the teams. “There was greater all-round confidence and communication, and the leaders’ ownership of their areas improved, with a willingness to put pressure on their boss – me – to overcome problems.”
Naim Audio, a high-end hi-fi manufacturer with exports accounting for 50 per cent of the £11 million turnover, has just announced a link with Bentley with a brief to make the world’s best audio system – “a great British luxury automotive brand and a great British audio brand,” says Carden.
Naim is resistant to the blandishments of Far East off-shoring. “We believe that to achieve the very high sound quality we need to manufacture here in Salisbury.” The biggest challenge is the fine detail intrinsic in the differentiation of its elite products, and Carden is working to build a team capable of continuous improvement in quality and cost. “To achieve this I wanted a better level of leadership.”
The qualities and expectations of ‘distant’ leaders are different from ‘near’ leaders and managers. If charisma is a characteristic of leadership – a` la Harvey-Jones – no one expects it from a local leader. Here, leadership is about enabling.
And as Carden says, the roles of the team leader/first line manager are very difficult. “You are bridging this gap, working alongside people you are trying to motivate and inspire, while balancing this with the demands of the physical work, getting the product out of the door, trying to improve processes and so on. It’s complex.”
Increasingly so, says Phil Townsend. “Manufacturing management has become more difficult, structures have got a lot flatter and people are now involved with strategic thinking and daily tactical management. You also have health and safety and other legislation, and environmental issues. The job is becoming harder, wider, and you need more skills, and I don’t know whether in all circumstances we have the people for it.”
If scale of resources gives major corporations the edge over SMEs in leadership training and development, a recent survey suggests the results can be roundly disappointing.
In a study of 330 managers from 10 major global manufacturers including key FTSE 250 companies, human resources management consultant the Hay Group found that in 40 per cent of cases, teams were operating in a climate regarded as de-motivating.
“In terms of gains and losses this accounts for between 17 and 30 per cent of the discretionary effort those teams are creating,” says Hay Group associate director Russell Hobby. “This is a huge difference in impact, the difference between doing a basic job or reaching out, spotting opportunities and contributing ideas which are at the heart of trends in lean and quality systems.”
One of the reasons why front line leadership is so important, says Hobby, is that it creates the climate in which people choose to perform or not. “And if you haven’t got good leadership at the top it’s very unlikely that you will find it lower down.”
In 15 years of factory floor supervision and manufacturing, Phil Townsend says he can count his role models “on the fingers of less than one hand.
“Some were really good; others made me determined that I would not be like them. With better and more inspirational leadership I would have developed faster, and become more sustainable and robust.” Too often, promotion to team leader is based on a mix of Buggins Law and the Peter Principal.
“So-and-so is our best engineer or sheet metal fabricator, he wants more money so we’ll promote him to team leader, or something just to keep him,” as Townsend puts it.
But what makes an employee an outstanding deliverer can work against him as a manager, says Russell Hobby. “So often it is individual ambition that drives, while what they need to focus on once they enter a management role is other people’s excellence. And that can be a painful shift.
“A huge number of people promoted into their first front line management positions leave within one or two years because of disillusionment. There are a few critical points in a career when you have to invest in additional support and training, and first line management is one of those.”
For PDS Engineering of Nelson, Lancs, the success from leadership training in schemes from MAS North West (The Manufacturing Institute) and the aerospace sector, has been measurable.
“The last quarter was quite fantastic; we were exceeding our targets including time and quality, while the enthusiasm on the shopfloor is palpable,” says operations director, Annette Getty.
“As an industry we teach technical skills but don’t train people in becoming leaders. But we recognised we couldn’t change the culture of our company without investing in training.”
While an imperative, she says lean in itself can induce a robotic mind-set, hardly the mark of inspiration. “It can suppress innovative thinking and become too formulaistic. Organisations can be too task-focused, with not enough thought given to the softer side of leadership. We are investing not only in the practicalities of lean but also how to lead people and buy them in. The culture is as important as the task-oriented items.”
If large companies are giving weight to leadership development and training, further down the supply chain there is less and less training, says Getty. “And when you get to a company of our size – 32 employees – the majority aren’t doing any training at all.”
For companies embarking on leadership training and development, the first step, says Carden, is to make sure they have the right people in the middle management team aligned to the right project. “To me, road mapping is cascading down through the organisation.
If the middle management isn’t right then there’s no point in training the team leaders since they will get de-motivated again by poor management.”
Look hard at your strategic plan, advises Getty. “Ask yourself where is your business going? Work out who your key individuals are, who they are going to be, and what are your succession plans? Where are the holes in your training and development? If you have somebody who is a junior manager and you see them in a future leadership position, are you giving them leadership training and support, or are you expecting them to learn simply through experience? It’s very important to structure training and not expect people to learn it on the job.
“You also have to support staff members, because if they are moving up there can be some stigma attached, leaving behind friends and colleagues. There can be issues here and you have to be aware of that and sensitive to it.”
Step one, says Russell Hobby, is to understand what good leadership is in your company, which will be different from other companies. “It’s no use putting people through a sheep dip of standardised leadership development. You need to find the best managers you have and work out what it is that makes them different. When you’ve done that you will have a map, something to aim at and communicate across the company. “Have a clear model of what good leadership in your firm looks like and a clear assessment of individual strengths and weaknesses. Then you can target the training, absolutely focused on what will make a difference in their job now and start delivering on it.”
To firms where time and resource constraints are a major issue, Hobby has this to say: “If 40 per cent of your managers are getting 30 per cent less productivity than another company, work out what you are leaving on the table.
And this is a lot more than you would spend on leadership development.”