Follow the leader

by 20 Mar 2007

HR is usually pivotal in driving the development of an organisations leadership capabilities, but it cant do it alone. Teresa Russell talks with a number of experts about leadership development, what works, what doesnt and why

Leadership: the ability to guide, direct or influence people. That’s what the dictionary says, but it would probably be better to add the word “effectively” in front of each of those verbs when describing the sorts of leaders that organisations try to develop.

The humour evoked in the hit British series The Office is based on the cringe factor that occurs when managers (or leaders) are not effective. In fact, the cringing is at its worst with viewers who have known managers a bit like Ricky Gervais’ character, David Brent.

If leaders are truly born and not made, does this mean that leadership development programs are a waste of time and money? Do the true leaders in an organisation rise to the top, like the proverbial cream from milk? Anyone who has worked with inspirational leaders will tell you that when these leaders give people the right tools to use, combine that with the freedom to act and then hold people responsible for outcomes, new leaders emerge. Leaders aren’t born or made – they are developed.

Catalyst for introducing leadership programs

Pearson Australia was established in January 2002 by the joining of Pearson Education and Penguin Books Australia. It employs more than 500 people across the country, with specialist skills in consumer and educational publishing, marketing, sales and distribution. Simone Wright, general manager human resources says they wanted to make the most of the merger and build the culture to help continue the growth that the company was going through.

“There was no one event. We just wanted to improve what we were doing really well as a business. We were market leaders and wanted to focus on maintaining that position – remaining at the top of the profession,” says Wright. She quotes the company’s published people goal: “To be the best company to work for in the world, so that our people have the skills to leave, but choose to stay”.

Horticulture Australia Limited (HAL) was also born through a merger, but in 2001. HAL is a not-for-profit national R&D and marketing organisation that works in partnership with (and is funded by) the horticultural sector. It provides programs to benefit the Australian horticultural industry. It employs around 50 people nationally, mainly on the east coast.

Kerrie Miller, organisational development manager at HAL says that following the merger, the culture was more ‘siloed’ and there was not a lot of mixing between the four teams. “The business was going well, but the MD wanted to do some work on his senior team and on the culture of the organisation. Also, at the whole of staff workshop in late 2004, leadership was identified as one of the aspects of culture that was holding us back,” she says. Miller stresses that they were never working from a low base, but just that there was some room for improvement.

Kimberly-Clark Australia (KCA), FMCG manufacturer of iconic brands such as Kleenex and Huggies, employs around 1,800 people in Australia and New Zealand. Two-thirds of its staff are blue collar, one-third are white collar. According to Bernice Dover, senior learning and OD consultant, KCA had a reputation for process excellence, but was not well known for its people excellence four to five years ago.

“We’ve always preferred to grow our own leaders. Five years ago, the corporate managers (leadership team) acknowledged that because many of them were baby boomers who would retire around the same time, they needed to increase the bench strength of the senior team,” says Dover.

A 2004 employee survey showed the corporate managers that the relationship between employees and their individual managers was fundamental in driving any real changes in engagement scores. “The corporate managers gave it [leadership development training] good support and the fact that direct managers have the most impact has been firmly embraced,” she says.

Finding the right help

Leadership development programs can be fully tailored or use off-the-shelf packages. Most are a combination of both. Off-the-shelf products often used include Myers-Briggs or DISC, which help people understand interpersonal styles. Programs can be run internally or utilise the services of external or independent consultants.

Pearson Australia considered a number of external suppliers and facilitators before choosing the most appropriate. “We’re really fortunate that the partners we work with truly understand our needs and our culture,” says Wright, who uses a 50/50 combination of in-house programs designed by the HR team as well as external partners. The in-house programs and initiatives address general skills that are required consistently. Wright uses external partners for leadership initiatives that address specific business needs as they arise. She gives the example of an off-site program that was run last year to help a division of the business focus on the skills needed to deliver the MD’s vision of becoming more innovative and building a much stronger focus on their values.

HAL utilised an external consultant initially because there was no HR function in the organisation. A member of the board provided the initial referral, which Miller says is always a very positive thing. The consultant recommended they employ an OD manager to keep up the momentum. HAL has used 360-degree feedback, culture analysis, values and behaviour analysis, EI self-assessment, whole organisation and executive team workshops, as well as individual coaching sessions in its drive to improve leadership capability within the senior team and across the organisation.

“Although some of it was off-the-shelf, the consultant understood our needs and tailored things to fit our needs,” says Miller.

Because KCA is a strongly process driven organisation, it is unsurprising to learn that it was important to them that any consultant would be very strong on integrating leadership development into all the existing HR systems – performance management, succession management and competency frameworks.

“Leadership development programs are not an event, but rather take 12 to 18 months to complete. We focus on soft skills and self-awareness of each person’s own style and the impact this has on others,”says Dover. “With the focus on behaviour change, we give participants skill practice within the program. Behaviour change is assessed through role plays, self-reporting and also by formal reporting to the senior management group,” she continues. Doversays most of the training is tailored for KCA.

Tangible changes

All three organisations stress that sustained behavioural change does not occur overnight. Pearson is into its fourth year and second phase of its people strategy. “Change has been progressive throughout the organisation. We have seen our leaders really respond and focus on their effectiveness,” says Wright.

Both Miller and Wright say emotion has been removed from many of the conversations in their businesses, as the understanding of different communication styles and approaches grows.

Dover says that openness to feedback is critical in determining the amount of change you see. After 12 to 18 months, KCA managers were “prepared to discuss performance and development far more objectively and began to view their people as organisational resources, rather than their own functional resource,” she says.

All three companies measure results of their leadership development programs and have seen steady improvement in staff surveys and 360-degree feedback.

Top leadership tips

Simone Wright - Pearson Australia

· Consult all stakeholders and include staff in the process

· Get CEO to own the initiative

· Review and evaluate at every stage

· Respond to feedback from the business

Kerrie Miller - Horticulture Australia Limited

· Find a supplier with whom the executive team feels comfortable

· Get support from the MD and senior management team

· Keep pushing and driving to keep up the momentum

· Keep it flexible to accommodate business needs

· Communicate to all staff about how the journey is progressing

Bernice Dover - Kimberly-ClarkAustralia

· Align program to business needs

· Get commitment from a business sponsor

· Integrate into HR strategies

· Build in accountability so individuals drive their own development

· Measure and track results