Throughout my career in line management in industry, consultancy and as the director of Cranfield School of Management, my belief has grown that management development interventions, when properly delivered, improve performance. So I welcomed the opportunity to subject this belief to scrutiny by leading a research project in this area last year.
It was reassuring that the research confirmed quite well my own views and prejudices. It was large-scale, comprehensive in coverage and, best of all, enabled trend comparisons with similar research conducted in 1996 and 2000.
The main message I take from its finding - published in full by the Chartered Management Institute - is that both line and HR managers are overwhelmingly convinced that management and leadership development (MLD) has a significant impact on the success of an organisation. Success is measured in financial performance, productivity, quality and customer satisfaction and, from the perspective of the individual manager, in terms of personal achievement.
This support for MLD is conditional on the development being carried out in ways appropriate to the needs of the individual and in clear support of the organisational aims and strategy. Nobody wants training for training's sake!
There has been a noticeable shift in favour of the belief that a 'good manager' can be developed. This is part of the evolution of the age-old 'nature or nurture' debate. Of course, innate ability is important, but it is increasingly clear that basic ability can be much enhanced by providing appropriate experience and development.
Soft skills, such as leadership, people management, team-working and communications, are now of greatest importance. Great store is being set by the ability to manage change, organisational development, risk management and partnership working. Such skills have superseded financial and operational management, the priorities in earlier studies - although it must be said that the development of soft skills should overlay and help to implement the harder-edged skills.
At senior levels, real success often depends more on personal effectiveness than on formal knowledge. One without the other is, of course, insufficient, and so we have seen even the traditional MBA programmes evolve to include a greater emphasis on personal skills and real applications, in addition to case studies. I've long felt that the opportunity to develop self-awareness, leadership, people management and entrepreneurial skills is the real value-added of an MBA, so this development is encouraging.
When I started work, in what my offspring refer to as the Dark Ages, recruitment focused on identifying the so-called trained mind. Learning happened through a haphazard process of different job experiences and making mistakes. There was little or no formal training. Nothing wrong with that, many of you will say - and I have to agree that I learned most through experiences and example. I always felt, however, that there might be a more efficient use of time, with a better combination of formal and informal learning and a more positive and direct approach, both for the organisation and for me.
When I acquired responsibility for large numbers of personnel, I applied the same rather tactical approach, assuming that the nascent HR departments would somehow make things right. I realised, however, that this approach was an abnegation of responsibility and a lost opportunity. I think the research suggests an implied criticism of the performance of HR departments and the growing importance of the line in managing the human capital.
Experience shows that only if top management is explicitly involved in driving MLD will it deliver results.
Making the unusual transition from a business position to become director of a business school nearly 20 years ago gave me the opportunity to test my experiences against a wider perspective while in contact with some of the highest MLD expertise. I quickly learned that there is no quick fix or any one-size-fits-all process. Although there are general rules and good practice to fall back on, each case, individual or organisation is different and requires separate consideration.
Working with a range of organisations, public and private, in the UK and internationally, I also learned that to achieve results, providers had to be more flexible in the methods of delivering and integrating effective learning; they had to employ consultancy as well as academic, psychological and delivery skills and use techniques of much greater variety - such as theatre - as a metaphor for leadership and communications.
Organisations are becoming infinitely more sophisticated and focused in their use of MLD. They demand tailored solutions in the form of MLD interventions from providers who employ the most appropriate forms of learning; these efforts are designed to support organisational aims and objectives, deliver measurable outcomes and involve the client organisation at all levels in the process. I believe the coincidence of better providers and better clients has led to the much improved perceptions among managers of the value of MLD found in the research.
CV: Leo Murray is chair of the National Centre for Languages and of the Euro-Arab Management School in Spain, and a non-executive director of Spectris plc, East of England Development Agency and East of England International. Professor Murray retired in 2003 after 17 years as director of Cranfield School of Management and pro-vice-chancellor of Cranfield University. Before Cranfield, he worked in management positions at BP, Courtaulds, AT Kearney and as a director in Rothmans International Tobacco Ltd.