A business park on the edge of Slough seems a dangerous place to be searching for a rising star in the managerial firmament. Is David Brent about to spring out of the bushes to reveal that the whole thing is a toe-curling wind-up? To be more geographically precise, though, this is Stoke Poges, home to celebrities and the glitzy Stoke Park Club, as well as the UK HQ of global HR consultancy Development Dimensions International (DDI).
It's a chilly February morning and five ambitious managers with their sights set on the top are making their way to DDI to compete for the inaugural Rising Star Award - an accolade designed to recognise individuals with exceptional potential for senior leadership. Each knows in advance that this will be no walk in the park. During the next 10 hours they will be put through one of DDI's Executive Assessments, a gruelling programme that places each candidate in the hot seat, running a substantial business unit and facing the kind of challenges that will determine whether they sink or swim.
The five would-be galacticos have been selected by a high-powered judging panel to reach the shortlist. What's in store is actually a highly elaborate role-playing exercise, for which they have been given some chance to prepare.
Each candidate is to assume the role of the suitably androgynous Kelly Myers, newly appointed vice-president of the robotics division of a fictitious company, Global Solutions. Kelly is coming in for just one day to address pressing issues before starting fully in two weeks' time. There is some tricky business to sort out in just a few hours.
At 8.30, the five aspirants have all arrived and are ready to be briefed.
DDI's marketing director Lucy McGee tells them: 'This is a day where you get the chance to be yourself, to do the things that make you successful', before handing over to Cat Marks, who is running the assessment. Marks explains how the day will work: each contestant will be taken by an assessor to an office equipped with a laptop, writing materials, printer and telephone.
('If the phone rings, don't ignore it,' she reminds them.)
The various tasks required of them during the day are contained in e-mails from their new colleagues: a request for a business plan, a series of 'decision challenges' throughout the day, and appointments for meetings and telephone calls. 'Make sure you allocate your time carefully, and give yourself 15 minutes to prepare for each of the meetings,' advises Marks. She offers another tip: 'Share your thinking as much as possible - for example, the rationale behind a particular decision.'
There are no tricks or red herrings, she reassures them, before offering a final reminder to 'be yourself - don't try to be someone different'.
With that, the contestants are whisked off, looking apprehensive, to their workstations.
In no time, the participants have feet under desks and can be observed sweating over the problems presented by their new role - a closedcircuit video link beams the images of the five Kelly Myers on to a small bank of TV screens. Their first encounter is with one 'Marty Kane', director of Global's North America Manufacturing, who has fallen out with his sales counterparts following a reorganisation. Marty has got to be brought into line.
Each of the participants quickly steps into the role as the various Martys air their grievances. 'This is a new agenda and we should face it as a team,' Kelly is urging in office no. 2, just as Kelly next door consoles: 'If we are able to recognise that there is a problem, then we are halfway to solving it.'
What's striking is the apparent ease with which each contestant manages to talk about the business, colleagues, competitors and history when they are nothing more than constructs on DDI's computer system.
The plot unfolds: next, there's a telephone conversation with a key customer at American Hotels concerning a pilot of a room service robot called Jeeves, which has turned out to be faulty. She wants a replacement robot and she wants it in days, not weeks. Assessor Catriona Hearth explains afterwards that one of the critical points she is looking for is whether the participant will give in to pressure from the customer and make promises they can't deliver. We listen to the tape with Matthew Clark playing the part of Kelly. 'You've come to the right guy,' he says and quickly earns a tick for building trust. Cleverly, he deflects the demand for a new robot almost overnight by offering an older, tried-and-tested version, throwing in a dedicated account manager and a free training package to butter up the customer.
After lunch, there's another tricky situation to be handled. This involves one of the firm's security guard robots - an intruder has died at a building patrolled by the robots, and Kelly has to face a hostile interview by a TV reporter. It's interesting to see how the different participants cope under the media spotlight: Debra looks as though she has been picked out at an identity parade, while Nick is much more natural, virtually preening himself for the camera.
During the day, the participants also have to address some distinctly thorny dilemmas, which require a written response. One concerns a long-standing supplier that has gone downhill since the founder's son took over; another consists of a lucrative order that has been placed for a batch of robots that are defective.
Then there's the business plan. By late afternoon, each participant has to be ready to present a strategic plan for the division to their new boss, Terry Turner, including SWOT analysis, potential cost savings, organisational changes and so on.
The five presentations take place simultaneously. In room 1, Richard's Kelly tells Terry: 'We've got some cracking people. Our reputation has taken a bit of a hit ... we seem to be losing talent out of the business.' Next door, Faisal's Kelly echoes the same points: 'We've had a lot of bad press ... it's been chipping away at our reputation ... There's a lack of communication, which is leading to in-fighting.' All agree, however, that there is a world of opportunity out there for Global Systems, and that with their proposals, it will soon resume its pre-eminent position in the world of robotics.
At the end of the day, the candidates meet up for a debriefing session.
It has been challenging - and fun - they concur, and they've each learned a lot to take back to their everyday roles. Each will get a feedback report and a two-hour coaching session following on from the day. And just in case you're wondering: no, Kelly Myers and Global Systems aren't about to be the subject of a spoof BBC documentary about an office on a Slough trading estate.
RICHARD BAKER - THE RISING STAR 2005
Seemingly, the man has it all: energy and drive, good breadth of vision, skills of execution and much more. 'He has a very good balance of people skills and analytical skills, which is difficult to find,' says DDI's Lucy McGee.
Among his other attributes were 'strong, solid' financial analysis, a good understanding of markets and what drives customers, and an ability to identify where the problems are in an organisation.
'We also see Richard as a strong change driver,' adds McGee. 'He challenges assumptions and he wants to get people engaged in the process of change.'
The prize: As well as getting the same written feedback as the other finalists on the Rising Star assessment day, Baker will receive further coaching sessions with a DDI executive coach for six months. This man should go far.
Biography: Baker is a publishing director at Emap Communications, in charge of the Middle East Economic Digest (MEED). He ranks his greatest achievement as turning round the fortunes of MEED's Dubai office, which he took charge of in 1999 when it was losing money and on a downward slide. He says he was attracted to enter the Rising Star Awards mainly by the opportunity of receiving some expert advice, training and coaching. 'It's in the nature of my position that there's a lot of autonomy, so it's good to get some feedback and also to be able to make some cock-ups that don't matter.'
Role model: 'Richard Branson - I hugely admire his courage to try things.'
SEEING THE POTENTIAL
The DDI system of assessments is designed to help organisations identify those with high potential and develop them; it can also be used to aid selection. 'We see these awards as a way to educate organisations about the value of identifying their high-potential talent as early as possible,' says McGee. 'And we want to celebrate the fact that British organisations have become a lot better at providing an environment in which people can develop to their potential.'
It's all part of taking a more proactive approach towards talent management.
Many of DDI's clients - GKN is an example - have an annual cycle of leadership development. A framework of what potential looks like in that organisation is built and, each year, line managers around the business are expected to put forward people who measure up well. Those selected are sent to DDI's Acceleration Centre for assessment.
'The process is diagnostic, because it shows you where that person is now, how ready they are to step up,' explains McGee. But it also provides a risk analysis. 'If you promoted them tomorrow, what would be their chance of failure?' And assessment provides a shopping list of development needs for the candidate.
DDI's assessors work by recording everything on tape or video - meetings, interviews, telephone conversations - and then analysing it afterwards.
They're looking for evidence of specific behaviours that underpin the competencies needed to be a successful leader. When they find it, it is meticulously logged.
MATTHEW CLARK is head of production at educational publisher Granada Learning. Last year, he achieved £100,000 of bottom-line profits for one of its imprints, Letts Primary List, by introducing new procurement strategies, while making a number of apparently marginal projects into viable ventures.
Having experienced an executive assessment previously, Clark was keen to test himself and get more feedback.
His style of leadership, he says, is 'approachable - that means having visibility, letting people have access to me, and getting problems resolved without endless e-mails or long meetings'.
Role model: 'Sir Peter de la Billiere - he came from being a ground force trooper to the top rank.'
NICK DUTTON is an account director at advertising agency HHCL/Red Cell, working for clients such as Captain Birds Eye, the COI and Sky.
Dutton started his career in South Africa, but in spite of being marked out for a management role, moved to the UK to learn more and put himself to the test. As a leader, he says, 'my style is about motivating, being informal and quite creative'. He adds: 'I'm in an ideas industry, so it's also important that people have the confidence to challenge you and speak their mind.' Dutton has one ambition at least: 'I'd like to open my own agency one day - I think that would be really exciting.'
Role model: 'Nelson Mandela - or in business, Robin Putter of Ogilvy & Mather South Africa. He is really inspiring.'
FAISAL HASHMI is general manager at Bestway Cash & Carry in Liverpool, the UK's second-largest cash-and-carry with 30 depots and a £1.2 billion turnover. Now 27, he was the youngest person to be given the post when appointed two years ago, and last year the Federation of Wholesale Distributors made Hashmi its Young Wholesaler of the Year. He says he entered the awards to win recognition for his achievements, but also to obtain a different experience.
'I've worked for the same company for five years, so it's really good to get a broader perspective. I don't normally work in an office-based environment - I could get a phone call and have to go anywhere.'
Role model: 'The Prophet Mohammed. I have learned patience from him.'
DEBRA HOWLETT is administration and finance manager of the charity Action for Change, which provides treatment to alcohol and drug misusers, and has an 80-strong staff across the south-east. Howlett recently instigated a private fundraising strategy for the charity, which had previously relied on grants and trust funds; this is expected to generate 10% of income within three years. She entered the awards, she says, to gain some external coaching and guidance.
'In the charity world, there is no structured career path to follow, so you have to make your own opportunities. I expect I'll get even more out of this when I have time to reflect on it afterwards.'
Role model: 'Martin Luther King - he had some very good ideas.'