Business leaders are constantly exhorting the rest of us to keep up our training. Indeed, 'life-long learning' has become one of the mantras of the age. But what of those leaders themselves? Once they have scaled the corporate heights to the boardroom, is there anything left for them to learn?
There is - plenty - although many of those who land the top jobs clearly think they know enough to cover every eventuality. 'It's very rare for executive directors to go on training programmes,' says Professor David Norburn, director of the Imperial College Management School. 'The presupposition is that they've learnt it all already, that divisional experience is translatable to the boardroom.' Yet, board directors require a wider corporate vision than a single division affords. It can be revealing to watch how dispassionate a new director can be when considering the disposal of the operation he nurtured in his divisional role.
Chief executives in particular need a perspective involving 'externality rather than internality', says Norburn. They need to be 'jugglers', able to please the fund managers, their bankers, customer groupings, pressure groups; they need to understand the implications of economic and political change. 'All these are big issues,' he says.
Being chief executive can be lonely. Henley Management College and Ashridge, in conjunction with the Institute of Directors (IoD) now runs a short course called 'Board PLC', exclusively for chief executives. During the course the bosses can explore all these 'big issues' in the company of their peers, in a way they wouldn't be able to with their own board members.
Many executives find that problems can be articulated more easily to a non-judgmental listener (and problems are often clarified in the process) and this explains the growing use of 'mentors' and 'executive coaches'. Susan Bloch, director of executive coaching at Hay Management Consultants, says that the key concepts in leadership today are 'emotional intelligence', stakeholder communications, impact and presence. 'Leaders need to have a story, to inspire others by telling it, and to get it done,' she says. Coaching can help senior executives to develop these skills.
'A lot of development work with senior managers is now done cross-culturally,' adds Julian Aviss, director of in-company and consultancy services at Roffey Park Management Institute, which runs a whole raft of courses for senior managers. In today's world of global business, it pays to learn more about cultural sensitivities. Different notions of time (fast in the US, more relaxed, to put it mildly, in Mexico) can have important effects on negotiation. The wrong-shaped business card in Japan could be deemed such a mortal insult as to end a deal altogether, says Aviss.
Working with whole boards of directors to help them improve performance is also becoming more common. Courses help directors gain a more thorough understanding of their role, responsibilities, liabilities and powers. Research has shown that general trading performance is much better where corporate governance is properly understood - because the roles of chairman (who runs the board) and chief executive (who runs the business) are now usually split.