UK: HANDLING THE HIGH FLYERS - TRAINING. - Training 2: Even the brightest and best have a good deal to learn when making the transition to senior management.

by Anita van de Vliet.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Training 2: Even the brightest and best have a good deal to learn when making the transition to senior management.

A senior director describes his responsibilities in the Industrial Society's study, Leaders: The Learning Curve of Achievement: 'I am paid primarily to think, secondly to lead and direct, and, lastly, to manage.' This could serve as a description of what is expected of senior managers. So how can the up-and-coming prepare themselves for this role? Here we look at how senior managers can be prepared for their responsibilities through training. The ingredients needed for successful senior management can be divided, for the sake of argument, into intellectual knowledge and personal qualities.

On the first count, let us assume that our aspiring manager is thoroughly numerate and possessed of a reasonable grasp of economic affairs, since this remains a fundamental basis for any senior managerial role. We will also assume that he or she has received and absorbed a fair amount of management training already, in such matters as time management, marketing, team building and people management - a fairly reasonable expectation today when the trend towards management education is gathering force in the UK. Finally, let us assume that the aspiring manager also has a sound technical knowledge, which is certainly not a far-fetched proposition, since promotion to senior management or the board often follows a strong performance in a specialist area. Moreover, while some skills, such as marketing, people management and finance, are readily transferable, investment decisions in many cases would, presumably, demand a genuine technical understanding from those on the board. Often, too, senior managers need an understanding of technicalities to win the respect of professionals and technical staff - indeed, to communicate with them at a serious level.

It is the ability to move from being a specialist to a generalist that is all important for a manager if he wants to assume a more senior role. Patricia Marshall of Hay/McBer management consultancy calls this transition the 'paradigm shift'. One problem that recurs, says Andrew Forrest of the Industrial Society, is that people join the board with experience of only one function, such as finance or marketing, when what is needed, intellectually speaking, is vision, maturity, and the ability to think laterally and logically beyond specialist confines.

Just as important is the need to think internationally - if not globally, then certainly in European terms. In addition, senior managers need to have a firm grasp of strategy in order to make fundamental long-term choices which will shape the course of a business - such as the choice of markets or whether or not to demerge a business. Cadbury-Schweppes chairman Sir Graham Day, whose previous management career has included tackling the problems of at least four seriously-ailing companies, says: 'Typically, business problems end up being expressed in cash terms, but they start from having poor or no strategies.' Whatever the other aspects of his problem companies, he recalls, the starting point for the rescue operation was always to ask, 'Where should we be going, how do get there?'

This broader, more self-critical and strategic outlook can be cultivated in a number of ways. Forrest believes it is vital that managers assuming director-level responsibilities get outside their own organisation. 'Go abroad, go to business school, talk to the City, the media, your customers, so that you learn to see your company from the outside.You should be out and about half the time.'

Colin St Johnston, the managing director of Proned, a headhunting agency for non-executive directors, is convinced that non-executive directorships are the route to directorial enlightenment: 'One of the best ways of learning to be a good executive director is to be the non-executive director of another company. Directors have to stand back and view themselves and where they are taking their business, which is enormously hard. This is because people, on the whole, are not self-critical. They tend to become defensive. As a non-executive director of another company, you see in others what your own colleagues are looking at in you.' He says that quite a number of company chairmen now instruct their executive directors to take on non-executive directorships. 'Everyone benefits from the experience.'

The business schools, of course, provide a variety of short management courses aimed at improving managers' perception. One particularly effective one is the intensive three-week senior manager programme (SMP) at Cranfield School of Management. It has been specifically devised to get its students to think and act as 'strategists, leaders, and global managers'. Some 100 high-flying managers from around the world attend the course every year. Programme director and lecturer David Butcher says that the priorities of the course are in line with the best management thinking and theory of today. The current emphasis on leadership, for example, corresponds with the need for greater individual contributions from all levels of today's corporations. This is due to the fashion for less hierarchical structures.

Cranfield, like most business schools, runs both public programmes (such as the SMP) and courses tailored to specific companies. Each has its advantages. Managers attending the latter will be working towards the same goals, so they will explore business issues in greater depth, and people can also be developed in relationship with each other. On the other hand, the advantage of the public SMP, says Butcher, is the scope for individual attention and development (this would be less practical for managers working within the same company). It will also gives trainees insights into other organisations and the opportunity to build up an international network.

ost forward-thinking companies groom their brightest and best for senior management through a blend of management training courses, both public and tailor-made, and carefully-plotted job appointments and secondments. Indeed, provided the company is sufficiently international in scope and diverse in character, secondments abroad are invaluable. At publishing group Reed International (now Reed Elsevier), group personnel director Sheila Forbes comments: 'Business education is important, and we do a lot at Reed. At publisher level - the first strategic level - we send staff on a three-week strategy programme (tailored to Reed's needs) at Warwick Business School; more senior people go for longer programmes at the London Business School, Harvard and North Western University. But she insists, 'Business education is only one part of training managers. Their relationship with the people they work with will also be explored, and how their careers are structured.'

Forbes also outlines Reed's innovatory task force programme, introduced last year, which apparently has proved very effective in widening experience and developing managers' ability 'not just to think but to act strategically'. Some task forces were drawn from specific divisions. For example, 'the brightest and most effective people' in the consumer books division were sent on a 12-week stint at Reed regional newspapers. Others were assembled from across the group, as with the team of technologists, whose task it was to explore future developments in electronic publishing and their implications for the organisation's investment strategy.

Forbes believes that the task force programmes are 'the best possible way of learning', as they bring new insights to real-life business situations. 'People coming fresh to a company feel free to challenge sacred cows - sometimes rightly, although sometimes they learn just why the cows are sacred. They have to apply the principles they have learned where they know it will matter.' The conclusions of the technology task force in particular, she says, will have a 'profound impact' on the group's planning and future investment. For instance, Reed, following its the merger with Dutch scientific publisher Elsevier, is continuing with its programme, both as a way of making the merger work and as a means of developing people. This particular programme does depend, however, on the fact that Reed can draw on a large staff of highly-talented people from diverse backgrounds.

The Industrial Society offers smaller organisations short (one-week) attachments within organisations. Outside managers are seconded to other companies that can help them solve a real problem. For instance, a civil servant was sent to the Chester Chronicle. When he returned to work he designed a newspaper on youth employment. The Industrial Society has arranged over 1,400 such attachments. Forrest believes this is an excellent way of learning.

So far, it is mainly the intellectual aspects of management development that have been explored. But the 'paradigm shift' necessary for a manager to become a director also involves developing personal skills and ways of handling people. Marshall at Hay/McBer claims that the move from functional head to director status involves thinking about how best to co-operate with one's peers, rather than simply directing subordinates, and influencing other people without giving direct orders.

At the GHN consultancy, which specialises in mentoring (the training term for coaching) for senior managers, corporate relations director Susan Bloch says that the modern manager needs to learn to balance skills, acting at times as project manager, at times as team member. 'There are some situations which require authoritative behaviour, others which need a more consultative approach,' she says. She stresses that communication at all levels (from the way you talk to the way you dress) is all-important. She also believes that 'high flyers need to think about politics and internal networking'.

Personal coaching (or mentoring) is an effective way of building up these - and other - personal skills. Indeed, Forrest at the Industrial Society recommends that all companies consider setting up a mentoring scheme, although he stresses that the art of mentoring is a subtle one. Sheila Forbes at Reed Elsevier sees a further role for it in the development of such qualities as the courage to take risks and the ability to cope with uncertainty. 'Senior managers have to give people direction, leadership, even when they know the direction is uncertain,' she says. 'At times, you need what are really acts of faith.' These attitudes depend partly on a company culture which deals 'constructively' with failure, she says, but they can also be nurtured.

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