I recently met 150 senior managers who were just finishing a long management course. I asked them to identify the most influential things in their development as managers. Many said that the course had totally changed the way they worked, but when answering my question, none of them referred to the course content or to books or articles that they had read or the lectures they had attended. Instead, they all described events from their working lives.
The most effective and enduring executive-level management development is not simply provided by courses - it is a product of experiences. Nor is it the result of occasional activities. It is a continuous and cumulative process, and things that happen to and around managers can help them develop. Formative experiences are not rare, nor, therefore, are the opportunities to improve management capabilities.
Frequent, timely, relevant and enriching experiences are the foundations for really effective management development. Everything else is a necessary stimulus, or it is enabling.
But this is not a prescription for a laissez-faire form of management development through 'occasional osmosis'. It will not just happen - as experience is not simply what happens, but how one uses what happens. Certainly there are risks as well as potential benefits. Managers can be conditioned rather than informed by experience, which can, in fact, be constraining rather than enriching. Competencies developed from past experiences may not equip them for a different future. Development of this nature may be introverted and regressive. Day-to-day pressures, distractions and short-term perspectives may limit the opportunity for learning. Energy for self-development may be dissipated, support may be absent and rewards obscure.
Other approaches might seem attractive and can serve some purpose - but they are not alternatives, merely complements. They are also risky. For example, off-the-job courses can be prescriptive and uninformed by the managers needs and circumstances, and there are barriers to the transfer of such learning into practice. But they can offer opportunities to learn from the experience of others, especially those from different circumstances and backgrounds. Further, a theoretical perspective can provide a framework or means to order, rationalise and learn from individual experiences. An intellectual stimulus can provoke examination of things previously unquestioned, and a non-threatening situation may facilitate experimentation.
However, such opportunities are infrequent, indeed for most managers they are rare. In contrast, opportunities to learn through experience are more commonplace and accessible. We would be negligent not to aim to exploit this, the most potent and most available means for management development.
Such development should not be something that is done to managers but something that they do for themselves - assisted by others. It is, after all, part of their working lives. Effective development for executives is not, therefore, a product of a supplier-customer relationship. No one simply provides and no one merely consumes in this process. A partnership is necessary.
The responsibilities of the two main beneficiaries - the organisation and the manager, are clear. Organisations must invest in their managers and must clearly expect, facilitate and support their development. The provision of resources, ie, time and funds, is only part of this commitment. The provision of new roles, challenges and circumstances, is the most important requirement. The recognition that serious management development work will interfere with, as well as benefit, the work of the manager is perhaps the most difficult requirement. Managers must also commit a good deal, including a part of their own time.
There is, potentially, a third partner - the business school. Since a supplier-consumer model is inappropriate in this continuous, experiential process, we need to look further than the traditional business-school activities to find an appropriate role. There are three distinctive inputs - the provision of 'activities' for experience, 'insights' for understanding, and 'support' for learning. The 'activities' aim to create additional opportunities for experience which will increase the range and choice available; 'insights' underpin and facilitate development by providing frameworks, concepts or models to stimulate and enhance understanding; and 'support' provides specific information and help for managers to enable them handle effectively and learn from the particular problems, changes and challenges they encounter.
However, as ours is a 'real-time' model of management development, these contributions - particularly the second and third, must also be continuous. In short, to be effective this contribution needs to be available and accessible at all times.
Few schools will have this capability, so most will occasionally provide useful management development training - making discrete contributions - satisfying, at best, the first input identified above. A few, however, may achieve something quite different and dynamic. Working in a limited number of partnerships, they will provide continual access to distinctive resources, services and information. They are unlikely to be 'campus bound', faculty driven establishments and will bear little resemblance to the traditional higher-education, establishment model of a business school.
In a rapidly changing and turbulent world the development of those who manage organisations - whatever their titles - will be both more difficult and more important. The recognition of the essential elements of this process, the distinctive contributions required of the partners, and the need for real collaboration are the prerequisites for appropriate action. How to orchestrate this action - so as to ensure effective, continuous, career-long development both economically and on a sufficient scale - is the challenge which must be faced by those who seek leadership in this area.