Today’s learning landscape – how L&D is supporting democratisation, creativity & innovation, leadership & change

Sue Parr

Guest blogger: Sue Parr, Head of Executive Education at The Open University Business School looks at the business challenges behind the buzzwords.

This content first appeared on HR Magazine, an online HR publication for people-focused, forward-thinking, business leaders who want insight into, and examples of, business-contextualised HR to develop high-performing organisations.

Many managers are recognising that they have to adapt to new ways of working to meet the expectations of their employers and their employees.  New behaviours and ways of working are being driven by changes all around them, but what changes can be supported through developing capability and skillsets?

Complexity: Today’s managers contend with the complexity created by the many different perspectives of a multi- cultural, cross- functional, often geographically dispersed workforce spanning as many as three generations. In fact, there are more generations in our workforce than at any other time as those previously of retirement age extend their working lives.

For example, in areas of manufacturing companies who are increasingly aware of the benefits of sharing best practice and collaborating to drive innovation, in surprising ways, but ultimately to the benefit of all.  Commercial sensitivity is being nuanced and boundaries pushed.

Creativity and innovation: We’re not talking about being good with colour here!  We are talking about turning problems around, not going for same old safe solutions because ‘this is the way we’ve always done it ’. Organisations need their people thinking more broadly.  For managers who had stages 1, 2 and 3 of their career in a technically specific function, creative practice techniques can start to get them thinking more holistically about their whole organisation, the needs of their current market and exploring opportunities in new markets.  Although these tools and techniques can be learnt, but the prospect can be daunting for those who have bought in to a self-image of not ‘being’ creative.

Change: The themes of leadership and change have always been high on the management agenda but the focus of these has changed. As organisations recognise increasingly that what is needed to stay competitive is to be more responsive, agile and comfortable with increasing ambiguity, they are investing in their middle managers. As a result there has been a democratisation of management and responsibility. Where once the focus of executive education was on the most senior of senior teams, today’s companies recognise the need for developing leadership excellence at every level.

Connection not Control: The traditional workplace had a top down structure, hierarchies where orders were given and carried out. As more organisations use project teams spread across locations, remotely connected, the skills of influencing become much more important. Managers need to learn how to influence people to achieve outcomes where they don’t have direct authority or control.

Career Development: As the economy gets back on track the scales are tipping and businesses need to make the effort to retain good people. L&D has a proven track record as a powerful retention tool. Generation Y workers are much more likely to move onto new jobs quickly. Restless for new experiences, employees need to see a development pathway within their organisation or they will be tempted to move on. A structured, embedded talent management programme can help employees visualise their personal growth plan.

But on top of this, the managers on-the-ground, are expected to satisfy this quest for knowledge, development and progression. Coaching is a skill that can meet many of these needs, but how much should, or can, individual managers be ‘expected’ to fulfil this role?

(l&d) Centricity: Increasingly HR departments are embedding elements of leadership in learning and development right from the start of employees’ careers. Advanced organisations are incorporating leadership development and L&D at the centre of their organisational strategy. The leaders of these organisations act as ambassadors for this approach, realising that when L&D becomes a part of the DNA of a company it is much more successful.

We worked with a large UK-based retailer who wanted to change the whole way people accessed L&D and highlighting at every career stage, why it’s important. This cultural shift led to a company-wide holistic approach that supported the company’s strategy and goals.

(bite size) Content There is a definite shift towards a blended learning approach to executive development. Rather than taking people out of their workplace for long periods of time, face-to-face delivery is being supported by shorter chunks of online learning and interaction.

In the past executive education frequently included an online facility – a library of content. However this approach often wasn’t successful.  People simply didn’t use the library.  Now online is used to prepare for, and follow-on from, face-to-face learning.It’s all about making people more responsible for their own development, learning at their own pace and accessing information when they need it.

The virtual academy, or online campus, gives people the opportunity to access the content they need.  This can be particularly helpful for senior managers who are often expected to have achieved “sage status” or business “omniscience”.  The virtual academy provides a safe environment for them to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

Overall, managers are expected to have a much broader repertoire of skills, often earlier in their careers: effective management will require highly developed communication and interpersonal skills, capability building though coaching and mentoring, problem solving through creativity, networking through social media savvy.  The pace of change is heady and the combination of developing hard and soft skills at all levels to enable individuals and organisations to adapt and thrive requires a commitment to professional development for a career-lifetime; both from the employee and the employer.

Video highlights from The Power of Trust masterclass on 22 May

Creating and maintaining trust in organisations
Professor Ros Searle, The Trust Hub, Coventry University

Building trust from the bottom up: a workplace strategy
Anne Sharp, Chief Executive, Acas

Trusting you, trusting me – An exploration of trust in the recruitment and selection context,Volker Patent, The Open University

Can trust be managed? Ann Francke, Chief Executive, CMI

Further video highlights from Dr Steven Chase, Director of People, Thames Valley Police; Ruth Sutherland, Chief Executive, Relate and Dr Diannah Lowry, OUBS are showcased via The Power of Trust webinar.

How positive psychology is transforming the way we think about leadership

Guest blogger:

bridgetgrenvillecleaveBridget Grenville-Cleave, Open University Business School MBA Alumna, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer

How do we define leadership effectiveness?

One of the activities I often do with students when introducing the idea of positive psychology in leadership is to ask them to select their favourite leadership quotation and explain it in terms of psychology theory and evidence.

Being positive psychologists, popular choices include:

  • A leader is a dealer in hope (attrib. Napoleon Bonaparte) – optimism, hope, inspiration, the broaden & build theory
  •  It is absurd that a man should rule others, who cannot rule himself (proverb) – emotional intelligence, strengths, self-regulation
  •  Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm (attrib. Publilius Syrus) – resilience, strengths/unrealised strengths, self-efficacy

This invariably leads to a deep discussion about what leadership is, how it feels to lead others, a thorough exploration of the many and varied leadership styles and theories and, something which is often overlooked, how leadership effectiveness is defined and measured.

As an example, take the recent demise of Tesco’s Fresh & Easy stores in the United States at a loss of between $1.2-$1.8bn and 5000 employees. Many column inches have been written about poor strategy, poor merchandising, failure to understand the differences between the American and British consumers and markets, and of course, who is to blame for this expensive mistake. The London Evening Standard puts this squarely at the door of ex-CEO Sir Terry Leahy, under whose leadership the original strategy was conceived, planned and implemented. The BBC reported that prior to this disaster Leahy was ‘lionised’. He was credited with overseeing Tesco’s dynamic development, including the introduction of the loyalty card, which led to it becoming the UK’s No.1 retailer and third largest globally. In retail leadership terms, Leahy could do no wrong – even his retirement was impeccably timed, shortly before Tesco’s UK sales slid for the first time in 20 years.

I’m sure you can think of stories of leaders once held up as role models, only becoming unstuck months or years later. They illustrate how difficult it is to define and assess leadership effectiveness: we tend to opt for a range of (relatively) simple, hard, financial measures; however, these can only be understood fully in the harsh light of hindsight.

So if determining leadership success using hard financial measures isn’t always reliable, what else can we do?

Positive psychology brings new thinking to leadership

The science of positive psychology (its application within organisations generally and to the practice of leadership specifically) is bringing new thinking to this question. One framework worth considering is ‘Positive Deviance’ (Cameron, 2003). Normality or healthy performance is situated at the midpoint on a continuum, with positively and negatively deviant performance at either extreme. According to Cameron, outstanding performance can be attained when behaviours extend, in a positive way, beyond what is normally expected.

Positive Deviance Continuum

Negatively deviant behaviour (unprofitable, disengaged, unethical etc) is clearly problematic. However, in seeking to avoid it, most companies seem content to focus on becoming profitable, efficient and reliable, in other words, achieving ‘normality’ at the midpoint on the continuum. Indeed, market success is largely reliant on meeting expectations, as anyone who works in a quoted company knows.  Cameron suggests that by adopting positive psychology evidence-based leadership strategies, leaders can shift their organisations to the right of the continuum and achieve extraordinary performance.

These strategies include:

  • enabling a positive climate through fostering compassion, forgiveness and gratitude
  • enabling positive relationships through focusing on employee strengths and building teams based on positive energy rather than purely on skills or competences
  • fostering positive communication by encouraging a 6:1 ratio of positive to negative exchanges, a 1:1 balance of enquiry/advocacy and 1:1 focus on self/others
  • enabling meaning by showing how the work has a positive impact on the well-being of others now and in the future, and enabling employees to understand how it connects to their personal values.

To what extent are you a positive leader?

Studying the positive deviance framework in relationship to work really calls into question what organisational leadership is about and what success looks like. It also illustrates a fundamentally important point that the very words we choose to define and describe effective leadership and organisational behaviours can act as constraints: limiting, inhibiting, and closing down options and aspirations. Or they can be inspirational: motivating us to search beyond the ‘expected,’ and enabling us to strive to be exceptional in all senses of the world.

Positive psychology is sometimes accused of being wishy-washy and for some, positive leadership strategies can feel uncomfortable at first, but the evidence is clear. Yes the positive deviance model assumes financial profitability, efficiency, quality and ethical behaviours are a given, but suggests that they aren’t sufficient.

You’ll no doubt have noticed that the strategies outlined above involve soft skills, focusing on relationships, communication and developing others. Leadership success in this model relies on group achievement. As Peter Drucker once said, leaders don’t think ‘I’, they think ‘we’, they think ‘team’. Examples of companies being transformed through the application of positive psychology principles are now beginning to emerge, and I’ve seen leaders and their staff revitalised by the permission to focus on soft skills, to think about what good leadership really means to others, and to be more ‘human’ at work.

In reflecting on your own development as a positive leader, some key questions to consider are:

At work, to what extent do/can you

  • express compassion and gratitude and enable others to do the same?
  • show forgiveness  – using forgiving language? Supporting people who have made a mistake?
  • apply your strengths? Identify others’ strengths and give them opportunities to use them?
  • reinforce contribution over achievement?
  • enable people to connect work to their personal values?

The many faces of leadership

Guest blogger:

Professor John StoreyJohn Storey, Professor in Human Resource Management at The Open University Business School, and Chairman of the Involvement & Participation Association (IPA)

The subject of this quarter’s Business Perspective is at once important, simple, complex and controversial.

In one sense, the promise (or problem?) of leadership is fairly straightforward. Leadership is often readily regarded as the ‘answer’ to many if not most major organisational problems. Numerous major reports which identify huge challenges for public services (police, education, health, local government etc.) in the UK and other countries have come to the conclusion that ‘leadership’ is the critical factor and that ‘something needs to be done about it’.

©ThinkstockIn the private sector, the stock market value of firms which replace their chief executives (especially if with new blood from outside their firm) tend to rise considerably in response. This suggests direct monetary value riding on one individual.

Likewise, the BBC’s recent mishandling of a paedophile celebrity case was duly investigated and the resulting Pollard report attributed the ‘chaos and confusion’ to a ‘lack of leadership’. Top leaders were told to get a ‘grip’. Similarly, multiple reports into massive failings in the NHS also traced the source to a problem of leadership. Again, ‘grip’ was paraded as the missing ingredient.

In response to a lack of trophies, Roman Abramovich, tycoon owner of Chelsea football club since 2003, has sacked and appointed 10 club managers. This contrasts sharply with the situation at Manchester United.

Many other similar instances could be cited. Leadership is evidently seen by many as the solution to the most pressing of organisational problems.

Moreover, the nature and meaning of this cure-all happily also appears (at least at first sight) to be readily understandable. Gather any number of participants in a room and ask them to enumerate the key characteristics of leadership and they will without too much difficulty at all conjure up a familiar list. Leadership, they will say (and the flip chart will confirm), is about: vision, environment scanning, influence, motivation and the ability to condense complexity into some simple compelling messages. Such a list accords with most people’s idea of what makes an effective leader. The next step appears as equally obvious: how to develop such capabilities.

Thus, the importance of, the meaning of, and the constituent elements of leadership all seem to be easily identified.

However, dig a little deeper and one soon finds that there are also huge complexities and a minefield of controversies. These include debates about:

  • individual leadership (profiles of heroic and charismatic leaders) versus systemic and/or distributed and shared leadership
  • leadership versus management
  • the link between leadership and governance
  • context dependent and situational leadership versus the notion of generic leadership skills
  • levels of leadership and role-dependent leadership versus non-role-dependent leadership
  • leadership development and debates about whether leadership can be taught and/or learned and if it can be taught or learned (say through experiential learning or practice-based) then how is this best achieved?

Naturally, each of these areas of debate and controversy cannot be covered here. However, even just listing them serves to illustrate the complexity of the agenda. Some organisational cultures simply do not warm to the idea of a leadership and are suspicious of leaders and leadership; conversely, others are deeply wedded to the notion.

I want to stimulate discussion by picking out two issues which I see as important.

First, is the discussion about leaders or leadership? The former tends to be about one set of assumptions concerning individuals and their competencies. These typically include, for example, notions of clarity, integrity, authenticity, courage, etc., whereas, the idea of ‘leadership’ focuses on issues of process and relationships. If extended even further, this latter perspective embraces approaches which shift the focus away from individuals and more towards the organisation as a system. From this perspective, organisational development becomes the preferred approach rather than individual attributes. Yet, as we can readily see (and as exemplified above) there are deep-seated tendencies to cling to the notion of the criticality of the top leader.

Second, recent detailed research which I have conducted with Richard Holti into clinical leadership in healthcare service redesign (referenced below), found that leadership in this context was a process which required the application of multiple skills. There is space to only indicate the spread of these here. They include: the clarification of core purposes; achieving meaningful scope of authorisation to act; collaborating with service managers and winning resources; reworking professional roles and relationships and thus bringing clinical colleagues on board; investing time in understanding related support aspects necessary for change such as the financial and IT support systems, project management and analytical techniques.

John Storey is Professor of Human Resource Management in the Faculty of Business and Law at The Open University. He is also Chairman of the Involvement & Participation Association (IPA) and was a member of the government’s special advisory panel on Leadership and Management, which reported to ministers from the Department of Business and from the Department of Education. He has recently been commissioned by Routledge to be Editor in Chief of an international handbook on leadership.

He is author, with Richard Holti, of the recent NHS report on the role of clinical leadership in service redesign:

This same research was also reported in a recent Health Service Journal article:

See also: John Storey (editor) (2011) Leadership in Organizations: Current Issues and Key Trends, 2nd edition. London, Routledge.