Born leaders

23 Dec 2013
DP World outsourced its leadership training. Credit: AR AlHashemi

DP World outsourced its leadership training. Credit: AR AlHashemi

Are successful leaders born, made, trained or turned out on some sort of ‘leadership programme’ conveyor belt? Felicity Landon reports.

There are plenty of stories of highly qualified people – perfect ‘top drawer’ material on the face of it – who just can’t cut it as top management. And, of course, there are the types who are better at motivating and leading other people to do their jobs than they ever were at doing the job themselves.

So what’s the secret of finding the right management material? Put a group of ten people in a room and within half an hour you would be able to identify which would make leaders and which would not, says Robin Windley, senior vice president of human capital at DP World. “The potential leaders don’t necessarily shout the loudest – but they are certainly prepared to stand up and be counted,” he says. “You want a person to be reflective, but with a certain amount of authority.”

It’s wrong to assume that someone who has reached the top of their tree in a given discipline will naturally make a successful jump into leadership, he says. “There are those who don’t actually move out of the role they have left – they are suddenly expected to behave and act in a completely different way, and often they go back to default and take on the responsibilities of someone else, who would then be very frustrated.”

Phil Parry, chairman of Spinnaker Consulting, agrees. “Often a well-respected senior person can be thrown into a leadership role that they have never occupied before. They are there by dint of their seniority but they are not equipped for it. Having to change from worrying about your own list of tasks to having to worry about managing other people to get things done and developing these other people’s careers, motivation and emotional wellbeing is extremely hard. That is an area of expertise in itself – and often it isn’t so much the training people have had, but their leadership potential as an individual. As an employer, the key task is to identify that potential – in other words, predicting who will and will not be a good manager before they are ever put in that position.”

 

Strike from within

There’s an element of seeking the comfort zone on both sides, says Mr Parry. Despite the amount of research out there showing processes for identifying leadership potential, employers frequently adopt the ‘better the devil they know’ approach. “It is much easier to identify and promote someone within the organisation because you know and like them and because they are good at what they do, rather than investing time and energy in considering the alternatives. They tend to pick someone who is good at a functional level and promote them out of their comfort zone into a leadership role – often failing to prepare them. The problem of ‘letting go of the old’ is shown up all the time; those people tend to look for some excuse to revert to their comfort zone and display their expertise, so instead of managing people doing their job and setting clear expectations, they do it for them.”

The old-fashioned interview and a few references don’t tell you very much either, he says. And while you can’t rely entirely on psychometric tests or profiling, they have their place, alongside assessment centres and competence-based interviews, he believes.

“I have seen personality profiling over the years and seen it work – my cynicism has evaporated,” he says.

So what’s the answer – internal or external training?

Phil Parry says external training courses are often necessary but are not sufficient and not the answer in itself. “It is about investing in the individual; identify whether they have the motivation and investing in developing them through coaching. By preparing the wrong people or losing the productive person you have, you risk also losing other staff who leave because they are unhappy with their manager.”

 

Keep it close?

There are mixed views of in-house training and management development programmes, he says. “We often get a very different attitude from our clients when it comes to looking at staff from organisations like Maersk or BP. There are those who say ‘you can cut a Maersk person open and he is blue all the way through, like a stick of rock’, believing he is too wedded to the ways of doing things at the company he came from to fit into their organisation. However, the reverse is also true; some employers actively seek people with a background and experience in good management and leadership training. I think we probably hear more negatives than positives, but the fact that we hear it doesn’t make it right.”

DP World focused on its own internal leadership training programmes until recently, when a decision was taken to enter into a collaboration with Cranfield University.

“We were focusing on our own programmes before, because we felt that was something of a competitive advantage and it enabled us to set the agenda of what the content was and how it was steered, according to our expectations,” says Mr Windley. “However, over time the market for leadership development has developed quite considerably and we were not able to keep pace with that development. So we took the strategic decision at the end of 2012 to go into collaboration with a reputable leadership development provider who could help us to deliver leadership and also the scope of what that leadership should look like going forward. We are now very much supportive of external providers, as long as they meet our rigorous quality and we are involved in the content. “

People will say leaders are not made, but born, says Mr Windley. His view is: “I actually think leaders can be developed. Whether you could take somebody whose characteristics are so far removed from being a leader and make them into a leader is a moot point. But you probably wouldn’t be looking at somebody like that for a leader anyway.”

 

Experience counts

DP World would not necessarily require strict leadership qualifications but rather would look to see what experience the individual has had and look at their personality, he says. “We have developed a set of leadership competences and we assess against these. Obviously the further up you go in the organisation, the more complex they would look. But they are part of the permanent management process – individuals are evaluated against these competencies at half year and year end.”

Personality plays a very important part and choosing individuals just because they have certain qualifications won’t work, he says.

One of the dangers he highlights is the ubiquitous ‘rotation’ of people within the ports industry. “They go from company to company – it is a really strange phenomenon. The industry is somewhat unique and specialist but also it is so incestuous – people seldom seem to disappear.

“That works against the industry’s best interests because you are re-hashing the leadership styles of these individuals and never really moving forward. That is something of a block to others coming through the organisation.

“We need to be careful that we are doing the right thing and offering opportunities to other people so they can get chance to grow – while at the same time recognising there is a certain capability and level of experience we don’t want to dispense with.

“At DP World we are trying to make sure we don’t dispense with experience but at the same time we need to make sure there is a new generation – and that new generation has to have the opportunity to come through. Leadership development is extremely important but succession planning is equally important.”

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