Scaling the heights

As business evolves, then so must the leaders. Colin Cottell investigates the changing face of leadership development

It may seem like a no brainer. But in today’s tough markets, ensuring you have the right leader or leaders in place is more important than ever. Ultimately, says recruitment industry trainer Mike Walmsley, it can make the difference between survival and going under.

“It’s about having a vision, and communicating that vision and galvanising staff, and where leaders don’t do this staff can leave, and morale and productivity can fall,” says Walmsley.

However, while the stakes for recruiters who lack leadership in today’s unforgiving markets are undoubtedly higher, developing those currently inpositions of leadership and grooming the next generation of leaders has become more difficult.

It is a simple fact that anyone who joined the industry during the past six or seven years has never experienced a recession. And with company budgets under pressure, staff development and training is often one of the first areas to be cut.

John O’Sullivan, managing director of peer-to-peer learning forum Elite Leaders, says the recession means the task facing leaders has changed. “Rather than helping companies grow, leadership is now about confidently navigating through difficult waters,” says O’Sullivan.

Chris Andrews, chief executive of IT recruiter Church International, adds: “You have to be able to show staff how to get through the current difficulties no matter how bad things get.”

But if the need for good leaders has arguably never been greater, the starting point for the industry is hardly one of strength. “Often those in positions of leadership, particularly owner managers, have got little or no formal training, coaching and development or experience,” says O’Sullivan.

And this is often compounded by recruiters not promoting the right people. “Where people get it wrong is taking a great biller and putting them in charge of a team. Some can do this, but this is exceptional,” says O’Sullivan, adding “the biggest billers are often selfish”.

“Recruiters want a quick fix rather than ongoing development,” observes Simon Bassett, UK director at marketing and communications recruiter EMR. “It’s not possible to transform a senior consultant into a managing consultant by sending them on a one-week course.”

Walmsley adds it doesn’t help that many recruiters’ natural reaction to tough times is to concentrate on billing more rather than looking at the needs of the company as a whole.

It’s an inauspicious starting point, so what are recruiters, especially small to medium-sized recruiters, doing about it?

Rather than sending staff on an intensive training course, or simply promoting the best biller, some recruiters are taking a broader and more strategic approach to developing leaders within their companies. EMR, for example, has adopted a range of measures, which go beyond simply management training.

Some recruiters have turned to peer-to-peer networking groups, such as O’ Sullivan’s Elite Leaders. O’Sullivan explains the thinking behind the Elite approach. “Personally, I think that great leaders are born, but they are not just born as the full shilling. They have to be worked on to get the leader out of them.”

The Elite programme consists of a number of elements, including discussions of general business issues, and presentations by leading recruitment and business figures. Members, who are usually ownermanagers of recruitment agencies, are split into eight groups of between 10 and 14, and meet in Birmingham and London for half a day once a month. Elite has launched a similar programme for managers.

However, Elite is much more than sitting around listening to industry luminaries speak, says O’Sullivan. “Elite is about peer-to-peer learning or learning from each other, which has been shown to be the most effective type of learning,” he says.

As a member of Elite Leaders, Chris Short, managing director and owner of IT recruiter Concept IT, is an advocate of such groups. “Being the owner-manager of a recruitment business can be a bit of a lonely experience, so the ability to share knowledge and learn from others how they manage their business is invaluable,” she says.

This is augmented by the coaching and mentoring role played by each of the group chairmen. Alison Humphries, managing director of recruitment industry training consultancy Amelius Consulting, agrees that peer-to-peer groups can be beneficial, even if members are from different industries. “You need to be reminded how you look to the outside world,” she says.

Abigail Stephens

Abigail Stephens

Abigail Stephens, managing director and founder of international finance and accountancy recruiter Think Global Recruitment, says in her experience most successful leaders are home grown within a company. She says a common feature is that after intensive training and development, they are given the opportunity to step up gradually and prove themselves before being given full responsibility.

In the past her own development involved a mixture of being given new team members when she did well, and leadership assessment days. Another effective developmental tool has been 360 degree feedback, she says. “That’s the only way they [leaders] can help their teams do better.”

Humphries says some of the best examples of leadership development she has seen have been outside the classroom setting. She offers an example of when she worked at Hays where staff were given roles with P & L (profit and loss) responsibility at an early stage of their careers.

This might have involved setting up a new division or developing new markets. When she worked at Robert Half, staff were “taken out of their comfort zone”, she says. For example, by being taken completely out of permanent recruitment and put in charge of a contract team. Another way for recruiters to develop leaders is to second their staff to clients for a period.

David Lawrence

David Lawrence

David Lawrence, managing director of IT recruiter Vine Resources, says that having a mentor, who is also a non-executive director of the company, has helped him understand what it takes to be a leader in the current market. He says this has helped him recognise mistakes made in the past, for example, in hiring the wrong people, or in the way he managed people. Chris Andrews is also a fan of mentoring. “I definitely think it’s a good way to spend time with people and to encourage them, and for them to make some mistakes alongside you.”

While the company has used classroom training in the past, she says it was “a bit disjointed”. “While good for stimulating ideas, it was very difficult to take it back into the work environment and run with it,” she says. Andrews is also a fan of coaching, though she admits “it was quite challenging and quite a lot to take on board” because she was expected to report back to the coach on her progress since the previous session.

Nicky Pusey, managing director of senior office support staff recruiter Signet Resources, says that had she been able to find leaders of sufficient calibre, her business would have developed faster than it did.

Pusey says that developing recruiters into leaders is an ongoing process of giving them more responsibility backed by a coaching and facilitating process. However, she adds, “I am a great believer in only developing people who want to be developed.” Pusey further emphasises the importance of recruiters taking responsibility for their own development. In her own case, she says that in her two previous roles she adopted the attitude that she owned the businesses. “I developed myself by taking on that responsibility,” she says.

While there is no doubt that some recruiter are taking action to address the ‘leadership deficit’ within their companies, Stephen Archer, founder of leadership development consultancy Spring Partnership, says they can’t afford to rest on their laurels. “The only way for recruiters to achieve best practice is to look outside and benchmark themselves against other industries.Set against this standard, while leadership development
is certainly higher up the agenda of some recruiters, the industry as whole undoubtedly still has a long way to go.”

At the beginning of 2008, working with training and development consultancy Lander Associates, EMR created a leadership development programme for its managers. The programme is designed to last between 12 and 18 months, depending on the progress of individuals. Commenting on the programme, Simon Bassett (left), UK director at EMR, says: “We don’t see this programme as just management training. This a fast track programme to provide us with the leaders of the future. As well as recruitment skills we want them to have business management and people management skills.”

EMR’s objectives and outcomes
- good succession planning
- providing managers with the management skills to develop, including sessions with HR and finance, designed to coach them into the broader business skills to be become effective leaders
- being able to identify business strategy
- staff can take issues they face on the job back to trainers 12 staff have passed through the programme so far
- two or three senior consultants who joined the programme are now senior managers

Bassett says that he has also seen a noticeable improvement in staff on the programme. “Rather than thinking as stand-alone recruiters, they are thinking as business managers,” he says. EMR also uses external coaches for senior staff to help them with their career objectives.

Fiona Lander, managing director of Lander Associates, adds: “We saw the opportunity of working with an organisation which believed in developing the next generation of leaders.” Lander says that hand-in-hand with the staff development side, EMR has benefited from a programme designed to cope with these difficult times. For example, as the economic slowdown began to bite it covered “more motivational stuff”, she says.

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