Having concluded that off-the-shelf programmes no longer pass muster in the executive development stakes, Fletcher Building went in search of tailor-made leadership development initiative three years ago.
When executive general manager (HR) Peter Merry set out to find an academic partner willing to collaborate in such venture it became eminently clear not all tertiary institutions are made equal. What surprised him was how many universities were more interested in thrusting onto them generic courses they were more comfortable with than those his organisation actually needed.
“We didn’t want our in-house executive development programme cluttered with academic speak,” says Merry. “There’s degree of academic arrogance within many universities that makes it difficult for them to really understand business sufficiently to customise programme for its future leaders.”
Merry and his team instinctively knew the key to developing first-class leadership development programme was going to be home-grown case study examples. What gave them sufficient confidence the University of Auckland could deliver on these requirements was its experience customising similar programmes for (then) Clear Communications, TVNZ and other large organisations.
“We wanted to ‘Fletcher Building-ise’ generic leadership development initiative to develop the talent pool needed to run the business today while providing for better succession planning,” says Merry. “But we also wanted to package this programme in way that would enhance Fletcher Building’s status as an employer of choice.”
Over the following three months the university set about proposing course and sub-course topics the Fletcher Building executive group thought would best catapult mid to senior managers beyond their current roles. Line managers then sat down with the six university-based presenters and one former industry professional.
The nine exam-based modules contained within the company’s one year programme – including organisational leadership, strategic planning, operations management, interpreting the financials, and change management – are run in sync with the university’s calendar year.
Delegates invited onto the programme at the behest of management attend the in-house lectures and presentations between midday to 9.30pm once month.In addition to receiving an Auckland University Certificate in Management and graduating from the Fletcher Building Leadership Development Foundation, delegates also receive credits towards further university qualifications.
Lecture content aside, delegates are allocated (according to their respective expertise) into four teams of six each and required to collaborate on real business project. Every year the company’s four CEOs choose the projects delegates will undertake and help in their final assessment. During the graduation ceremony at the end of the programme each team presents and is judged on the results of its project findings by company management, including CEO Ralph Waters. Outside consultants may be brought in to assist as needed. But each team is automatically assigned business mentor (of general manager status or higher) whose job is to offer guidance even though they might not be intimately involved in the detail. “This programme is as much about management as it about managing people for optimal performance,” advises Merry.
Fletcher Building’s leadership and development coordinator Sue Patterson claims the modulated nature of individual topics allows the overall programme to run in-step with the business. Rather than being “nice to do” she regards the company’s in-house executive course as “need to do” programme. Based on her experience, the modulated approach of learning a-little-bit-often has more tangible input than one-off training event.
With delegates investing so much of their own and company time into this programme how does Fletcher Building gauge if it’s hitting all the right notes? To ensure this programme is really adding value delegates are asked to provide feedback at the end of each module. What Patterson & co are looking for is evidence that content is not only relevant and useful, but immediately applicable to their working environment. “We then compare the 360-degree review conducted with delegates year after they’ve completed the programme with their pre-programme review to see if there’s been notable change,” says Patterson.
While there’s no direct link between executive retention and course participation, she says survey feedback provides tangible evidence the leadership development programme is adding value. To Gregg Somerville, delegate on the inaugural programme, large overall score differences between pre- and post-360 degree reviews was an encouraging corollary. He regards the score differential as evidence there were fewer of the softer, leadership issues to work on than when he first embarked on the programme.
Somerville – marketing manager with the group’s roofing subsidiary, Dimond – enjoyed networking with Fletcher Building people beyond his immediate area. But the programme’s single biggest benefit was being able to apply strategic learning directly within the collaborative team project. “This programme provided wide-ranging and accelerated university-based training within compressed structure. It also broadened my experience where I potentially didn’t have expertise,” he says.
“It also helped to focus delegates on Fletcher Building as company as opposed to just their own business unit.”
What lessons would Merry share with others wanting to take similar approach? Firstly, he says, remain wary of partnering with training provider that’s hell bent on pushing an off-the-shelf solution. Unless they’re prepared to invest the time understanding your business they won’t be able to customise course content sufficiently for it to add value to your organisation. “Make these programmes challenging, yet achievable, and recognise that delegates will be investing considerable company and personal time.”
Hot projects: Cool learnings
When Fletcher Building twigged that competitors from other parts of the world had gained regional first-move advantage by re-engineering an otherwise standard product, it unleashed participants of its own tailored training scheme onto the problem.
Assigned to the project, delegates were charged with investigating the feasibility of gaining similar first-move advantage regionally. The key question was whether to introduce this new product ahead of local competitors even though it required new production processes.
Meantime, another team of delegates was charged with conducting strategic review of pricing. Establishing the best pricing strategy for local businesses saw the team conduct global benchmarking with other companies worldwide.
As executive general manager (HR) Peter Merry notes, there’s nothing to beat notching up some real-world experience in the management hot seat.
Money was no real issue when Fletcher Building went in search of the right leadership development programme. Ironically though, Auckland University – which approached this programme as long-term initiative – did not charge for programme customisation. So if you can customise an in-house executive training programme for the same cost as someone doing their own off-the-shelf training – why wouldn’t you do it? Peter Merry, Fletcher Building executive general manager (HR), says the “customisation-factor” really adds value in its ability to:
• Provide all participating Fletcher Building delegates with shared learning experience.
• Enhance the internal networking of mid to senior people.
• Deliver common message on all aspects of leadership.
• Get the best mix of academic and best practice thinking that’s directly related to the business.
• Pick the eyes out of what academia has to offer.
• Mark Story is regular contributor to Management.