Management learns to put on a human face

Rachel Spence on the courses that encourage business people to step into the real world
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The Independent Online
Making difficult decisions and being a good leader pose a daily challenge for Angus Rolle, plant manager for a division of Mars, particularly since a new plant has just opened and the team has doubled in size. Yet his confidence has never been more tested than "the day I was asked to lead a singalong for a group of young people, many of whom had behavioural problems, learning difficulties and disabilities".

Angus's trial by song came as part of the Human Side of Management course, run by Newmarket-based consultancy Bridge. In the words of Bridge director Leigh Sears the course aims "to help organisations reconnect with their emotional intelligence and unlock the potential of their people in order to move into a new future".

The HSM courses, which last a week and take place in rural training centres nationwide, are run in conjunction with development training charity Focus, who receive a proportion of the profits. The activities, which include shelter-building, making a radio show and organising days at an adventure playground, are monitored by trained charity workers. Bridge delegates undergo rigorous character checks before being allowed to participate.

Director of Focus, Denise Barrow, emphasises that she is not running a social experiment: "Primarily, it's a personal development programme for the charity's participants. Their self-esteem and communications skills improve as do those of the business delegates."

And the delegates do learn, even if at first they often find their traditional management techniques sadly lacking. Consider the shelter-building exercise which went extremely awry when a delegate tried to allocate roles using a flip chart in the forest. "By the time he'd finished his team had escaped into the woods," recalls Ms Sears with a smile.

Yet it is precisely this sort of unsettling experience which triggers powerful insights into what is missing in so much modern management. "Because of the background which many of the young people come from, heavy-handed authoritarianism won't work here." Mr Rolle explains, "Respect, trust and finding common ground are the tools you need. I befriended one boy through our shared love of fishing; from being quite withdrawn, he became a real asset."

But back in the business world, aren't efficient time management and competitiveness going to rear their heads once more? "Yes," agrees Rolle, "but you're much more efficient if you can get everyone contributing rather than just a few confident people. When you're in the middle of expansion, making sure the whole team stays on board is essential."

However, there are risks in uniting the alien worlds of commerce and charity so closely. Mike Cannell of the IPD claims the unfamiliarity of the environment acts as both benefit and danger. "Exposing people to different situations is a valuable learning tool, but it must be handled properly. It's obviously important the young people are treated properly and not exploited."

One of the Focus teenagers, Aaron Eudell, who now returns as a student volunteer, admits that working with delegates can be "difficult at times" but overall he feels positive about their involvement. "They do bring practical and organisational skills which we want to learn. Some of them give really helpful advice about the job market too."

By benefiting both charity and business participants, Bridge's programme capitalises on the increasingly popular ethos of corporate citizenship. Roy Davis of HR specialists SHL comments: "Businesses have realised that they must give back to the community."

Peter Davies, managing director of Business in the Community, a non-profit making organisation agrees. "Organisations such as Jaguar say community work teaches their people to `think outside the box'. Most successful companies recognise the need for innovation and change. Creativity thrives on limited resources and limited power and community work often provides exactly those conditions."

His words are endorsed by employees of American Express, some of whom spend their lunch hour helping local primary school children to read. Analyst Laura Hill says: "It's definitely helped me as well as the children. I'm often impatient, but I've learnt not to interrupt the children trying to read." As well as being more tolerant, Laura also thinks her confidence has improved.

Zoran Novakovic, head of European Card Membership at Amex, says that since the reading programme began, statistics show that overall motivation levels have improved greatly. "It gives people a fresher perspective on the world but it also teaches relevant skills such as leadership, coaching and, most importantly, listening." Perhaps it should be hardly surprising that a recent survey by Roffey Park Management Institute showed that 40 per cent of business leaders get their most innovative ideas while involved in some form of voluntary activity.

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