Roger Trapp: The benefits of leadership training

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The Independent Online

Not so long ago, owner-managers in small and medium-sized businesses were almost proud of the "seat-of-the-pants" approach they brought to running their enterprises. They were so busy making and selling that they did not have time for all the administrative and organisational aspects of business. Indeed, many had left large corporates to avoid just that sort of thing.

Not so long ago, owner-managers in small and medium-sized businesses were almost proud of the "seat-of-the-pants" approach they brought to running their enterprises. They were so busy making and selling that they did not have time for all the administrative and organisational aspects of business. Indeed, many had left large corporates to avoid just that sort of thing.

Nowadays, though, there is a much greater interest in some of the softer aspects of being in business. And - though entrepreneurs will still doubtless claim they are too busy to take part - there has been a marked growth in business school programmes and management development courses aimed specifically at them.

Of course, it could be argued that we have been here before. In the early 1990s, the large accountancy firms in the UK sought to make up for loss of business from their large corporate clients by targeting growing businesses, on the basis that they formed the "engine room of the economy" and that somewould become the big corporate stars of tomorrow.

But this time it does seem to be different. Among the organisations offering training in leadership and general management development to apparently enthusiastic small and medium-sized business clients is Roffey Park in Sussex. One of the benefits reported by participants in a recent programme was the realisation that the sort of problems and issues that owner-managers tended to think were unique to them were in fact commonplace.

A similar story is told by Sue Peters, who heads a programme known as LEAD at Lancaster University Management School. Part of the appeal of the course might be that it is free - because the £15,000 that it would cost to run it for each company involved is effectively met out of a £1m grant from the North-west regional Development Agency, which is keen to find out if it can encourage more businesses to survive longer if their leaders receive training and development.

This investigation has echoes of a European initiative on succession planning aimed at putting some focus on survival because failure rates of young businesses are so high that they effectively cancel out all the start-ups that are so encouraged by government policy.

Whatever the grand scheme of things, the programme would be demanding enough for the average big corporate middle manager, let alone a time-conscious and generally over-stretched entrepreneur. Over two days' contact time a month, business leaders are put through action learning exercises, sessions with consultants charged with helping the whole business in such areas as succession planning and entering new markets. They also receive mentoring assistance from fellow SME leaders who have been through some of the same sorts of issues.

Though the course does involve participation in such unusual activities as abseiling and cookery, perhaps the riskiest aspect is the part where an entrepreneur swaps his business with another participant in the programme.

"This is not about running the other person's business," stresses Peters. "It's about the business being able to run without the owner-manager making all the decisions."

In addition, through obtaining first-hand experience of the business, the participant's partner is in a better position to advise on its future direction or strategy.

This is obviously a worthwhile development. It is all very well saying - as many owner-managers have - that it is comforting hearing from others that they have suffered from the same sorts of problems. But we all know that advice from a friend, family member or acquaintance is only deemed worthwhile if it comes from somebody with some experience of what is involved in running the business. Yes, there can be broad similarities between different types of business, but when you really begin to analyse things you realise that - in the owner-manager's mind at least - certain aspects are particular to that business and should be treated with extreme care.

Four groups comprising a total of 68 pupils have been through the programme so far and they are reported to be enjoying it to such an extent that plans are afoot for significant expansion, with the possibility that it might be rolled out nationally. If the end result is more knowledge about yourself and/or the state of your business, and genuinely specific advice on what to do to improve things, the average owner-manager appears to be much more willing to play along than might ever have been thought possible.

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