‘Big’ leadership

Larry Reynolds and David Robertson explore the Empower programme that won the leadership award in 2014

In the three years that we’ve been judging the TJ leadership awards, we’ve studied 73 different leadership development programmes. In terms of great design, demonstrable results and innovation, none have come close to this year’s winner, Vinci’s Empower programme.

Vinci is a construction company and they make big things – airports, hospitals, tunnels and railway stations. Like much of the construction industry, times have been very tough since the 2009 financial crisis.

The construction industry is known for its traditional approach to leadership and management. Basically, you do what your boss tells you and that’s that. Unusually for the industry, Vinci decided that the way to improve business performance was through people, and the way to do that was through an innovative development programme called Empower.

Working in partnership with Blue Sky Performance Improvement, Vinci developed one of the most thorough and well-designed leadership programmes we’ve seen. It had active senior stakeholder involvement and was driven by an established business need and was linked to clear goals for growth.

An initial in-depth diagnostic including focus groups, one-to-one interviews and observing management meetings led to a pilot for 30 staff. As a result of this, the final programme contained the following elements.

  • An initial conversation with participants’ line managers
  • A half-day alignment event, which included input from senior managers
  • A series of e-learning modules on topics ranging from time management to influencing skills
  • A series of master-classes for senior managers
  • A series of two-day workshops on getting the best from people integrated with 360 degree feedback and telephone coaching
  • Work-based projects
  • A summit event where participants presented their achievements to senior managers
  • Sustainability days to continue the learning over the long-term.

There was much that we liked about the design: the focus on a learning journey and not an event, taking time to build alignment up front, then build capability and sustain the learning experience; also understanding the need to address mind-set, behaviour, skill and knowledge. Also, the involvement of senior managers at every stage from the initial alignment event through to the summit event and sustainability days; the most appropriate learning method for the topic in hand – e-learning module for some of the factual stuff, but face-to-face training events for the development of interpersonal skills and the way the learning was directly related to business needs through the use of work-based projects.

We also liked the way the key messages from the development programme were embedded into a whole range of workplace communications, including videos, poster campaigns, desktop calendars and articles in construction trade journals. And although the entries to the awards are strictly limited to 1500 words, we liked the links they provided to their intranet site featuring video interviews with both senior managers and participants explaining the benefits of the programme.

Participants on the programme are encouraged to take ownership of their own development path and are provided with a number of options to help them sustain their learning. The focus of the programme is around changing mind-set and behaviour as well as knowledge and skill and this we believe will support a sustained approach to the learning experience.

One of the most interesting things about the Vinci/Blue Sky approach was the role of the learning facilitators. In many leadership development events – and most of the entries we see – the learning facilitators are there to deliver the skills and knowledge, whether that’s through face-to-face training, e-learning materials or coaching. That was certainly part of their role in Vinci’s Empower programme, but there was more. As Guy Bloom, from Blue Sky, explained to us when we met the shortlisted candidates:

“Part of our role is to hold their feet to the fire. We give participants plenty of opportunities to decide what leadership means to them and what kind of leader they want to be. We give them lots of opportunities to acquire those skills, but at the end of the day, it’s up to them. It’s our job to say to them, ‘this is the kind of leader you said you need to be – where’s the evidence that you’re actually doing it?’”

At the start of the programme, senior managers agreed four key objectives: to increase staff engagement by 5 per cent (measured by annual engagement survey), to increase productivity by 10 per cent (measured by turnover per employee), to increase financial turnover by 10 per cent and to achieve a positive ROI (Return on Investment) for the costs of the programme.

They exceeded all four measures in the first year of the programme – staff engagement up 10 per cent, productivity up 26 per cent, financial turnover up 14 per cent and ROI up 200 per cent. There have been big improvements in other key metrics, which Vinci attributes, at least in part, to the Empower programme – absenteeism down by 6 per cent and customer satisfaction up by 13 per cent, for example.

It’s the individual stories of participants and senior managers at the firm that best convey the full impact of this programme:

Empower empowered me to have the right conversation with a client… with a saving to Vinci of around £120,000 – Course participant

Empower made me stay as I thought this company are investing up to my level… Because of Empower I was able to talk to senior people and be honest and forthright, I was able to change – Course participant

Without your input and that of the group I would have lost my way in life, my vision and probably would have retired early or left the company – Course participant

The beauty of Empower is that it is self perpetuating. If one person can introduce a change that saves £20k, it will provide funding for more colleagues to attend the course – MD, Vinci Facilities

Empower has given people the opportunity to share knowledge, to network and to do things differently that actually hit the bottom line. – Head of OD, Vinci Construction

Vinci invested a lot of money in this programme – several thousands of pounds per participant. But in an industry where you’re building big things, very large sums of money are at stake. What this programme shows is that it’s worth spending money on your people, provided you spend it in the right way; because if you do, and you get the behavioural changes you need, the financial rewards will follow.

This is a great lesson not only for construction firms, but for any organisation.


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