National Apprenticeship Week: Building future leaders

To kick off National Apprenticeship Week, Roger Delves examines the changing perception of how apprenticeships nurture young talent and develop established leaders.

What do you think when you hear the term ‘apprentice’? As likely as not, you’ll imagine a school leaver learning a trade, not an established leader honing their skills. For the quite mistaken perception of apprenticeships is that they are only to support young people in vocational training – typically a work-based apprenticeship combining job experience with a day a week at college. 

Perhaps, at a moment in time when our perceptions about when, where and how we work now and in the future are being challenged and changed, now is a good time to review what we know about apprenticeships.

The theme of this year’s National Apprenticeship Week is ‘Build the Future.’ While the aim is rightly to promote the benefits and long-term gains of employing young people into a variety of apprenticeships to ‘Build the Future’, it is also true that existing managers are building the future, and must continue to do so, however uncertain that future might appear right now.

If you’re part of a management team within an organisation, you’ll be responsible for building a team that can help the business meet its strategic objectives.

You’ll want to hire the right talent and particularly you’ll want to develop your existing team members to bring specific skills to bear on those objectives. Those at senior levels of an organisation have a huge amount of input and responsibility when it comes to ‘building the future’ of the organisation.

Savvy employers in England are looking to their previously unspent levy fund for a solution. And, surprisingly to some, there are lots. Many of the apprenticeships that are on offer are designed for those in work

For those involved management development for some time will have seen far too many ‘accidental managers’. These are individuals who have been great in practical, functional roles within the organisation and have demonstrated technical accomplishment, often to an extraordinary level.

What they have not always had, needed, or had the opportunity to develop, were leadership skills. They didn’t really know how to build a team, drive performance, manage conflict, develop relationships, persuade or negotiate because that was not in their job description.

Then they get promoted and suddenly all those things do become important and they’re expected to deliver against these new skills, with immediate effect and often with little or no training.

It tends not to work out well, and accidental leaders struggle to thrive, often deriving comfort by spending too much time on what they used to be rewarded for doing, and ignoring those parts of their new role against which they feel ill-equipped to deliver.

A clever organisation’s L&D budget will be prepared for this scenario and will earmark a proportion of their budget to management development initiatives to help such individuals either to avoid the pitfall or to clamber out of the trap.

Which is great, when you’re not in the middle of a global pandemic where profits are free-falling and most of your team has been furloughed. For the majority, L&D budgets have been slashed, leaving HR departments wondering what to do next and accidental managers struggling to survive as the pandemic puts a premium on skills they don’t have.


Savvy employers in England are looking to their previously unspent levy fund for a solution. And, surprisingly to some, there are lots.

Many of the apprenticeships that are on offer are designed for those in work. The qualifications range from Level 4 courses to full-on Masters’ Degrees. They focus on specific skills like project management, or on the behavioural skills that are increasingly recognised as being vital for success in business.

There is, for example, a programme perfectly designed for those accidental managers described earlier: a Level 5 Departmental Manager programme.

There are apprenticeships for all levels of employee. Undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, including MBAs, are wholly or part-funded by the levy. They teach the skills needed to become innovative leaders – and we’re in desperate need of those.

What sets apprenticeships apart from other L&D solutions – other than that they’re so cost effective – is that the teaching has immediate impact back at work. Unlike traditional degree programmes that tend to focus on theory, teaching on apprenticeship programmes can be tailored directly to your business.

Interestingly, apprenticeship providers are increasingly being asked to map the content of internal management training programmes to the current apprenticeship standards. Perhaps a sign that more employers will make use of their levy by the end of 2021?

The best apprenticeship providers – and there are many – focus on embedding the learning and giving apprenticeships the wider experience of business by taking them out of the silo of their department and providing a holistic view of business.

This is what can help to turn an accidental manager into a transformational leader – and that could prove to be a real competitive point of difference for the future.

The only certainty that has come out of the Covid-19 pandemic is that when the post-pandemic new normal begins to emerge, we will be facing sudden and transformational change in many sectors of business. And transformational change requires transformational leaders.  

Right now, we’re back in a recession and have no real idea when we will be out of it again. But organisations still need to plan. They need strategic goals for the next one, three and five years, and plans to achieve them. Apprenticeships are here to help businesses produce the people to deliver those plans.

What all this means is that for organisations in the midst of restructuring, redundancies and uncertainty, apprenticeships can be a light in the darkness both for the organisation and their employees. A reward for excellent work where salaries can’t be increased.

A sense of security for employees feeling vulnerable amid uncertainty. A way of preparing individuals to lead organisations into and through transformational change.


About the author

Roger Delves is academic director of apprenticeships at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School


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