CM drops in on a Vinci Empower training day

4 March 2014

Leadership development will divide opinion in construction, but Vinci has found that it's bringing the business together. Elaine Knutt visited the De Vere Latimer Hotel in Berkshire, where the company ran a two-day workshop, to find out more. Photographs by Carlotta Cardarna.

If you received an invitation to a “leadership development” programme, how would you react? If your gut reaction is “sceptically”, you’re probably with the majority. Most of us have will have first-hand experience of training programmes that were stimulating, insightful and possibly even good fun (although the wrap-your-colleagues-in-clingfilm bonding exercise experienced by a CM colleague was surely just sadomasochistic). But whether we actually tackled things differently afterwards, or delivered improved performance... well, that’s debateable.

The problem is that acquiring abstract knowledge is one thing, but applying it in challenging work situations is another. Individuals might make a genuine effort to use new ideas and insights, only to make little headway in workplaces where they control just a few of the variables. And in construction, when many managers will often be trying to manage and influence beyond their own corporate teams, it’s doubly difficult.

Alternatively, people absorb the learning, but for internal reasons they don’t apply it. In its recent paper Why leadership-development programs fail, management consultant McKinsey argues that interventions that don’t engage people “below the surface” – challenging thoughts, feelings and assumptions – risk failure. The paper gives the example of a manager who might know in theory that it makes sense to delegate, but fails because the inner dialogue in their head is: “I can’t delegate because I’m accountable.”

Closing this gap between what happens in a training room and how we behave in a work situation was the fundamental aim behind Vinci's Empower programme. The idea is to give 500 “senior middle managers” the skills and tools they need to raise their personal performance, but also to embed the new ideas deep enough to change their thinking patterns and behaviour. And by embarking on a such a large-scale initiative – with 50 “cohorts” of 10 over two years – the idea is that no one manager will try to change the status quo in isolation. Instead, the whole business embarks on a journey towards improved performance.

"Training 500 is unusual, but it's great. Some organisations do it in dribs and drabs over a long period, but then they lose that sense of momentum."

Elaine Wilson, Ask Europe

Jo Mercer, head of Vinci’s learning academy, was a key architect of the programme, developed with training consultancy Blue Sky Performance Improvement. “A lot of standard leadership programmes are good at imparting knowledge, but not at changing behaviours,” says Mercer. “Empower has given us a common language, we now have a large body of people in the business using the same language… It can be a fast-track to getting results.”

To ensure the Empower agenda is also embedded at high level within Vinci, 150 senior managers have been on an “edited highlights” version of the programme, and a senior manager is also invited to join the alignment and summit events held for each cohort. Furthermore, the delegates identify and develop a business-boosting project throughout the seven-month span of the programme, and then continue to progress their ideas once the programme is over. “Andrew Ridley-Barker [Vinci Construction MD] gives them a licence to run with it,” says Mercer.

Two other leadership development experts invited to comment on Empower both said its linkage into board level, focus on personal issues and continuation of project work into “business as usual”, were all positive signs. “Training 500 is unusual, but I think it’s great, there’s something about critical mass. Some organisations do it in dribs and drabs over a long period, but then they lose that sense of momentum,” says Elaine Wilson, a senior consultant at development consultancy Ask Europe. However, she stresses that Vinci will have to find a way to retain momentum in the coming years.

Structured training

Donnie MacNicol, director of training consultancy Team Animation, agrees that programmes should be structured over a number of months so that delegates can apply the learning at work as the course progresses. “Research shows that 20% of what we learn comes from our bosses or mentors, 70% is on-the-job-learning, and 10% from listening to someone in a classroom. So this is the right sort of design, but often companies end up paring back and the bulk of the focus is on the 10%,” says MacNicol.

The delegates on Empower are running projects of one kind or another across Vinci's building, civil engineering and facilities divisions, as project managers, construction managers, section engineers, facilities managers or in support teams such as IT. While they’re not (yet) taking key strategic decisions, they are all representing Vinci at a fairly senior level. Nor is the programme specifically geared to succession planning or high-fliers. “We wanted to raise the good managers to great, and the great to excellent," says Mercer.

The programme is essentially a combination of management training, or giving people skills and techniques to get the best performance out of people and projects; and leadership development – encouraging them to behave like leaders. Elements of the management techniques appear to have left the training suite and gone “viral”: the so-called Ladder of Accountability is appearing in poster form in site huts and making its presence felt in difficult conversations everywhere, and if you are meeting a Vinci Empower delegate in the near future, you might like to Google “Johari Window”.

Sharing knowledge

In fact, Blue Sky says its management training tools are accessible to anyone who can go online. “We believe in sharing knowledge. You can try to create something clever, brand it and sell it, but we believe in sharing knowledge and encouraging people to share it. Plus there’s a lot of stuff that’s already working well, so we don’t need to paint it blue and change the circles to squares,” says Guy Bloom, client services director.

"If someone says 'I'm completely re-engaged with the organisation', you can't put a value in pounds against that, but that's great"

Guy Bloom, Blue Sky

“Leadership development” is about encouraging individuals to develop a vision of where they want to go, and then building the relationships to make it happen. But how do you develop “leadership behaviour” in managers who perhaps aren’t yet in leadership positions? Bloom’s answer is that leadership is a state of mind rather than a position in an organisational diagram.

“It’s about challenging people to step into the leadership space, and make demands of others in relation to their work,” says Bloom. “If you are operating at the right level, you should hold that space. Are you leading the conversation? Leading the challenge? Talking about the things no one else want to talk about?”

So Empower starts by making delegates first accept they’re in a leadership role, then reflect on how well they’re doing in it. The process clearly involves heart as well as head, although Bloom dispels any thoughts of construction managers in group therapy. “Through video and exercises, we build a challenge: do you recognise there are gaps to the standard you might achieve? It’s not psychotherapy, we stay away from it being an emotional process, but our emotions are involved,” he says. “For some it can be a nudge, for some it’s a kick up the pants.”

Quantifying progress

These days, when every decision has to be “evidence-based”, companies investing in leadership development often want to quantify the impact on their business. Vinci asks every Empower manager to self-report and evidence their own personal “return on investment”. “It’s notoriously complex to validate – there are always other factors in play apart from your programme,” comments Bloom. “But you can ask delegates if there’s been a direct financial impact, or if they’ve made some kind of behavioural shift. If someone says ‘I’m completely re-engaged with the organisation’, you can’t put a value in pounds against that, but that’s great.”

But in total, Bloom says that the value added to Vinci represents 200% of the costs – which include Blue Sky, venues and catering, and taking people out of their jobs for seven days.

However, others believe that there can be dangers in trying to match benefits to costs. Elaine Wilson says: “You have to be careful – companies tend to measure what’s easy to measure, not the real indicators of improvement.” She refers to a company that asked delegates to recoup the £10,000-a-head costs of their training, but the initiative backfired: “Everyone claimed to have saved the £10,000, but not because of the learning they’d got. And all they claimed was £10,000 – why not more?”

Vinci is now roughly half way through implementation of its Empower programme, and is finding that feedback from delegates is extremely positive – 98% say they would advocate the course to a colleague. But perhaps more important, there’s the impact on Vinci staff: according to its annual employee survey, engagement among those managed by Empower delegates is up 10%. Companies can try to quantify that financially, perhaps in the value of experienced staff retained or decreased staff turnover costs. Or they can simply take the view that such a sizeable increase in engagement is priceless.

Case studies

"The approach was refreshing"

Colin Howell, project manager, building division

“The business has committed a significant spend on Empower – that’s several thousand pounds per delegate – and senior management are all aligned with its objectives. So it’s coming down from the top: there's an appreciation that the business needs to improve on various aspects of its leadership and management.

“The course has been developed in a bespoke way, and is focused on addressing the business’s needs, it's not like sending people to the course around the corner. And there was no age discrimination – I’m still under 60 but I’ve been with Taylor Woodrow [acquired by Vinci in 2008] for 40 years. I was recently on a large office scheme in King’s Cross, and now I'm working on a bid for Heathrow Airport.

“You initially start off sceptical, you’ve seen it and done it before, but the approach Blue Sky adopted was refreshing. There was a toolbox of techniques you could use in everyday situations. For instance, a technique to look at other people’s communication styles – are they forcing their agenda on you, ready to communicate, or are they withdrawn and likely to be unresponsive? And there’s the Accountability Ladder, which is now on notice boards everywhere. On the bottom rung people are not taking any responsibility for a situation, and the idea is to get them to come up the ladder, perhaps by sitting down and working out why they’re not fully engaged. You can apply it in any aspect of your life – on site, with consultants, with your family.

“One of the areas I found the most useful was the 360 feedback where I invited 10 or 12 people to provide feedback. It reconfirmed a lot of things in my own self-appraisal, but it also highlights things you ought to be aware of but have perhaps chosen not to do anything about. So I’ve chosen a number of areas to try to improve on, for instance spending more time mentoring young engineers. It’s something I’ve always done, but I’ll be allocating more time to it.”

"It reprogrammes how you approach things"

Bahar Maghsoudi, senior project manager, Taylor Woodrow 

“I’m an M&E enabling manager on the Crossrail station at Whitechapel. I’ve been at Vinci for three and a half years, and before that I was at Birse and Balfour Beatty. Compared to other management courses I’ve been on, Empower is more in depth, it’s a longer programme, and you have more of a one-to-one with the trainer. I’ve previously been on 6 Sigma courses, which are all about analysing your productivity. But if you want to learn how to deal with behavioural issues, this is the perfect course.

“You have a lot of tools and techniques, and you take the ones that are suitable at that particular time. At Whitechapel, our director has the Accountability Ladder on his wall and he points to it from time to time! The more people go on the Empower course, the more people understand what he’s talking about. Vinci is such a diverse business, so it helps to have a common language.

“All the cohorts watch Twelve Angry Men and I think it had a big impact. It’s about ‘where do you stand’ – if you believe in something and your belief is strong you have to make a stand on a particular issue and people will come round. It’s also about showing what the different characters represented and how people are shaped by their background and cultures, and how not everyone sees things the same way.

“I would struggle to say I’ve used a specific tool, but it does reprogramme how you approach things. I’m working on a pressured project, and it’s also a joint venture [with Balfour Beatty and Morgan Sindall], so it’s a complex dynamic – you can’t just say ‘I’m making these changes’. But after I had the site visit from Kevin, the facilitator, he challenged me to do things differently, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I really love my team, we’re a diverse bunch from our 20s to our 60s, but we’re all pulling in the same direction.”

"Nothing I've been on has had the same impact"

Liam Noonan ICIOB, project manager, Vinci Facilities

“I’m head of the Vinci Facilities team at RAF Mildenhall in [corrected online] Suffolk, we look after the maintenance of the estate and also do project work, for instance building a new warehouse. We do a lot of demolition work, then replace the buildings, and also refurbishments. There’s a team of directly-employed Vinci staff, including six site managers who report to me and I decide on their workload, and we also use a lot of external subcontractors.

“I’ve never been on a course as long as this, or as time-consuming. At the half-day alignment session, to be honest I was trying to get out of it. I know how to talk to people, and I've got good listening skills. There were all sorts of things I thought I was doing on a daily basis, but the course showed me I probably wasn't doing it as well as I thought.

“The Johari Window has been a useful tool to help build relationships when you meet someone new, and I've also got a 4ft wide Accountability Ladder in my office. I’ve got scaffolders, plumbers, bricklayers popping in, you never know who’s coming through the door and what issues they’re going to bring. So I’ll ask them, ‘where are you on the ladder’ and nine times out of 10 they’re below the line [between being accountable and being a ‘victim’].

“It’s made a huge impact on me, in reference to developing relationships and dealing with some of the more difficult people, to enable us to break down the barriers. By getting to know people a bit more personally, you tend to understand them far better.

“When I first started at RAF Mildenhall, the office was very contractual, but now I’m trying to introduce a bit of banter. People used to be looking at the clock, now people are more engaged and will say ‘I want to stay and send that email’.

“If I’m honest, none of the previous courses I’ve been on have had an impact like this one – because it is such a team effort, everyone has given it 100%.”

Structuring a leadership development programme

Elaine Wilson of Ask Europe and Donnie MacNicol of Team Animation offer their tips on how to plan management training schemes.

l A trend is for the call to action to come from a board, underpinning it with real business imperatives. But the process should also get the individual personally engaged.

l After the programme is completed, companies should not just “drop” the initiative – they need mechanisms in place to reinforce the learning, and they need to get it on the HR agenda. What delegates sign up to on the training programme has to flow into their ongoing performance objectives, and be integrated into the organisation’s goals. It has to become ‘‘business as normal”. EW

l Leadership boils down to having a future-focused vision, and the skills to build the relationships to get people to follow you. But companies need to be clear on what they’re developing “leadership” for. Is it about innovation, or identifying new revenue streams, or a focus on customer service? In the worst case scenario, you develop independent thinkers equipped with the skills to make things happen, but this isn’t aligned with corporate objectives.

l Every organisation has the desire to quantify the impact of the programme, but there are a colossal number of factors in play. So usually, analysis has to be a mix of qualitative and quantitative results. But sometimes boards take the view that this is the right thing to do and they know it’s got value, even if they can’t identify every pound. If it gives people the feeling that progress has been made, does that actually matter?

l Work-based “projects” are brilliant, but they have to be managed, and companies often drop them when they realise the effort involved. They need to consider, who’s owning the project? Who’s supporting it? Will it cause friction in other departments? It can’t be coordinated by someone part-time in HR. DMacN

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