The MTR Corp's commitment to staff development has long been recognised in Hong Kong. The company believes that people are its most valuable assets. Over the years, the corporation has dedicated significant resources to staff development, and its accelerated development programme is further evidence of the firm's commitment to investing in people. The programme, which was appraised by the American Society for Training and Development and recognised with an Excellence in Practice Award in 2001, was launched in 1997 when the MTRC saw the need to speed up the development of senior managers in order to maintain a standard of excellence and deal with keen market competition and challenges. The company has since implemented four such programmes for its middle and senior managers. 'We need to be assured we have the right availability of human resources to achieve our business objectives,' said management training and development manager Francis Mok. The development programme begins with a selection process. 'Nominees from individual divisions must go through a vigorous selection process, which includes a whole-day assessment exercise and psychometric tests,' Mr Mok said. 'Our senior directors are actively involved in the process to ensure the right people are chosen.' The hand-picked managers then embark on a year-long development programme that comprises four key components: a business school curriculum; mentoring and development programmes; action learning projects and business seminars, and industrial visits and study meetings. The company has teamed up with leading business schools to develop a tailor-made curriculum for participants. 'The programme is especially designed for us. We co-developed the course structure and determined the focus,' Mr Mok said. Because many of the participating managers already have MBAs, the curriculum is geared to be practical and closely linked to their business. 'The participants' attitudes and energy levels are different from those seen in ordinary MBA programmes. They know they will be our future leaders,' he said. In addition to academic training, participants follow a mentoring programme. They receive personal instruction from senior directors who help them to define an individual development plan. 'By sharing their experiences, mentors help the participants to achieve their objectives. 'They meet regularly and share insights and knowledge on such diverse issues as work, relationships, family matters and even sociopolitical issues of the day,' Mr Mok said. 'It is important that the mentors are staff who have a good track record in developing people. 'They must also attend workshops to understand their roles and learn essential skills before becoming active mentors.' The participants are assigned to action-learning project groups to tackle real-life business situations. A specific business problem or opportunity is identified and participants work on it together and propose a solution. 'One example was the implementation of the partnership approach with our business partners. This has helped to change traditional co-operation practice in the construction business,' Mr Mok said. 'Adopting their plan and approach helped to save millions of dollars and speeded up the completion of the Tseung Kwan O extension project.' Critical success factors in the development programme are being used by other corporations as a benchmark. 'The programme has to tie in with business needs. We have to be assured that the talents to be developed are required to fulfil business needs.' A well-balanced range of activities is also crucial. A first-class learning programme and environment contribute towards 'stretching' the participants by taking them out of their comfort zone. Participants are required to take ownership, acquire new skills and be able to reach the next level. To complement such a programme and further develop staff, the company must prepare the right placement opportunities. The company should also make it clear to the participants that the programme should not be seen as an opportunity or stepping stone for promotions. 'People can get frustrated easily if there are no promotion opportunities in the short term. We have to be careful not to develop too many stars,' Mr Mok said. The reward is that the programme produces a pool of leaders, and saves money on recruitment and consultancy fees.' It also creates a database of future leaders' strengths that can be utilised for the good of the organisation. 'At times, the top management calls on participants to join in think-tanks,' he said. Mr Mok, who was one of the first batch of 12 graduates, claimed to be still excited about the programme. 'It is an honour to be nominated and a bigger honour to be selected,' he said. 'At the outset we were overwhelmed by the huge commitment and the pressure. But we eventually made it.'