Onwards and upwards

Chris Davis

THE AGE-OLD debate about whether leaders are born or made is a topic that could go on forever, but at Manulife (International) the feeling is that with the right support and management training, elements of leadership can be taught.

The company helps managers to become successful leaders by offering training programmes that improve the conceptual abilities of managers, tap individuals' personal needs, interests and self-esteem, and help managers move beyond any personal barriers.

Manulife identified the need for leadership programmes after the company carried out a manager engagement and evaluation review, with the assistance of a specialist consulting company, 18 months ago.

'We discovered that in many cases managers could carry out their duties more efficiently by developing their core leadership skills,' said Michael Huddart, Hong Kong executive vice-president and general manager, Manulife (International).

The engagement and evaluation review involves senior managers at executive and vice-president level and those who manage the areas below them. Senior managers take part in a 360-degree evaluation process that involves self assessment, assessment from those they report to, and from the people they manage.

Those who hold less senior positions carry out self-assessment by completing a questionnaire. Before the assessment exercises begin, managers attend training programmes and workshops.

'Generally, the feedback is positive but there are those who find the process slightly uncomfortable,' Mr Huddart said.

The scheme is about to enter its second stage with another round of evaluation. This is aimed at identifying the positive and negative impact of the scheme and areas where it can be strengthened.

Defining the difference between managing and leading, Mr Huddart said management was a function that must be exercised in any business, while leadership was a relationship that could energise individuals or an organisation.

By talking and engaging with colleagues, leaders were able to build loyalty because employees felt that the leader cared about them. This process could help to eliminate feelings by employees that those in higher positions were too important to talk to.

Mr Huddart said the difference between a manager and a leader was the subtle difference in the way they approached their job and how they behaved towards those they worked with. Positive features of leadership meant inspiring an individual or group to work towards a common goal. Leaders motivated, consoled and worked with people to keep them enthused and eager to move forward.

'A good leader puts effort into developing their own people; leaders want to move onwards and upwards, whereas managers often see empowering those around them as a threat to their job,' Mr Huddart said.

A company survey showed that staff preferred to have leadership skill training than a salary increase. The training was implemented as a form of promotion and seen as a positive way of retaining staff.

'We know that as a company that focuses significant resources on staff training, employees appreciate the time and investment the company makes available to them,' Mr Huddart said.

Following the evaluation process, managers work with their bosses to identify the most beneficial training programmes and courses to meet specific needs such as communication skills, interpersonal behaviour or motivation techniques. These may be tailor-made programmes developed in-house through the human resources department, or provided by a consultant. To avoid major disruption to day-to-day operations, programmes are broken into three- or four-day segments.

'A key area is developing self esteem so that as a leader a person can know his or herself. Through identifying strengths and weaknesses, a manager is in a better position to build the best team around them,' Mr Huddart said, adding that he believed every manager could benefit from learning leadership skills.

But the programme takes into account that not all people are born to be leaders and that great managers are not mini-executives waiting for leadership to be thrust upon them.

For example, a quietly persuasive manager will have difficulty being charismatic. Mr Huddart said that in a company the size of Manulife, managers who felt uncomfortable developing their leadership skills would not find their career development impeded.

He said a fast growing company needed managers and leaders to be developed internally and relied less on recruiting externally.

According to the International Monetary Fund, leadership development is increasing in the Asia-Pacific region in line with its rapid economic development. The region is expected to account for 45 per cent of the world's gross domestic product in 2015.