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Management development: Mysterious route to wonderland?


Mysterious route to wonderland?Do practising managers have a clear idea of the path they need to travel to develop to their full potential? Or are they left to their own devices to find the best way home? Bob Selden suggests some ways organisations can provide a clear route to develop their leaders – and avoid them falling down a rabbit hole.

This topic reminds me of Alice in Wonderland. As Alice went on her adventures down the rabbit hole, she met many strange creatures and had some wonderful self-insights. But Wonderland is an illogical place, nothing seems to make sense to Alice. She starts to become very frustrated and confused. In one such meeting, "Who are you?" asks the caterpillar... "I - I hardly know, Sir", Alice responds... "just at present. At least I knew who I was when I got up this morning."

Do managers feel much the same as Alice as they progress down the management development pathway? A pathway that is at times organised into bite sized development events, but for the most part is a haphazard series of unrelated experiences. McCauley (2003), found that the approach of many organisations is events-based rather than system or process based.

Photo of Bob Selden"Do managers feel much the same as Alice as they progress down the management development pathway? A pathway that is at times organised into bite sized development events, but for the most part is a haphazard series of unrelated experiences."

Despite our best efforts, often the manager is left to their own devices to make sense of an illogical land, learning from experience on the run. Mind you, sometimes such learning can be extremely insightful.

However, if we are to fulfil our mission of 'making other people look good', we need to help the manager make sense of both their real world trial and error learning, and our planned development activities.

We have made some progress over the last 20 years. Hernez-Broome reports: "Leadership development initiatives typically offer performance support and real world application of skills through training programs, coaching and mentoring, action learning, and developmental assignments. Combining instruction with a real business setting helps people gain crucial skills and allows the organisation to attack relevant, crucial, real-time issues. The goal of leadership development ultimately involves action not knowledge. Therefore, development today means providing people opportunities to learn from their work rather than taking them away from their work to learn. It is critical to integrate those experiences with each other and with other developmental methods. State of the art leadership development now occurs in the context of ongoing work initiatives that are tied to strategic business imperatives." (Human Resource Planning, 2004)

My criticism of management development initiatives are twofold:

Firstly, many seem to concentrate on developing the behaviours, skills, competencies, capabilities and personality traits that are required of an effective leader/manager. In other words, an input oriented approach. Despite the myriad research and 'expert' writings, we still do not have an agreed and defined set of management/leadership 'skills', that describe the ideal leader/manager.

Secondly, there is not an agreed definition of management and leadership.

Ours is one of the few professions where we cannot agree on two of the key components of our professional work. Take the input oriented approach. Other than being able to agree on exactly what they are, the challenge for the aspiring manager is 'How do I emulate that particular leadership skill/style?'

Some development activities have assisted with this challenge. For instance, using well designed 360 degree feedback can provide managers with excellent benchmarks and feedback on their development. These become particularly effective when used pre and post an ongoing development process. But they do have limitations. One study suggests that managers' skills may or may not have changed as a result of the process, but the definition of the required skills certainly did! (Rosti et al, 1998)

Help is at hand. In a recent study Mumford (2007) suggests looking at the skills required of a manager's position or job and level, rather than at the manager. This does not negate the need for the manager to look at developing his/her skills. It does however, make it easier for both the organisation and the manager to identify exactly what those skills are in this particular organisation and in this context, at this particular time. This has implications for us that start with recruitment and include career development, promotion and, ultimately, the design of management development processes.

In an extensive search of the literature and a study of over 1,000 junior, mid and senior level managers, Mumford et al identified four skill sets required at all levels of an organisation:

  • Cognitive: gathering and using information to make decisions
  • Interpersonal skills: social skills relating to interacting with and influencing others (including self-perception)
  • Business skills: for specific functional areas; managing material resources; operations analysis; management and application of personnel resources; managing financial resources
  • Strategic skills: conceptual skills needed to take a systems perspective to understand complexity, deal with ambiguity and to effect influence in the organisation

"Despite our best efforts, often the manager is left to their own devices to make sense of an illogical land, learning from experience on the run."

The extent to which these are required and applied, will vary depending on the manager's level in the organisation. The challenge, is to design development processes that enable managers at all levels to identify what these skills are at each level. Then provide developmental experiences for managers to reach their full potential.

Now for the leadership question. My research, together with Dennis Pratt, in designing development processes suggests that leadership occurs at all levels of the organisation. The essence of leadership is to create four conditions that encourage others to follow:

  • A shared understanding of the environment: we know what we face
  • A shared vision of where we are going: we know what we have to do
  • A shared set of organisational values: we are in this together
  • A shared feeling of power: we can do this

So any manager can become an effective leader in the eyes of their followers by satisfactorily achieving these four shared conditions. Where does all this leave us with our management development challenge?

Firstly, management development needs to be seen and described as a pathway. Not a series of unrelated events.

Secondly, management development initiatives need to assist the manager to identify the skills required at his or her level of the organisation; the extent to which they need to be achieved and applied at this time in this context. Coupled with this is the need for a rigorous means of assessing individual competence and ways in which the manager might best achieve competence.

Thirdly, managers need to be taught how to develop and implement strategies (based on the four shared output conditions) within their workplace that encourage others to follow them.

Finally, the management development pathway needs to be transparent and owned by the people that matter most – the managers.

I'd like to think that managers were well aware of what is required of them to travel down the management development pathway, rather than like Alice when asking directions of the cat:

"But I don't want to go among mad people."
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."

Bob Selden is the author of the recently published What To Do When You Become The Boss – a self help book for new managers. He also coaches at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and the Australian Graduate School of Management, Sydney. You can contact Bob via


McCauley, C.D., & Velsor, E.V. (Eds) (2003) The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development (2nd Ed). Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Hernez-Broome, L., & Hughes, R.L. (2004) Leadership Development: Past, Present & Future. Human Resource Planning, Vol 27, Iss 1, pp 24-32, Human Resource Planning Society, New York.

Rosti Jr., R.T. & Shipper, F. (1998) A study of the impact of training in a management development program based on 360 feedback. Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol 13, Iss 1/2, pp 77-89, MC PUB Ltd.

Mumford, T.V., Campion, M.A. & Morgeson, F.P. (2007) The leadership skills strataplex: Leadership skill requirements across organisational levels. The Leadership Quarterly, Vol 18, No. 2, pp 154-156. Elsevier, Amsterdam.
Selden, B. What To Do When You Become The Boss. (2007) Outskirts Press Inc. Colorado.


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