Learning from a school of thought

In an uncertain economic landscape, with the spectre of Brexit hanging over the head of businesses and the UK lagging some 18 per cent behind the rest of the G7 nations when it comes to productivity, it is more important than ever that chief executives can drive their individual business forward to reach full potential. Supporting CEOs and business leaders to grow their business, whatever its size, has defined the work of Aston Business School in recent years.

The problem is that CEOs are often dragged down into day-to-day operational issues, which can prevent them from having the time and space required to think about more strategic issues, says Terry Hodgetts, director of the Centre for Executive Development at Aston Business School.

“Senior leaders do not spend enough time visioning and thinking about the future because they keep getting pulled down into the weeds, and getting into operational and divisional issues,” he says. “The people slightly further down the hierarchy of the organisation need to take more ownership, be more empowered and have greater confidence to take on more responsibility.”

Aston Business School works closely with organisations, including Jacobs and Jaguar Land Rover, developing executive programmes to improve the capabilities of senior managers and leaders. “The critical issue is to understand what the requirement is in terms of the capabilities and the behaviours that we need to develop, and it needs to be a collaborative and jointly owned effort,” says Mr Hodgetts.

Executive sponsors help shape the design and content of programmes to their own requirements, and the client organisation is used as the case study so the business benefits directly from the application of any learning. “If we are delivering a programme for 15 or 20 managers over the course of 12 months and they do a project as part of that programme design, we can generally demonstrate that the entire investment in the programme is paid back within three months,” he says.

Aston Business School is also hoping to make an impact on developing senior leaders using the apprenticeship levy. It is currently waiting to hear if the level 7 senior leaders’ standard programme will be approved for funding through the levy, which Mr Hodgetts believes has the potential to boost opportunities and productivity throughout an organisation. “Higher levels of managerial capability create the potential for increased competitiveness and performance,” he says. “This will in turn foster growth and the development of new jobs at all levels of organisations.”

Yet it’s not just big businesses that can benefit from leadership development. Mark Hart, professor of small business and entrepreneurship at Aston Business School, and associate director of Aston Centre for Growth, was asked by Lord Young in 2013 to help design the Small Business Charter to encourage business schools to become more involved in the development of skills among small business owners and entrepreneurs. The Small Business Charter was launched in 2014 and Aston Business School was one of the first in the UK to receive accreditation.

Aston Business School in Birmingham is calling on firms to take advantage of its wealth of research and expertise

The Centre for Growth now runs the Aston Programme for Small Business Growth, a series of workshops where entrepreneurs from early-stage businesses across the Midlands can network with each other, and learn leadership and management skills. “We put about 35 businesses through it over a three to four-month period and are currently recruiting for the fourth intake,” says Professor Hart.

“We get them to think very clearly about their business model and the core thread to the whole programme is financial literacy. We want to enable them to make strategic decisions for their business based on an understanding of key financial metrics.” Businesses have typically been trading for at least one year, he adds, and are expanding both revenues and jobs.

We like to be disruptive with the business models and to challenge firms

Another focus is on encouraging firms to look beyond their immediate geographic location, says Professor Hart. “We like to be disruptive with the business models and to challenge firms,” he says. “We get them to think about how they can build a business with a national brand in the first instance. The unique feature of this programme is they have 30 other business owners in the room who all want the same thing: growth. That’s what Aston does well.”

One firm that has benefited is training firm Xceeda Group, based in Solihull, which took part in the inaugural programme in 2015. “I spent half a day every other week working on the business, rather than in it,” says Petra Gale, managing director, who set up the business with her husband in 2014. “We covered areas such as strategy, leadership, marketing and growth, which are not always things you have time to do.”

She believes the course was the catalyst for two years of strong business growth, during which time she has taken on more people and moved premises, as well as winning new clients overseas. “Without the input from Aston, I don’t think we would have had as much success,” she adds. “It certainly changed the way I make decisions and that’s at the centre of running a business.”

In addition, the Centre for Growth has been invited to run the Productivity through People programme in the Midlands which is designed to increase skills among leaders of small businesses operating as part of supply chains for major manufacturers, including BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce.

“The focus is how we can get skills into these businesses,” says Professor Hart. “The evidence shows that it’s not just the business leaders who need to improve their leadership and management skills, but the second tier of management, so the chief financial officers and the finance directors, as well as the owners and the CEOs. We get them to think about the skills levels of their employees, and the reward structures to attract and retain staff.”

For Mr Hodgetts, the benefits of leaders and managers from all sizes of business coming together to learn and share experiences is obvious. “You don’t know what you don’t know until it’s pointed out to you,” he says. “It’s the opportunity to come into a classroom, be it a virtual one or a real physical location, make sense of concepts and understand how to apply them. It’s a chance to debate with and learn from colleagues and peers, and indeed sometimes we forget that it is the social aspect of learning that has such significant value.”

Search Aston Centre for Growth or Aston Executive Development to find out more about the programmes