How ABB got its managers to think like leaders [case study]

03 March 2016 -


Many businesses don’t fail because of a lack of great products, but because of a lack of management accountability. Here’s how the engineering giant ABB developed its managers to think like leaders – and, as a result, increased profitability and customer satisfaction

Guest blogger Mike Sonley

ABB’s UK Power Systems Division delivers multi-million pound energy construction projects such as renewable energy converter stations. In recent years, delays within the company’s complex supply chains, combined with new approaches by customers, have threatened to slow down orders and have a big impact on the business.

Instead of taking responsibility for these problems, far too many managers were remaining focused on their own performance, instead of on that of their team as a whole. At the same time, a new business division, set up to enter new markets, was struggling to convert opportunities.

After bringing HR and division leaders together to look at these challenges, it was agreed that a manager development programme was needed to enhance the managers’ leadership skills.

Focus-group work with senior managers gave rise to the “Leadership Principles Model”, a set of leadership principles for encouraging greater responsibility. Respect and determination among managers was identified as the first step to improving performance against the desired objectives.

Rather than trying to prescribe ‘behaviours’, the organisation focused on ‘principles’. A people development consultancy called Hunter Roberts was appointed to develop a programme to encourage all managers to ‘live’ the Leadership Principles.

The Leadership for Managers programme has three phases:

  1. Engaging Phase: this gives managers a ‘current reality’ of the extent to which they are living the Leadership Principles. This is achieved via 360-degree feedback, psychometric personality profiling, guided self-reflection and reviews with line manager and with HR.
  2. Equipping Phase: this features a two-day workshop, jointly led by Hunter Roberts and ABB managers, to present simple and accessible best-practice content on the mindset of a leader and core leadership skills – such as motivating, influencing and being assertive. The company used role-play exercises with professional actors and coaches.
  3. Embedding Phase: in this phase, managers were encouraged to continue their development by working in action-based trios. The introduction of this element of peer pressure got them to carry out action-based learning on live business issues. In this way, they’d embed their application of the leadership principles. The 360-degree assessment was carried nine months later to assess how well managers have adopted the principles.

The programme was deployed top-down, starting with the senior management team, followed by successive layers of management, every four to six weeks. This ensured that, whenever anyone new went through, their line manager was already prepared to provide coaching and support.

Jon Downs, director of grid integration, was one of the first people managers to go through the course: “The use of professional actors was particularly worthwhile. It allowed us to stretch ourselves and try new management styles and get immediate peer and coach feedback on how we were being perceived. That’s not something you can do in real life because what you say or do has a consequence, so you tend to be more reserved and considered, which means you’re not being as effective as you could be.

“I learned that how I see myself and how others see me isn’t necessarily the same. Now I’m much more conscious of how I’m responding to the individual and not just the business challenge. As a result I’m getting far more buy-in from my team than ever before.”

The company has seen an increase in line managers taking ownership and responsibility. Everyone now talks enthusiastically about the Leadership Principles and continues to work in their action-based trios to address real business issues. There is a buzz that wasn’t there before and commercial results and customer satisfaction are on the up.

“Before the initiative we were prone to focusing on our own issues and lacking in cohesion,” says Downs. “Now we all genuinely want to help one another. On a personal level, that’s involved me getting involved with other parts of the business. I’m currently helping to resolve a dispute with one of our suppliers relating to one of their products. It’s for a customer that isn’t mine, but I have good experience of resolving those sorts of disputes so it’s great to be able to help one of my peers.”

Mike Sonley is UK learning & development manager at ABB

The Leadership for Managers programme initiative is being rolled out across other business units and was awarded the 2015 CIPD People Management Award for Best Learning and Development Initiative

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