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South African organisations are failing to develop the next generation of leaders

The recently launched USB-ED Management Index is a survey of management opinion in South Africa. An electronic questionnaire was distributed to 14 101 managers across South Africa, with 580 managers responding. The majority of survey respondents represented organisations located in Gauteng (53,3%), followed by the Western Cape (27,6%). Managers from all sectors of the South African economy were represented, with the majority in the financial intermediation (25,0%) and manufacturing (24,5%) sectors. Although the report provides a broad overview of the management landscape and provides information about the challenges currently facing South African businesses, the purpose of this article is to highlight the implications of the main findings from the survey for management education in South Africa.

In general, data from the survey suggest that South African organisations may not be doing enough to develop leadership for the future. Fewer than half of the managers surveyed believe that their organisations allocate sufficient time to learning and development and just over 57 per cent of managers indicated that their organisations are doing enough to develop the next generation of leaders. Contrary to expectations, companies with fewer than fifty employees appear to be doing more in terms of leadership development than their larger counterparts. Just over 66 per cent of managers in companies with fewer than 50 employees believe their organisations are doing enough to develop the next generation of leaders, compared with only 59,5% of managers in companies with more than 5 000 employees.

It is well-known that learning and development is vital to career progression and organisational effectiveness. Results from the survey suggest that South African organisations can do more in terms of providing managers and teams with appropriate learning and development opportunities.  Only 54 per cent of managers surveyed feel that sufficient time is allocated to their learning and development needs. Even fewer (49,8%) believe that sufficient time is allocated to team learning and development. Through the survey, we set out to determine which skills and competencies are essential to the managerial role. The ability to solve problems was ranked as the most important competency to have as a manager. Self-management and strategic thinking were both ranked second, followed by the ability to lead a team and decisiveness. Leading and influencing others, and working effectively as part of a team were jointly ranked fifth. Managing technology and financial management were regarded as the least important competencies. The ability to coach others was ranked 11th, despite the fact that almost three-quarters of respondents spent more time coaching staff over the past three years.  Despite the fact that coaching is seen as a popular approach to learning and development by the majority of managers included in the survey, participation rates remain low. It seems that coaching is generally reserved for more senior staff. Twenty-seven per cent of directors/partners have access to internal coaches, compared with only 21 per cent of middle managers and 17 per cent of first line managers. This is unfortunate as 70 per cent of the managers surveyed believe that their own development would be enhanced by a personal coach.  

A range of learning and development approaches are used by South African organisations.  According to the managers that participated in the survey, 70 per cent indicated that their organisations are likely to make use of open enrolment courses run by external providers and 65,3 per cent make use of customised courses run by external providers.  Respondents were also asked to indicate how effective they believed each of the approaches to learning and development to be. Customised programmes presented by external providers were regarded as the most effective learning and development approach (92,9%), with open enrolment programmes provided by external providers coming in at fourth place at 86,8 per cent.

When asked to comment on the findings of the survey related to the development of the next generation of leaders, Paul de Beer, a faculty member at USB and founder of the Village of Leaders, had this to say: “There is an unfortunate general trend within organisations towards short-termism.  This is partly fuelled by the pressures of the ever-changing business context. Traditionally, managers have been promoted from junior levels owing to excellence in their technical abilities or transactional skills. At senior levels, transformational skills such as stakeholder alignment, vision, long-term thinking and skills such as coaching are critical alongside technical skills. Talent should be carefully selected and then supported in order to develop the skills required at senior levels and to transition adequately. For organisations to be successful, the hard drivers such as margins, efficiencies, technologies, benchmarking, systems and so forth must be mastered as well as the traditionally ‘soft’ areas such as vision, culture, talent development, communication, and reward and recognition, etc.  True leadership is about addressing both! The tyranny of managers is that they keep defaulting to the transactional skills as this is where they have spent most of their careers.”  

*A summary of the major findings of the survey can be viewed here.

Dr Diane Bell is the Director: Academic Affairs at USB Executive Development (USB-ED). She is also Senior Lecturer Extraordinaire at the USB.
Dr Carly Steyn is a Senior Lecturer at UWC.

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