In July 2000, Novartis piloted a new leadership development program for front-line managers. The program, called Leading at the Front Line (M1), was designed to improve the performance of the company’s current front-line managers as well as create role models for the next generation.
Designed by a team of training specialists, Novartis senior management, Neil Johnston, and author James Noel, the process-driven program encompasses skill development and self-awareness. Over time, M1 has proven to be relevant and successful for participants, business units and functions, as well as inherently global and expandable.
“The program retains its freshness because it is built around very strong core processes,” said Neil Johnston, one of the original designers of Leading at the Front Line. “They have become a foundation on which each business unit and facilitator can meet the needs of participants in that particular year — processes are an underlying foundation on which they can build rather than a restriction on what they can do.”
The program’s design flows out of the fundamental concept of the leadership pipeline, highlighted in the book The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company by Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter and James Noel. The concept is that development is most effective when people transition to a higher level of management in an organization.
Examples of this are when a person first becomes a new manager, when a current manager is promoted to being a “manager of managers,” or when he or she becomes a functional or business unit leader. People are more receptive to learning at these key transitions, when the changes in skill requirements, work focus and time usage are most pressing.
Currently, M1 is offered to managers new to Novartis and internally promoted managers shortly after their promotion — within six to 12 months. This is enough time in the new position to ascertain what they don’t know, but early enough that habits have not yet been formed. For many, the transition to management is a big change, especially in a science-based company. To suddenly be in charge of a group of people and to be responsible for their performance, development and output — as opposed to individual output — is a major shift. M1’s goal is to help people start in their new position with the processes, skills and personal awareness to do the job against clearly defined expectations.
The program addresses each subject area through three steps: process, skills and personality. The careful application of processes can enhance managers’ efficiency; managers then can improve their skills by applying the process and increasing effectiveness; and, finally, an awareness of personality highlights how easily managers are able to apply the skills within the process — and to understand the reactions they are receiving from their direct reports.
Bucking Trends, Setting Targets
The content of M1 has been tightly controlled over the years, avoiding responding to fads and the “flavor of the week.” The program focuses strictly on management foundations, such as how to better manage a business unit, people, projects and oneself to become a more effective leader and role model.
The foundations are built around selection, coaching, performance management — setting objectives, delegating work, assessing performance and giving feedback — and team development, processes and skills. There is a strong emphasis on emotional intelligence and self-awareness through multi-rater surveys and individual assessments on personality, learning styles, conflict management and potential derailers.
Central to the success of M1 is a customized approach, requiring participants to bring their current issues and situations into the classroom. Rather than feeling as if they’re losing five days out of the office, managers are encouraged to recognize that they’re bringing the problems of the office with them to be solved. Experienced facilitators work with each associate and teach the processes and skills needed to manage those concerns successfully.
Program Description and Structure
The pre-work before the classroom phase takes participants about eight hours to complete. First, they talk with their own managers to identify specific issues that are particularly relevant to their situation for the upcoming year, which are linked to the performance management system. These can be either strengths they want to consolidate or challenges they want to address.
Preparation work consists of compiling materials to bring with them to the classroom, reading articles, completing individual assessments and initiating multi-rater surveys. The mindset is: “This is a practical program that ties right in to my job right now.” It is not something that participants go attend, listen to for a week and hang up on the shelf the minute they’re back in the office.
Participants’ real situations and concerns, such as time management or performance issues, are used as a basis for teaching process knowledge and skills. The program does not use simulations, case studies or “desert survivor” tactics. M1 works with managers’ real-world issues. When they finish, they have a very practical action plan that can be applied immediately.
Process and Application of Skills
The M1 program is process-driven because processes are culturally independent. For example, while coaching style may differ by country — meaning a different application of coaching is used in Japan vs. Germany or Brazil vs. the U.S. — the underlying process is the same throughout the world.
“We knew from our past experience and success that the process part would work in every culture around the world,” Johnston said. “However, whenever you translate concepts into other languages there are always challenges.”
For example, there are many languages that don’t have a word for coaching. Coaching is a Western concept and word. While the M1 program does employ the word “coaching,” it has been carefully translated to ensure that everyone has a model they can relate to and that all can understand the nuances around non-native words and concepts.
A major portion of time in the program is spent on actually practicing the skills being learned. This is founded on proven adult learning methodology; adults learn best by doing and applying. Therefore, every time there is a process skill or personality input during the program, there is an opportunity to practice the learning. When participants return to the workplace, there is an immediate practical application with their people or in their teams.
Further, this action plan can be included in yearly objectives, and its successful implementation means that the participant is “M1 certified.” This inclusion in the yearly objectives provides the formal context to support the full integration of the M1 in the performance management system.
The facilitators of the program are there not just to facilitate, but also to use their knowledge and experience to engage participants in a dialogue. They may give specific advice on how to deal with issues. This genuine dialogue between facilitators and participants reinforces the focus on outcomes and application.
Each day the participants are asked to take reflection time on what they’ve learned that day. They articulate those reflections to a peer in the program. This embeds their learning day by day. By the time they create their action plans at the end of the classroom phase, there is no doubt about the importance and relevance for their current jobs and continuing development as leaders.
Following the program, participants recalibrate their action plans with their managers, review feedback with their raters and adjust goals back again into action. They learn a new approach, assess the relevance, practice, try it again, get feedback and see whether it works.
The structure of the M1 program has remained stable throughout its 10-year history, though the content has been adjusted through annual feedback and updating. That’s mainly because a 10-year period brings many social, economic, business and political climate changes, and the ways in which these issues are dealt with reflects the needs of the current year and the concerns of the participants.
M1 was designed to be a structured — not scripted — program. For example, the facilitators have the ability to use their own language and examples within a common framework. The same team of internal and external specialists has trained every facilitator — more than 150 to date. This consistency over such a long period is a tribute to the combined desire for excellence.
The dynamic nature of M1 comes from the participants. The facilitators are there to react to people’s real concerns. In the classroom, the less a facilitator presents, the more value the participants gain. Concepts, frameworks and models are introduced in 30- to 40-minute segments. Participants then get two to three times that amount of time to absorb it, think about it in relationship to themselves and integrate it with everything else they are learning. There’s a heavy ratio in favor of personal practice and interactions with others.
Coaching also is an integral part of the M1 program, as every participant has at least 30 minutes of one-on-one time with a facilitator. And for a class of between 24 and 28 managers, there are typically two facilitators.
Senior Management Support
In the creation of M1, senior management wanted everyone to have the experience of being led by a well-trained manager. Leadership support has proven critical to the success of the program, and has been reinforced by the ongoing reaction of participants. Although M1 is a corporate brand, it sits very comfortably within the needs of each business unit and geography around the world.
There has been much evaluation and measurement of the program over the years, from individual program evaluations and organization-level feedback to senior management team input and companywide follow-up. The 18,000-plus managers who have gone through M1 impact the lives of more than 70,000 Novartis associates every day. In fact, they recruit the majority of associates who are going to be the managers of the future. They are the key transmitters of the standards, values and behaviors by which Novartis wants to achieve its mission.
Ultimately, the investment in M1 is one of the building blocks that will ensure the long-term economic success of Novartis and its ability to continue to bring innovative solutions to the world’s health issues.
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