Developing leadership potential in undergraduates


By Francesca Walker, Vicki O’Brien, Geoff Thwaites and Eileen Cunningham, University of Central Lancashire

Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.

(KRUGMAN, 1999)


What is productivity and how do we measure it? The OECD (OECD, 2014) suggests that Productivity is commonly defined as a ratio between the output volume and the volume of inputs. In other words, it measures how efficiently production inputs, such as labour and capital, are being used in an economy to produce a given level of output. For an organisation this implies that there is a need to manage and use input resources efficiently to produce the desired outputs. It includes the leadership of others in the organisation to work to the same approach in using the resources available to them (UKCES e SKILLS, 2014). Research suggests that good leadership engages and motivates staff to be more productive (BLOOM, DORGAN, et al., 2007).

It is important to note that UK productivity from 1948 to 2007 was continuously increasing (ONS, 2014), but the productivity level still lagged behind that of the US, Germany and France (CORRY, 2011).

There is no doubt that employee skills are important, as is the ability to work in organisations; these are learned in school, vocational training, apprenticeships and continuing training. However, to maximise the development and utilisation of these capabilities requires a high level of leadership / management to improve productivity as proven by our international competitors and by the research noted above.

What is it that Business Schools can do to drive up productivity?

Returning to the evidence that good leaders drive productivity improvement, can business schools help to develop the good leaders of the future?

The following discussion piece highlights the value of LaunchPad, an extracurricular leadership development programme developed in 2010 and run for the first time in 2011 at the University of Central Lancashire’s Business School. Here we argue that developing subject knowledge and skills through university degrees, can be enhanced into leadership by identifying talent and potential, managing it over a prolonged period in order to raise the aspirations of undergraduates and create the leaders of the future. This in turn creates a productive workforce. Such a method has been adopted by the US for a number of years (EICH, 2008).

Values / Purpose / Direction

LaunchPad is the brainchild of Dharma Kovvuri, then Dean of the Lancashire Business School, who prior to entering higher education, had received an excellent grounding in management from a large supermarket chain. Dharma saw that there was a great deal of inequality in the educational sphere; in order to enhance the opportunities for graduates from the Business School to compete for the highest level jobs and being the Dean of a Business School in the North West of England (in an institution that was a former Polytechnic (!)) he realised that he was in a position to ‘level the playing field’ by offering the chance to committed students to become the leaders of the future. In creating LaunchPad he defined the purpose; to raise aspirations and gain the best possible graduate roles, the direction; to reach for the stars and believe that you can achieve your goals and to understand where your values lie, for in doing that you will be able to develop into an ‘authentic leader – genuine to your core values’ (Kovvuri, 2015).

Development of the LaunchPad Programme

Every Business School has a leadership programme; such programmes are primarily based within the Schools’ MBA programmes to people who are already in management or leadership roles (we are not at this point going enter the leadership vs management debate) and therefore are current practitioners. The LaunchPad programme differs in that it was designed to identify leadership potential in undergraduates with little or no management experience and then to develop skills and uncover hidden abilities over a two or three year period (students undertaking a three year degree programme would enter at year two, exiting at year three and those on a degree with placement would enter at the same point, but exit during their fourth year).

Those involved in the development of the programme were a team of academics, an Occupational Psychologist, and a Board of professionals, so ensuring that the programme was fit for purpose across a range of industries. Entry to LaunchPad was highly competitive with a limited number of entrants to the programme to ensure commitment.

Building resilient individuals who understand themselves and develop a learning community

The development team recognised that the programme must be able to test each individual; the students experience a wealth of action learning scenarios (HERNEZ_BROOME, 2004) within a safe environment to gain an understanding of their personal limitations and to experience failure. In the first year of the programme we adopt the ‘Comfort, Stretch, Panic’ model (PALETHORPE, 2011), using the outdoors and a number of other development scenarios to enhance the students’ understanding of where their initial limitations lie. This method allows the students to realise greater objectives than they initially thought, so increasing their capabilities and allowing them to understand that obstacles and fears can be overcome and that the greatest learning often comes from being able to make mistakes.

A significant part of the first year focusses on self-awareness, encouraging the students to understand the impact of their behaviour on others, the development of emotional intelligence (PALETHORPE, 2011), learning about what motivates and demotivates their teams and most importantly, the element of Reflective Practice so developing the good habit of becoming a reflective leader/manager (EICH, 2008). The students learn the art of leadership, using the action learning opportunities to rotate and experience different leadership and styles. They often note their surprise at the fact that you can lead from the back and that not all leaders are outspoken and provocative. They learn the value of team working, which develops into a ‘learning community’ which continues outside the structure of the programme, providing support, maintaining drive and commitment, sharing knowledge, advice and friendship. Students learn to challenge and support each other within their diverse community (the group runs across all courses within the School with members from a wide range of countries and cultures), quickly learning the value of their differences and the fine art of the ‘critical friend’, which allows them to gain developmental feedback in a highly constructive manner. “Grades increase (although this is touched on later) with a greater understanding of how to seek and look for developmental feedback and also from the learning environment that (we) are in.” (O’Brien, LP2 2015). It should also be noted that the students have a greater understanding and appreciation of the various departments and roles within a business, so avoiding the ‘silo mentality’ that can develop within large organisations. Such an understanding leads to the forging of inter-departmental relationships, which are often vital to effective working and productivity.

The second year of the programme focusses on the students’ careers, which by the very nature of the group means that they will travel far and wide; at the time of writing the group are entering roles with IBM, J&J, Red Bull Marketing, and travelling to take up roles in China, Salzburg and various locations throughout the UK. The fact that they are mobile and entering a diverse range of roles is due in no small part to their exposure to an overseas study tour to a location that is significantly outside their comfort zone. Such experiences are a major eye opener and show that the world is a smaller place than they think, it challenges their assumptions about cultures and removes a great many of the little ‘prejudices’ that we all seem to hold. In doing this, the students present as rounded individuals, often seeming well beyond their years, with the confidence and humility that attract others to them.

Added Value

The programme is designed to develop the students along a path that allows them to meet with a wide range of professionals at all levels all of whom bring a unique element to the programme and therefore a very different viewpoint which challenges the students to think differently, to see that we are not all the same. The programme is delivered by a dedicated team of professionals who provide intensive support through coaching, mentoring, a level 5 Chartered Management Institute qualification in Leadership and Management, membership of the Institute of Directors, fortnightly masterclasses, and additional opportunities to gain networking and project management skills. The programme in itself is an additional strain on their time, but the group are carefully guided to manage themselves effectively, which means that they rapidly become effective at time and self-management, which is greatly appreciated by their graduate employers.

In terms of the added value to employers, a LaunchPad graduate has many of the skills that recruiters invest in during the first year of a new role. It is interesting to note that LaunchPad graduates are often accelerated through programmes as they quickly demonstrate that they are equipped with many of the skills required for the role. In addition, the students are able to identify programmes that will suit their styles and values, so reducing the waste of the number of new recruits leaving roles due to a miss-match (TOVEY, 2014).

Paying it forward

Many leadership development programmes are short-lived, aimed solely at professionals, running for weeks, months and, occasionally, years. Graduates of the LaunchPad programme take the programme to the next level, their body of transferable skills and knowledge provides support to the next generation. The fact that the programme develops surface to deep learning (BIGGS, 1982) means that their experiences are embedded and remembered as they develop within their careers.

Return on Investment and Productivity – The LaunchPad Effect

The LaunchPad programme is a tiny investment from the University’s annual budget, but the return (productivity) far outweighs the input. The resilience of the students and their commitment to the programme results in a significant increase in their grades; the students enter into the graduate programmes that they desire, quickly becoming essential and productive members of the team. What has become affectionately known as ‘the LaunchPad effect’ within the School is one of the unexpected outcomes of the programme, the students themselves have a drive and enthusiasm that is infectious, so driving their fellow students to achieve greater things (and they do). The students themselves note that the skills that they gain are significant and highly relevant to the workplace (and therefore to productivity), such as: confidence, presentation skills, diplomacy, time management, communication, cultural awareness, the ability to build and maintain relationships, managing teams, resilience and adaptability and the overall motivation to succeed. In 2015 we will recruit our 100th LaunchPad member, those within this new group will be welcomed into an established community of supportive, engaged, driven and positive individuals.

Conclusion and further points for discussion

If, as noted by Bloom, van Reenen et al, management skills have a ‘significant effect …on firm productivity and performance’, then surely all Business Schools have a duty to create robust and effective leadership programmes at the undergraduate level. The LaunchPad programme provides a rounded individual with a proven set of hard and soft skills which makes the new employee and future leader highly productive. The skills and training within the programme are far from unique within the educational and training world, but are recognised as essential tools for productivity (ESRC e COUNCIL, 2012); the difference here is that the skills are packaged to provide an early grounding in the expertise required for leadership and management (the exception to this can be seen within the armed forces training).

Although a relatively young programme (LaunchPad will be 5 in October 2015), there are significant results which cannot and should not be ignored, and investing in the future of our undergraduates now will pay dividends for the country in the future. Nothing developed by the Business School is unique, the model could be transferred to any institution.


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