It is hard to picture the scene - a manager in a major manufacturing company with a background in chemical engineering, standing on stage in a tuxedo reading Nelson Mandela's inaugural speech.
But John Petre, Process and Packaging Development Manager with responsibility for all of Batchelors', Oxo's and Campbell's UK processing and packaging needs, wasn't the only one that day to let his hair down in pursuit of better leadership skills.
So far, Campbell's has placed thirty six of its senior managers on the Personal Excellence Programme, designed to produce better teamwork, stronger leadership, and inspired innovation. Participants took part in groups of twelve and sessions were held over a six-month period.
An employee survey had previously highlighted a need for improved leadership and people management skills. The company needed its team leaders to become more creative. The goal was to establish "high-powered, action-oriented teams" led by people who knew how to spot and develop the potential in others. Campbell's wanted a workforce burning with enthusiasm and brimming with ideas, and to achieve this the company had to become more people centred. A shift in culture was about to ensue.
While many companies have introduced personal development programmes for their employees, what made this scheme more interesting than most was the emphasis on creativity. It was about turning the traditional idea of workplace training on its head and allowing people to approach things from a more tangential angle. Maynard Leigh Associates was brought in to add its innovative style to the programme delivery which Rita Dzintas, Head of Training, insisted be “different and inspirational."
Alien though it was to the majority of the participants, they were about to be placed on a journey of self-discovery, forcing them to shed their inhibitions and allow their imaginations to run riot. This was how John Petre came to be standing on stage in front of his peers projecting the words of the former president of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Nelson Mandela.
Like all the participants, John had already completed a personality test and 360° profile assessment. This allowed participants to identify the areas that they needed to work on. In John's case, the feedback helped him realise that he needed to learn how to celebrate success and to remember to share it with his team.
"I may feel good when things have gone well,” he says, “but I was failing to communicate this. I was always looking at the things that needed doing next instead of reflecting back and saying 'well done'."
Even so, he didn't know what to expect when he and the other participants on his course were told to turn up at an empty theatre for day one of the programme. Everyone arrived clutching an extract of writing - they had been told to bring a piece of poetry, prose or even something they'd written themselves, which they found to be inspirational.
Maynard Leigh associate Nigel Hughes, an actor by profession, asked each participant in turn to take to the stage. John Petre described the process as initially "pretty traumatic," adding: "I am usually quite comfortable standing up in front of people but that comfort comes from having something prepared in advance. This was about sharing something about myself with my peers.”
Participants could choose props and costumes, which was certainly outside their regular comfort zone. After selecting a tuxedo for his costume, John took centre stage. He was anxious because the piece had to be recalled by memory. Even so, he managed to give a fairly flawless five-minute reading. The audience of the other course participants applauded and he prepared to exit gracefully to the wings.
"Not so fast," Nigel told him. "You have to entertain us for another five minutes."
Nigel told John to worry less about the words and more about the delivery. Under Nigel's direction John gave a repeat performance.
"He got me to do it in a more natural way so that it flowed better. It was a bonding experience as it was clear that everyone found it difficult," said John. Nigel explained that the aim of the exercise was to create a dramatic shift.
"I put them in the spotlight to see how they performed under pressure and to see how flexible they were at taking direction. For example, if they were reading their extract in a deadly serious voice I would ask them to read it again in an irreverent tone. If you can imagine yourself in the theatre on stage for the first time in front of 11 of your peers it can be quite daunting."
The next exercise involved asking the course members to talk through their current work situation with colleagues. If the participants assumed this task would be more conventional, they were wrong. Nigel's sessions were never going to be about flip charts, overhead projectors and company accounts. He invited them to use a dramatic style to create a snapshot image of their work situation.
"Rather than just letting them talk the situation over in rational terms we wanted them to be more creative and imaginative in their approach," explained Nigel. John Petre used the exercise to work on the stumbling block he'd identified earlier at the 360° feedback session. He was determined to tackle the difficulties he had with recognising and celebrating success.
He performed a before and after scenario. The first scene depicted John clasping a small Oscar trophy while the rest of the team looked in the other direction. The next scene featured the whole team, including John, holding onto little Oscars, to depict the concept of success being shared.
Course members used this method to work through their own personal obstacles, and in doing so had to direct their colleagues to play different parts and likewise be willing to be directed in turn. It may have felt like a game, but Nigel was using this technique to help the group unlock their own creativity and to become confident in communicating effectively with their peers.
"One of the reasons we had been brought in was because many of Campbell's leaders had to wait for permission from the chief executive level, rather than taking the initiative themselves," he explained.
Participants were then asked to form action steps to highlight what they would do once they returned to the workplace. Because the course ran at intervals over a six-month period, the Campbell's leaders were able to practice some of what they'd learned straight away.
The whole focus of the Personal Excellence Programme was to encourage participants to use the right side of their brains when approaching business situations. For example, Nigel asked them to create a business plan to market a marbles museum, deliberately selecting a fun object that bore no relation to Campbell's product line. In this way the participants could approach their plans from a fresh perspective. Although the product may have seemed frivolous - a museum to display a child's plaything - the course members were told to take it seriously. They had to create a working model, operate within a strict timescale, sort out how the museum would be marketed and work out the cost-benefit.
Much to John's delight, the course also included a session on celebrating success - clearly he was not alone in highlighting this as his Achilles' heel. The participants discussed how they would celebrate as a team if a business deal went well. One team selected a day flying planes at an airfield, another chose to celebrate by going sailing. The celebrations weren't just theoretical - the participants were told to go ahead with their ideas and have fun.
The confidence issue is something that Rita Dzintars says has benefited the whole company. "The people that have completed the course feel that they have permission to succeed."
Campbell's clearly sees the value of the programme and has invested a quarter of its total training budget on the programme. More leaders followed through the Personal Excellence experience as the company steamrollers its way towards becoming a people-focused organisation offering more to employees in terms of personal development.
"The course definitely taught me how to recognise and celebrate success better but there were other benefits too," says John. "My relationship with my peers on the course has become much stronger and my personal confidence has increased. Although some of the time I felt pretty uncomfortable I enjoyed being stretched. The focus of the programme was to look at things in a softer more emotional way. As an engineer, that went against the grain for me. I am used to challenges but usually these are outdoor activities like scuba diving, abseiling or motor racing. This course involved being challenged in a more cerebral way. I found it very valuable."