Manager’s Personal Development: Dotcom Fads Weren’t All Bad

This article originally appeared in the Financial Times

The staff masseuse, the free personal therapist and the team building exercise in the Amazon jungle have been cut back along with most of the fads that were part of the dotcom boom.

However, although the symbols of dotcom excess may have been dropped, there have been some lasting legacies. Aside from tie-less suits and a non-hierarchical management style, one of the most enduring effects of the dotcom era on the workplace has been a widespread acceptance of the idea that employees can benefit from the personal development gained outside the constraints of the classroom or the office.

“Personal development courses have really taken off in the past few years,” says Graham Guest, a learning and development consultant. “There has been a merger between personal and professional development, with employees realising they want to reach their own potential and companies recognising that if they want to recruit and retain the best staff they need to help them work towards that (aim).”

To be fair, people have always been interested in personal growth and management and self-help tomes have been flying off the bookshelves for at least a decade. But what the internet era did was spread the trend to more conventional blue chip companies. “There was a huge increase in the number of entrepreneurs and that was all about personal fulfilment in a work environment. There was a cross-over effect,” says Mr Guest.

Companies are sold personal development on the basis that it is good for them as well as their people. Courses may range from Burger King managers walking on hot coals to build their confidence to Cisco staff being sent to hear a motivational speaker.

In general, however, there is a trend towards counselling, coaching and communication, and away from outdoor events, such as yachting or climbing. “It’s always interesting to see people in a different context but people have realised that activities such as rock climbing or firewalking do not always translate back at the office,” says Mr Guest.

The themes underpinning personal development philosophies appear straightforward: people can achieve far more than they thought possible if they try to understand themselves, overcome their self-limiting beliefs and work at understanding what it feels like to be in another person’s shoes.

The techniques used to deliver these messages vary enormously. Jacquie Drake is a director of the Praxis Centre, part of Cranfield School of Management, which helps executives to develop “personal effectiveness”. Everything from drama training to poetry to tai chi, massage and yoga is used in its holistic approach to helping managers “realise their potential in leadership, team-building and managing change”.

Dr Drake uses the analogy of driving to explain its techniques.  Although you can learn the theory of how to drive in a classroom, it is only once you have the experience of driving that you know how to drive. You need to connect on an emotional and physical level, as well as knowing the intellectual and rational, to understand how things work.

“We can help people to discover what it feels like to act differently rather than just being told,” she says.

Not everyone responds to the more unusual techniques on offer and with personal development courses costing anything up to Pounds 3,000 a day, there is room for scepticism. Many of the benefits promised by personal development training are too subjective for rigorous appraisal and their credibility relies on the endorsements of individuals who have tried them.

“There has been a huge increase in personal training and an explosion in coaching,” says Martyn Sloman, adviser on learning and training at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “More managers are expected to act as coaches in part because, in some areas, it is very hard to get an outsider who is just as experienced and has as good an understanding of the organisation.”

Online programmes have also become much more sophisticated and can provide a cheap and effective means of meeting both organisational and individual aspirations.

Sarah Fletcher, senior lecturer with responsibility for mentoring and induction at Bath Spa University College, is working on a project to keep teachers refreshed in their job and developing their skills, rather than getting stale and quitting.

She uses a computerised questionnaire called FutureSelves that helps teachers to figure out how they would like to see themselves in the future. “The problem with a lot of coaching or personal development is that enthusiasm fades. People make grand plans and do not stick with them,” says Ms Fletcher.

“Good coaching and development also needs to cut to the chase quickly and using an approach like FutureSelves makes it very grounded in reality, so people are more likely to stay with it.”