The wisdom of the ages

26th March 2004 at 00:00
When I worked for the Royal College of Art I went to Japan to thank our sponsors. Among them were global companies such as Canon and Toyota, whose support helped the college to be the world leader in digital imaging and automotive design. We owed them a lot. Their relationship with us gave them access to the kind of freewheeling visual and technical creativity this country is famous for.

If, like all durable sponsorship partnerships, this one offered a balance of advantage, I was still unprepared to be given more than an hour to talk with the chairman of Canon. The Anglo-American way with courtesy calls is short and vacuous. The meaning of the event lies in its having taken place rather than its content. Not so in Japan.

The element of ritual is even more powerful - the bows, the two-handed proffering of cards, the exchange of gifts, the elaborate compliments - but expectations of the discussion are that it should contribute, however infinitesimally, to the long-term health of the relationship and of both the participating businesses.

Talk was of political and social events. Of art and science. Of expectations and hopes for the future. Almost nothing was said about optics, images or our plans together over the coming two or three years. It was a real workout for the grey matter and I was deeply impressed.

Why could this happen in Japan and never in the West? Because of profound differences in business culture. Here, energy and ability can propel a young manager to the top very quickly: the top in terms of both money and status.

In Japan, cash rewards are certainly there for the young and successful, but power is gained only with age. The most senior executives qualify for their Senior Citizen Railcards. They are not called on to be at the cutting edge, delivering today's profits. Their job is to take the time to do the thinking that will keep the corporation at the top for decades to come.

The success of Japanese business, in good national economic times and bad, commands respect. Japanese companies are exceptionally durable. They continue to dominate world manufacturing in everything from ships, to cars, to cameras, to pianos and consumer electronics. Surely that has to have something to do with their style of leadership, as well as all their well-known skills in reverse engineering, lean manufacturing and continuous improvement?

That conjecture stays with me as I look at the emerging Leadership College.

What sort of leadership do we want to foster? Conversations with colleagues at the Association of Colleges over the years have charted the gradually declining numbers of credible candidates for principalships.

I often interview divisional managers and assistant principals, tomorrow's leaders in further education, and am not always impressed. The conventional wisdom is that management de-layering and the disagreeable job that college leadership seems often to have become, have blighted natural succession.

Something has to be done and the Leadership College is the body to apply mouth-to-mouth to further education.

It's a funny thing, but carefully-premeditated succession planning is almost unknown in the English public sector. It requires the deliberate crisis-proofing of every key job in the organisation. It requires some measure of hierarchy, of the selection and grooming of appointed deputies, however seduced one might be by theories about the efficiency of flat structures. It requires that risk management be embr-aced, rather than merely tolerated, and that human risks be taken as seriously as financial and other objective dangers. It requires a genuine commitment to performance management and use of the information it throws up to assemble a talent pool on whose members personal development investment is concentrated. It requires top dogs to contemplate their professional mortality before time forces them to do so, and to take pains and pleasure from preparing others to take over. It requires a cultural shift away from the notion that the external applicant for senior posts is always to be preferred, as a bringer of "new blood". And, above all, it demands that principals have time to devote to protecting the college's destiny.

However successful are the excellent Lynne Sedgmore and her colleagues at the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, they will not revive their patient without a change of culture. It is the business of public institutions to endure. Without the unfair dose of immortality which state funding gives them, colleges cannot build a stock of knowledge, experience and facilities to enable them to serve their communities through thick and thin.

They cannot be the safety net which continues to invest in skills temporarily out of demand when the economy dips. They cannot be that beacon of learning for learning's sake which sometimes brings a tear to my eye when I see its effect on an adult who has escaped the limits set by poor schooling and a rotten job.

Principals are not just effective managers. Their job also is to be the "scholar king", shaping the future with wisdom and an appetite undimmed by too much concern for the present. That is the lesson from leadership in Japan.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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