Dove Nest Group

Developing the next generation of leaders, the apprentice levy and ROI – Pete Harris of The Works explains how they are connecting the dots

Pete Harris joined The Works as Learning and Development partner in March 2017 on a 3-month contract and loved it so much he’s still there today. Pete arrived just as the Apprentice Levy was about to hit, so it was straight in at the deep end. Fast forward to today and the second cohort of Area Managers Designate are successfully navigating their way through a Level 5 Leadership and Management Apprenticeship. I spoke to Pete to ask him about Leadership Development, the apprentice levy and what it means to learners and managers at The Works. He shared his story and passed on three key learnings from his experience.

Pete said “When I joined there was concern in the business about the levy. The Works are a business which delivers a strong value proposition. The levy represented a significant pot of money. My remit was to make sure I delivered value for money for the business, by utilising the levy pot. Initially, I treated the levy funds like any other part of the L&D budget. However, there are strict limits on what the levy can and can’t be used for”.

So how did you approach using the levy money?
We took the approach that we would design a career development and progression programme first, and then see what parts might be related to the levy. Rather than trying to crowbar the levy into something that wasn’t really suited for. It’s got to be right for the business and people first, then if it fits within the levy framework, that’s great.

What development needs were there in the people and the business?
When I joined the business, we had a bit of a backlog of people who wanted that next step up. There were people who had lots of drive and ambition, but perhaps not quite the right skills – particularly around leadership and management. In the past, we had good store managers leaving our business to get experience by managing larger retail stores, before wanting to come back as area managers. All the whilst we had area manager vacancies which we were struggling to fill. People didn’t see their capability to jump from store manager to area manager, and we needed to bridge that gap – and make sure the business had visibility of the development that was going on.

It’s one thing having a lot of ambitious people, who want to step up, but the apprentice programme isn’t the right fit for everyone. How did you go about selecting people for the programme?
We decided to go through a really formal assessment process. We ran assessment centres. Run by our recruitment manager, 45-50 people were put through their paces for each cohort, almost like they were applying for an area manager’s role itself. We’ve actually ended up creating an Area Manager Designate position – specifically for people on the programme – to show a bit of faith in them, and help them get seen by the rest of the business.

You can have bright and motivated people, but for this type of programme to really work, the buy in of senior managers is really important. So part of the entry level was that their immediate line manager had to authorise their application and their divisional manager had to ratify that decision.

You’ve said line manager involvement is important, can you give an example?
It’s noticeable that those managers who are more bought into the programme, who actively support it and engage with L&D and HR partners, have people who perform much better on the programme. They’re seeing people more engaged and better engagement means better performance through the formal part of the programme.

How does the Apprentice programme link to real work?
The people on the cohort “area manager designates” are spread out across the country. Every area manager gets five weeks holiday per year. So, each one of our area managers designate can then step up for 5 weeks of the year to cover an area manager’s holiday – a few of our cohort are stepping in to run other areas too when we have holiday or sickness to cover. When covering for an area manager, the cohort are getting exposed to experiences and situations they wouldn’t normally encounter, that’s the meaty stuff, and something you can’t buy.

How do you manage the often dreaded 20% off-the-job learning?
Its something we were really concerned about before we started. To take a manager out of a store for effectively one day a week is massive. However, when you actually break it down, it wasn’t that bad. A big chunk of the required time is covered already, just by covering Area Manager holidays. Then you add in the residential, the tutorials, the coaching calls, when you add that all together I think there was only about 12 days each year, we need to find. It can generally boil down then to 3 or 4 hours a week – which we’ve been supporting centrally by adding the hours into store labour budgets.

How does the programme feed into career development and progression at The Works?
Its really about giving people the faithful promise that there is a role they can develop into, without over-promising that it in a specific role. We put in a hard gateway around this type of progression to area manager. If you weren’t on the programme and didn’t want to put in 2 years’ worth of work, then you weren’t likely to be moved into that next role. The programme wasn’t a guarantee of promotion but completing the programme would give you your absolute best chance.

What’s been the feedback from people on the programme?
For some of our guys, the studying was a big step up – particularly the formal assignments. But the feedback has been universally positive about their experience of the interventions on the programme. The absolutely love the coaching calls. They loved the residential and they are enjoying working through the assignments. Our second cohort has been slightly derailed by Covid-19 and the impact on their ability to travel and have face to face training, but in general we’ve managed to work through that – and they’re still in a great place.

Our second cohort are mentored and supported by our first cohort to go through the programme, they have the real-life experience, so they know the challenges and benefits. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, helping the new learners, increasing exposure and building a network. We hope its going to work really well.

So is the programme delivering value for money?
Yes! We know that everything we have invested in this level 5 group we have got back, both in terms of internal promotions, or even putting people into a role on a temporary basis whilst we recruit, means we cover the Area and we don’t get the drop in sales we might otherwise expect. We’ve also saved on recruitment and induction time and costs. Across the two cohorts we’ve filled 7 Area Manager positions through the programme – plus another 2 are currently standing in as cover for Maternity and long term absence – so it’s definitely been worth it.

How did you go about choosing an apprentice programme provider?
There were a few things we were looking for in a provider. We knew that we wanted a stable partner, a company who was well established and had been doing something similar for some considerable time. Especially as we understood that the apprentice levy was new.

We wanted a partner who was not so big that they were going to be difficult to work alongside and adapt things with them. There were some very big providers around. But they were offering prospectuses with even some of the dates already defined. When you look at that as a retailer, you know that’s just not going to work. When the provider wanted everyone out of the business for two days during Easter week, you know that’s not going to happen. We need a little bit of flexibility. When we spoke to Dove Nest, they were very flexible and understanding of the business needs.

We also felt we would be able to build a partnership with them as opposed to buying a service from them.

I wanted an organisation that would be honest with me. Also, someone that I can challenge a little bit. If there were any issues, that I would know straight away and not find out 3 months down the line when it was too late to remedy anything.

When I met with Jenny, Sales Director (now MD) at Dove Nest Group, I heard everything I wanted to hear, and there was a lot of evidence to back up what we were hearing. It was great to see the honesty, to be informed what the challenges were likely to be. Not to have them hidden and be told “its going to be fine”. Instead we had someone who told us what was going to be tricky, telling us what we would probably need to do and what support they could give us to overcome that.

What advice would you give to fellow L&D professionals about to launch into a Leadership Development apprentice programme?
The biggest learning would be to make sure you engage the line managers and the learners, together.

Make sure the learners can see the benefits of the apprenticeship, not just the programme, but the wider benefits

They’re going to have the chance to step up and do a job that they aren’t used to be doing, which is going to be a massive development opportunity and challenge, then you have the support of the programme running underneath that.

For the line managers, it is about engaging them in how they are going to utilise this person, who has this motivation and drive, how do you release that potential? Sometimes its about letting go of a part their role and pass that on to develop their people.

The second piece of advice would be to assess your potential candidates properly. Make sure you are getting the right people onto the programme. The cost of having someone reasonably senior in your organisation, spending a day a week, doing something they aren’t cut out for, or aren’t enjoying is massive. It can be incredibly destructive to them, their team and other people around them. Be open and honest with them about the work required – and don’t worry about putting people off, if you’re not honest, you’ll end up with a high dropout rate – and that won’t be good for anyone.

Finally, the third key learning would be to make sure you are working with a partner that shares some of your values. There’s no substitute for people who are passionate about your people. It doesn’t have to be everything, you don’t have to be exactly the same organisations, or believe in exactly the same things. But if you are working with a provider that is literally playing the numbers game, then that’s going to show in the results.