Approaches for sustaining and building management and leadership capability in vocational education and training providers

By Victor Callan, John Mitchell, Berwyn Clayton, Larry Smith Research report 28 August 2007 ISBN 978 1 921170 45 4 print; 978 1 921170 51 5 web


This study examines the existing and potential strategies for sustaining and building greater levels of management and leadership capability in training organisations. The research report is one of the products of a nationally based research consortium: Supporting vocational education and training (VET) providers in building capability for the future.


About the research

This study examines the existing and potential strategies for sustaining and building greater levels of management and leadership capability in training organisations.

  • Vocational education and training (VET) providers are well aware of the urgent need to develop the leadership talent that presently exists to guarantee both the current and future success of their organisations.

  • The good news is that the talent is seen to be there at various levels and, if not, it is being brought in mostly from private sector organisations, particularly to meet leadership needs at the executive level.

  • The programs and initiatives used to build the existing and future management and leadership talent are still in the very early development stages in most VET organisations.

    Most organisations are still working to reach agreement about the capabilities required for their managers and leaders. While the progress is slow, what is being done is being executed soundly. Appropriate financial and in-kind support—especially time—is required to help assure success.

  • Existing management and leadership development programs are often fragmentary and short-term, and not focused on longer-term corporate strategies and needs.

    Consequently, the needs of the majority of staff in leadership roles at various levels in the organisation are not being met. To reap better returns from their investments in leadership programs, training organisations need to make stronger links between their corporate strategy and objectives, and their training and development plans and initiatives.

  • VET organisations need to embrace the wide range of available approaches to develop their current and potential leaders and managers.

    More support is needed for learning on the job and action-learning projects that bring staff together from across the organisation, particularly in terms of developing both lower- and middle-level leadership talent. In addition, better use can be made of strategies such as coaching.

  • Currently, there is considerable duplication of effort in developing resources and tools for meeting managers’ professional development needs across the sector.

    The sharing of these resources and the enhancement of support mechanisms at a national level is a more efficient way to build leadership and management capabilities in the VET sector.

Executive summary

This report addresses three research questions:

  • What are the current understandings of leadership in the vocational education and training (VET) sector, and what types of management and leadership capabilities are required for the present and the future?

  • What approaches to learning and management development are being used?

  • What is successful and what approaches might be used more often in the future?

These research questions were addressed using the findings from interviews in 2006 with 125 individuals employed in 30 training organisations throughout Australia. In terms of the first question about the notions of leadership being advanced, those interviewed, especially at the higher levels of management, embraced the need for a more transformational style of leadership which could deal with the challenges facing training organisations today. This style allowed them to define organisational goals and desired outcomes that typically involved forms of structural and cultural change. They preferred to work with others through participative, collaborative or what were often called ‘shared’ styles of leading to develop strategies and plans to achieve those change goals. There was also a good level of awareness and understanding of the personal qualities required of effective managers and leaders. These qualities were largely based on the concept of emotional intelligence and included the need for vocational education and training managers and leaders to have skills in communication, to be self-aware, to show empathy, and to be tolerant of ambiguity and change.

In terms of the required management and leadership capabilities, most organisations were exploring or had defined what attributes they expected of their leaders at various levels. In the interviews, these capabilities were seen to differ, depending upon the level of management. However, the core capabilities include those related to the transformational qualities of being able to communicate a vision for the organisation, to build successful teams, and to inspire staff to make a commitment to change. These core capabilities also include sound strategic thinking and planning skills, and an ability to be business-like in approach.

What approaches to learning and management development are being used in the VET organisations which participated in this research? We found that management and leadership capabilities are being promoted and sustained in the current VET context by:

  • establishing supportive models, structures and strategies to provide the foundation for the development of the initiatives being followed

  • adopting management education that supported the development of leadership and management skills typically based on the principles of the transformational view of leadership

  • encouraging specific leadership and management training designed to meet the needs of a particular VET organisation, and managing this through on-the-job learning and training.

In terms of supportive models, structures and strategies, a number of VET organisations showed quite advanced levels of strategic thinking and planning about staff development generally, and more specifically that required for developing and sustaining their leaders. We found many examples of clear and strong statements by training organisations explaining their focus upon building and sustaining their leaders, whether in position statements, corporate strategy documents or staff development policies and plans. On the other hand, many other VET organisations were still at the early stages of developing a more strategic approach to their training and development initiatives.

A second major set of successful initiatives focused upon the use of management education to build management and leadership capabilities. There are examples of formal qualifications in leadership at the certificate, diploma and masters degree levels. Across our interviews we found a variety of approaches to the use of formal management development programs, including allowing managers to access external, often cross-industry programs, the use of internal programs designed by the organisation, and partnerships across organisations that supported access to management development.

Although learning on the job through both formal and informal programs is a major tool for developing and sustaining leaders, it is one that is still emerging and needs to be given more opportunity to develop. Many managers reported valuable learning on the job through action-learning projects that typically used a team approach to managing and leading a change initiative, although the budget allocation was typically very small. Furthermore, the use of coaching, with internal or external coaches, is an emerging strategy being used in VET organisations for the development of leaders and managers in the senior executive. Coaching was viewed very positively as a tool that matched the needs of VET managers, offering practical support and advice from experienced, current or ex-managers.

However, to make coaching work better than it currently does, organisations need to consider developing clearer policies about the use of budgets to pay for external coaching and the processes for identifying and training internal coaches, and communicating the role and availability of coaches to staff. Staff rotation is also being used as another on-the-job strategy, although its use is often more reactive than proactive. The practice also seems to meet the needs of staff new to management and leadership roles who want to have practical and wide experience of the businesses within their institutions.

What is successful in terms of developing management and leadership talent in VET organisations and what approaches might be used more often in the future? Under successes, we list examples of management development programs, coaching, and small groups of newer managers working on action-learning projects. In terms of approaches that should be used more often in the future, VET organisations need to:

  • adopt a more systematic approach to leadership and management development, one that makes use of training needs analysis, gap analysis, strategy planning and implementation, evaluation and review, and revision
  • follow a capability framework that provides a unifying influence across an organisation, in terms of understanding the current and required capability among managers
  • link management development needs to the organisation’s strategic plan and business plans
  • promote efforts by staff to seek external funding to support their development. Success in winning such funding sends important messages through the organisation about rewarding the efforts of those individuals and also about the teams who are committed to developing their capabilities
  • provide toolkits to enable managers to access and organise their professional development plans more efficiently. Importantly, this process may be more effective if managed as a system-wide initiative rather than being undertaken on an individual provider basis. Considerable duplication of effort already occurs across the sector in the development of capability frameworks, resources and related materials. By adapting these more system-wide approaches, registered training organisations can meet their particular needs rather than duplicating existing effort
  • identify and support key leadership development programs for the senior levels of managers
  • use coaching programs with a mix of internal and external coaches
  • use action-based learning to develop both lower- and middle-level VET managers.

Finally, and in support of the eight points raised above, this project provides two supporting documents. The first is a literature review and a set of selected readings on leadership. The second provides a set of guidelines and tools for improved approaches to coaching. This resource also includes a set of capability frameworks related to management and leadership that can be used to build a more strategic and systematic approach to leadership development in VET organisations. These resources can be accessed at


nr04025 .pdf 549.0 KB Download
Literature review .pdf 316.0 KB Download
Resources and tools .doc 671.5 KB Download

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