Steve Price

Interview - EIL's Steve Price

The European Institute for Industrial Leadership is breathing new life into management learning, says its executive director, Steve Price.

As the Eurostar pulls in to Brussels-Midi Steve Price is waiting for me, and as there is no time to lose our meeting starts in his car. During the drive to his organisation's headquarters in the leafy suburbs, we scope the interview. It's a technique that applies as much to management or leadership as it does to journalism and we're immediately on familiar ground, working out what we want to achieve and how we're going to do it.

By the time we reach the Chateau la Tour de Freins 30 minutes later, our work is half done. I comment that this is an example of the value of face-to-face meetings where there's a preformed understanding of what the desired outcome might be. 'That's what our learning experiences aim to provide,' says Price, who is executive director of the European Institute for Industrial Leadership (EIIL).

A century ago the chateau was a sanatorium for convalescents with respiratory ailments, Price tells me, before informing me that it had also once been the Embassy of the Czech Republic. Since 2002 the Renaissance-style country house has been in the hands of the Brussels regional government, home to high-tech research organisations and a conference centre.

After a brief spell in the city the EIIL relocated to the chateau, tucked away on the outskirts of the Forêt de Soignes. With magpies chattering in the woods and a bee farm in the garden, the chateau is the perfect idyllic retreat from the hurly-burly of spreadsheets and production schedules, where developing industrial leadership skills might come naturally. While a century ago the building's purpose was to take advantage of the pristine atmosphere of the forest and to literally breathe new life into tuberculosis victims, today – in a more metaphorical sense – its role is to bring a breath of fresh air to technological innovation and team leadership.

Price shows me into a light and airy top floor learning area, tables arranged in a horseshoe rather than the more conventional row-by-row format: the first significant clue to how learning at the EIIL is inclusive and collaborative. We sit at a breakout table where Price, a keen rugby player, takes me through what makes his organisation tick. Littered with sporting metaphors, his conversation is all about providing learning opportunities for engineers to enable them to invigorate their careers while staying within their industrial sectors. 'So many bright people with fantastic credentials are poached from industry by lucrative offers from the finance sector.' As a rule, he tells me, these people are intelligent, with analytical minds and decent numeracy skills. They also have MBAs, and that's why the banking profession wants them. Price argues passionately that these are the very professionals we need to nurture and keep in the technology sector.

The next generation of engineers

The EIIL was formed in 2003 and Price has been with them since the beginning. At the time he was an independent project manager, having spent many years within the monolithic corporate structure at ICI.

A group of CEO-level engineers approached Price to ask him to investigate what could be done about the brain drain into the finance sector. 'This group was essentially made up of what became the founding fathers of the EIIL.' It included members of the IET and the IMechE; all of them senior professional engineers wanting to know where the next generation of like-minded people would come from.

One of the questions they asked was why there was this decline in the number of engineers running technology-led businesses. Why were there fewer technical people getting to the top? 'The group took the view that as engineers they had got to the top, so why was it different now?' says Price. 'Why were good middle-level technologists leaving the sector, and what could be done to retain them? They tasked me to investigate the hypothesis that we could keep them if we could somehow make them more promotable. So rather than bring in professional managers from the side, why not develop managers from the technical core of the industry and bring them on?'

The debate ranged around the notion that it's simply a better idea to develop good engineers into good managers than it is to bring in managers with no innate appreciation of the technical aspects of the business they are about to run. 'There's no doubt that professional managers have a function. But will they ever really understand the technology? I can understand why the jury may be split on this, but you have to have a starting premise.'

This starting premise was assumed to be good, and Price then set out to find out if it held water. 'I developed an interview protocol and went around 26 senior professionals asking them what were the skills that had taken them to where they were today. I then asked what skills they thought the next generation would need and whether we needed a mechanism to help nurture the next generation of industry leaders.' This feasibility project was part funded by the Brussels regional government as well as by the participants looking for the answer to the original question. 'It was a good project to work on and we ran a conference to share the results at the end of it.'

From the conference's conclusions it emerged that there was a pressing need for four areas of development for the next generation of managers, and that there was a core group of companies with the desire to put something together to make this happen.

'We wrote back to all the conference attendees telling them that the EIIL had started and that by the end of 2004 there would be an academic year's programme of activities in place that would address the needs that the conference had identified.'

Eight years later I push Price into a one-sentence definition of the EIIL. 'We're a membership organisation and learning co-operative for the exchange of knowledge between senior engineering managers and those with the potential to reach that position.' Price explains that this is achieved mainly through the EIIL learning programme that now has a core of 26 workshops intended to complement whatever leadership development programmes companies have in place. 'You may wish to attend just one workshop, or as some of our member companies do, you can send groups of people to attend every one in a year.'

A different education

Apart from bringing his industrial experience to the EIIL, Price also has first-hand knowledge of how business is taught, having done an MBA at Cranfield while on ICI's staff. 'Well, I didn't complete the MBA.' This is because, as Price says, a lot of companies don't want you to, because an MBA is a marketable qualification and the fear is that you and your newly acquired certificate will go off into the sunset. Price is careful not to be critical of either his former employer or the Cranfield School of Management. But he is adamant that what the EIIL offers is different from business school education.

'What I leaned at business school is that the actual content of the course is less important than the networking and exchange of ideas that go hand in hand with attending.' And it is this observation that arms the EIIL with its underpinning philosophy of not teaching, but making available opportunities to learn. 'This scares HR people, because they can't identify the boxes you're going to be able to tick when you come out of it.'

At Cranfield, Price says he started to learn that definitive answers are not always the most appropriate way to solve problems. 'Business schools can supply good academic model answers, but there are shades of grey and here at the EIIL we take this to another extreme, which is why I say that we don't teach here. We look at good practice or a number of good practices.'

For industry leaders with untapped management skill in their engineering base, why would they prefer to use EIIL-style learning than, say, the more conventional approach of farming talented professionals out to hone their skills in business schools? 'If you want a badge that's industry recognised then by all means follow the more conventional route. I've got no problem with that, at all.'

At this point Price rummages through some presentation aids and emerges with a schematic of the Kolb learning cycle where the four stages (adapted by Honey and Mumford for business and management techniques) are: having an experience, reviewing the experience, concluding from the experience and planning the following steps.

'The problem with business school professors is that they go out and look at a few organisations and then get caught up in the reflective part of the cycle. But here in our learning programmes we include all the phases and so, if you were to apply the example of a golfer it might work like this: You could have the experience of hitting the ball out of the fairway, have a look at why this happened (swing, grip etc) and conclude that you've got it wrong. But in the EIIL learning process we then look at how to put it right. We do a lot of work with our attendees with what went right and how we can repeat that, rather than looking at what went wrong.'

At university, he says, you may encounter 'a bit of theory and you may have a case study, which will illustrate some of the theory. But when you come to consolidate what you've learned you won't pick up all of the theory'. Price says that if you start at the inductive phase and reflect on what's been seen and what's actually happened then there's a far better success rate when it comes to theory retention. 'If this were a football match,' he says surveying the training room in the Chateau, 'you could analyse what worked in a phase of play and go back to the training ground and practice it again and again. Increasingly, sports coaching is adopting the inductive phase of the cycle. In other words, you do something and then see how it applies to the theory rather than plough through a curriculum.'

The learning environment

It's Price's belief that emerging management professionals need to lock onto the inductive phase. He talks about how his attendees might learn about innovation management. 'If part of the exercise is to phone up five exponents of innovation management in the real industrial world, we could then start to look at what these five interviewees have in common when it comes to fostering innovation in the industrial environment, and you will learn from that body of knowledge obtained from those interviews.'

He admits that after the interviews, you could probably write the book or teach the theories didactically with PowerPoint presentation.

'But we don't. We create the learning environment but we don't teach. We'll put a framework together that will take a team through a series of learning opportunities. Our coaches are sufficiently experienced to be able to watch what's happening, and then help the teams to review what they've done and provide theory based on what they've seen. There's little point, we believe, in giving people theory about what is conjecture.'

When EIIL participants leave their course, they do so without any formal qualification or post-nominal letters. 'This was a deliberate strategy by our founding fathers and our industrial advisory board,' says Price, who explains that the modules are all about helping his member companies to develop their high-potential technical people in order to retain them within their industry and not indulge in 'badge collecting'. It's also, Price tells me, about having a constructive experience in extraordinary surroundings, where debate can flourish and a social network can develop.

As we walk around the grounds of the chateau it's easy to see how part of the EIIL's product is to add uplift in quality of life for busy technologists. The message is simple: if your company sends you here to develop your career it means they understand your value, and want to keep you. For many that will be the only encouragement they need.

But a visit to the chateau to experience the learning practices of the EIIL isn't merely an end in itself. Price says that his participants are also encouraged to regard the experience as the first step on a journey that might ultimately lead them to the upper echelons of management in a global technology company, 'rather than regard themselves as having completed a workshop, they go away with new ideas to contribute to how things are done and behave differently in their organisation. And they get a support network in the EIIL'. *

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