Developing leadership skills in the Thales apprentices

Canoeing on the lake

In November last year, Thales Learning & Development, in collaboration with The Outward Bound Trust, took a group of Thales apprentices to the Lake District for another experiential learning programme. This time, however, the focus was specifically on developing their leadership behaviours and abilities in a way that reflects the Thales leadership model. As before, the apprentices were put through a range of (extremely gruelling – but necessarily so) outdoor activities, specifically designed to bring out those important leadership qualities and give them the capability to deal with the real-world business challenges they will inevitably face as their roles and careers grow.                                                                                                       

Thales UK’s CEO Victor Chavez explains why this particular programme is so important to Thales:

“Apprentices are an essential investment for our future,” he says. “Like many engineering companies, we face challenging demographics in terms of our people. Strategic investment in both graduates and apprentices is therefore very important to us.

“Around three years ago we decided to make that strategic vision a reality, and we now take a longer-term view in terms of how we can utilise them within our business.”

Why leadership?The tower

Leadership is a trait commonly associated with those at the top of their careers, but even those at the beginning of their working lives can benefit significantly from having effective leadership capabilities and behaviours.

“Everyone ultimately needs to be a leader, even if they are only leading themselves at the outset,” says Chavez. “Everyone needs to be confident in their abilities, and be prepared to put their experience and opinions on the table, challenge the status quo, and come up with better ways of doing things. Some of our apprentices have already recommended changes in our processes that have led to significant savings.”

A tough, but effective, confidence booster

Activities on the programme included anything from stacking crates into a terrifyingly high climbing tower (with safety ropes included, we are assured), to canoeing across an ice-cold lake, or trekking across the wilderness, tent in hand, and camping out for the night at the mercy of the elements.

“The two-day expedition was a tough experience!” says Stephen Gallagher, one of theapprentices who attended the programme. “We had a morning of work on a lake with the canoes fighting into the wind, then went straight into a 4-5 hour climb up a mountain, carrying heavy gear which we used for camping out at the top! We were freezing and hungry, with no sleep, then first thing in the morning we began a whole day climbing up and down different peaks.”

Hiking

This may sound like a particularly tough gig, even for a young apprentice, but the outdoor, experiential, element of the programme is the key factor in bringing out those valuable leadership traits, as Chavez explains:

“Because you throw them into a really uncomfortable situation, then make them give and receive feedback, it really makes them think about doing that in their working life as well, so much credit to The Outward Bound team and TLD for structuring the programme to be so tied to reality. Giving and receiving feedback is probably one of the most important skills for any manager. Most are comfortable with giving positive feedback, but many struggle to give the constructive criticism that’s essential for development.

“It is a great confidence piece, too – showing the apprentices that they need to put their ideas on

the table. Some are outgoing and extrovert, others less so, but actually they realise that everybody’s opinion is valuable. That confidence is really important for career development, because one thing is certain: if you don’t say what you’re thinking, nobody will ever take it into account.”

Canoeing 2

Changes in the group

All of the activities on the Lake District programme are designed to be fun and engaging, but their primary purpose is to have a significant and lasting impact on the apprentices involved – something that will stay with them all the way back to the workplace and throughout their careers within Thales. Everybody who attended the programme, from the apprentices themselves, to Thales’ CEO, to the L&D consultants who ran the activities, saw real progress in the individuals involved.

“This was the second time this group of apprentices joined us on The Outward Bound programme,” says Nick Jordan, the management and leadership L&D consultant from TLD who helped organise and facilitate the programme. “Despite that, they had no idea what they would come across, or what challenges they would face. They arrived full of expectation, and left full of renewed confidence in themselves and their abilities, as well as being full of trust in Thales after a closing speech from Victor.”

Lynne Graham, one of the apprentices on the programme, believes the biggest and most lasting improvement for her and the others was in confidence levels.

“All the tasks we took part in were designed to build confidence, which is vital in a good leader,” she says. “The difference in all the apprentices’ confidence levels by the end of the week was definitely noticeable.Swinging on rope

“I took the biggest lesson from the rock climbing task. I was really negative before the task as I thought there was no chance of me making it to the top. My first attempt was awful. The trainer explained that it was my attitude that was stopping me, and assured me that if I tried to think more positively I would get better results. The second time around I got much higher up the wall. I think this shows that something as simple as having a positive attitude can completely change the way you work.”

Another key trait for any successful leader, aside from confidence and a positive attitude, is resilience, and there is no better way to test and develop a person’s resilience than by putting them through their paces in a physically demanding environment.

“Even after a long night out in the cold and windy mountains of the Lake District, the apprentices picked themselves up and went 100% into their next tasks,” says Jordan. “I was really impressed.”

Gallagher’s experience of the activities certainly echoes that sentiment:

“The physical endurance aspect of the task was intense, and your mental strength is pushed to the limit,” he says. “But the sense of achievement and the things you learn about yourself make it worthwhile.  When you are completely spent, yet you find something somewhere to push yourself onwards, there is nothing in the business environment that can give you that level of insight into your own strengths and weaknesses.”

He adds: “Simply put: it helps identify specific areas – particularly soft skills – that require development, and gives you the type of feedback you can’t get in the workplace.”

Talk from Victor

Future business leaders

The Outward Bound programme will continue to run for the Thales apprentices, and the development of those individuals will keep on evolving as the number of apprentices increases. The important thing to remember is that these young people are the future of the UK economy, and by giving them opportunities like this at the start of their career, they will be much more likely to grow and be successful. In fact, Thales has a history of promoting apprentices through the ranks, right up to senior leadership level.  

“My predecessor began his career as an apprentice, and we have ex-apprentices sitting on the UK management board,” says Chavez. “With the right guidance and encouragement, there is real potential for apprentices to succeed within Thales.”