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Success factors for successful nuclear leadership development

Strong leaders and leadership teams are essential to sustaining high levels of plant safety and reliability. The link between the presence of effective leaders and leadership teams and the resultant high levels of sustainable performance is supported by numerous examples throughout our industry’s history. The development of effective nuclear leadership skills has been recognised as an essential requirement and is a part of WANO’s Performance Objectives and Criteria (PO&C).

However it is not enough to send managers off to some generic training course that supplies them with a few leadership theories and models, shows them a few interesting DVDs, and then expect them to return to work, a changed person ready to motivate and inspire their teams! Successful nuclear companies know that leadership development works, but they also understand that classroom-based leadership programmes with no follow-up or real life practical application, will have little impact on individuals’ performance.

An effective leadership programme that will improve leadership skills, which will lead to marked improvements in plant performance should have three key phases to ensure their effectiveness. Each phase has a relative contribution to the overall behaviour change process, as illustrated in the diagram:


1. The preparation phase

The preparation phase is very important. For the individual, team and organisation to fully benefit, it is essential that participants are fully committed, understand the time they will need to invest in their growth, are open minded and ready to work. However, there are other important players that are required to ensure the participant succeeds:

  • Key to all of this is an engaged senior management team that wish to use the leadership programme to drive up nuclear safety and business performance. They hold themselves accountable for the programme’s success. They determine what the desired characteristics are for leaders in their organisation and how participants might better align their own leadership behaviour with this desired model. They select the right candidates and provide a programme mentor (often they take on this role). They also communicate their expectations to line managers and participants, and visit the classroom in person. In many of the best programmes, the executives take part and deliver the content.
  • The participants’ line managers plays an equally important role in the participants’ success, and must dedicate time to help embed sustainable change. They meet with their participants before the programme to set up the learning contract. They regularly follow-up with participants between or after modules, to ensure they are committed to embedding what they have learnt in the classroom back in the workplace.
  • The programme mentor is usually an executive or senior manager who actively supports the participants’ development throughout the entire programme. They will attend or run the pre-programme briefing to explain the programme requirements and describe their own commitment to the learning process. They are active in the classroom, sharing their own experiences and challenging participants. During the embedding phase they ensure that the learning contracts are in place, line manager meetings are being held and the ‘learning partner’ relationships are effective.

2. The engagement phase

Although the actual classroom sessions only contributes 30% to the effectiveness of the overall programme, the design of the programme, the development of interesting material and facilitators should be of a high standard and provide the participants with an engaging, relevant learning experience. The programme should reflect current industry conditions and the challenges that leaders face as the business evolves. It should also reflect the desired leadership behaviours approved by senior management, which should be aligned with the company’s vision and values.

Dynamic learning activities, including role play, story-telling and dialogue, should support more traditional learning techniques.

Ideally the mix of participants should have a diverse blend of experience and expertise. A group of participants at different levels of seniority often creates a successful programme. This allows for much of the learning to come from within the room as well as from the front. Ideally the senior managers should attend the programme too.

Programmes should be run by experienced facilitators who are familiar with the nuclear industry. Different perspectives should come from senior executives who visit the classroom. Industry experts should complement the lead facilitators to deliver some of the programme content. 

Effective leadership development occurs over time, it cannot occur after one meeting or event. Each programme should follow a standardised timeframe with three to five day sessions separated by a few weeks, to allow practical learning and embedding in the workplace.

3. The embedding phase

Many programmes fail to bring about lasting behaviour change because they only address the first two phases. A good programme will provide the participant with strong intent to change. However on return to work, everyday pressures will get in the way and intent soon diminishes.

The Ebbinhaus Forgetting Curve also shows that much classroom knowledge will be lost within a short time after leaving the classroom, so practicing the new skills is critical to ensure lasting behaviour change.

Participants need to be held accountable for their own success in developing their leadership style throughout the programme by turning intent into action. This is helped by the use of ‘learning partners’, line manager support and programme mentorship, such as: 

  • Teaming up participants as ‘learning partners’ to share ideas throughout the training part of the programme, meet between modules to discuss progress on commitments, and share successes and failures really helps with the embedding phase.
  • Working on a personal key leadership challenge, agreed with the participant’s line manager before the programme, is another proven way to help the participant to put the programme content into their own working context. It also provides the opportunity for them to work on improving their part of the business. Regular touch points with their manager to discuss the key leadership challenge is very important to the embedding cycle.
  • The mentor needs to ensure that the meetings are being held and this embedding phase is effective, for all the participants on the programme.

Many programmes use a business challenge to achieve a return on investment. Participants leverage the collective power of the cohort to work together on a specific business improvement project. This also serves to further embed their learning.

By ensuring that a nuclear leadership development programme incorporates these success factors, participants, their managers and their organisation can achieve a significant and sustainable uplift in leadership skills, with a resulting business and nuclear safety performance improvement. 

Ian Moss
Leadership Development Programme Manager at WANO