Reflective, Self-Directed Action Learning For the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (defra)

A Case Study From Metanous Ltd

"This approach gives me confidence that we are developing the right kind of leaders"
(Richard Allen, Director of Corporate Services - 2005)


In June 2001 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was created from a merger between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and the Environment part of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) after the general election. This was not just a step change but a 90* turn on 100 years of governmental history.

The Defra ‘Into Leadership’ programme was set up as a part of the Modernising Government Programme (Cabinet Office 1999), which aims for government to "make life better for people and businesses".

Clearly, the achievement of the ongoing process of change (now accelerated) in public services depends on the abilities of its leaders and managers. Defra, as part of its culture change had a brief to improve the quality of its leadership:

"Defra needs to change from too strong a focus on process to becoming results driven, i.e. focusing on our customers and stakeholders and linking this to the front line, move into results, do more networking"
(Sir Brian Bender, Permanent Secretary – 2002)

Aims and Objectives

We were delighted to be commissioned to deliver the following strategic objectives:

  • To identify managers within Defra with the potential and commitment to
    • quickly to senior positions;
    • develop the skills needed at senior levels
  • To develop these leading professionals and generate – over successive cohorts – a critical mass of senior managers who view effective management practice as central to their and Defra’s success

This included:

  • An development centre
  • an induction to the programme for participating managers and their line managers
  • selection of mentors for participating managers and learning support for them in their mentoring role
  • designing learning materials, incl. the design of workbased projects
  • facilitation of learning sets
  • coaching towards personal development
  • providing the option of an academic qualification
  • evaluation of the impact of the programme

Whilst we had a written brief and specification, the verbal brief went further:

"no spoon feeding, no cloning, we want to break the mould".

This was an intervention involving multiple stakeholders (both internal and external, with at times conflicting agendas) which the Metanous Centre for Leadership, Management and Coaching (MCLMC) views with great pride.


We designed the ‘Into Leadership’ Programme to meet these objectives taking account of – and at the same time influencing - Defra’s evolving strategy on leadership development.

The aims of the programme were achieved using a self-directed learning approach and reflective practice.

The programme took an action learning approach as the participants were encouraged to

  • experiment with their leadership skills
  • reflect on their actions using concrete examples of their leadership style and activities at work and home
  • turn this implicit knowledge into explicit learning
  • create a lasting transition through increased awareness

So, critical action learning becomes a vehicle and form of management learning that improves practice at the organisational level and makes a significant difference to business improvement.

Into Leadership Programme process

The ‘Into Leadership’ programme involved a large number of stakeholders incl. Defra participants managers, mentors and line managers, Defra project management and administration, MCLMC coaching, project management and administration, and Middlesex University who provided the accreditation.

Application and selection

The application and selection were based on an application booklet, a one to one capability based discussion with those short listed and a structured development centre.

"The questions on the application form were worded so that I needed to think about my responses, not just answer questions with factual information. I found this quite liberating as I felt the openness of the questions meant I could respond in my own way and give in depth answers" (IL1 manager)

To ensure consistency the application forms were assessed by one person and checked by another. A scoring system was applied.

In the capability based interviews the intention was to create a discussion rather than a question/answer exchange. The discussions aimed to test understanding of self-challenge and personal development, Defra’s evolving leadership competences, the big picture/dynamics/strategy, policy, tactical, operational/short term/long term culture change. An interview script was written and followed by the assessors, to ensure consistency for all managers and an equal opportunity for them to provide examples. The development centres’ purpose was to observe how the manager related in a group setting and to see how they demonstrated their capability to:

  • seek out information;
  • make and present decisions;
  • work in a group to achieve a task;
  • interact and contribute;
  • facilitate others;
  • deal with resistances
  • demonstrate the difference between managing and leading.

The day was built entirely around an experiential process and the three facilitators scored each manager from 1 to 5 under 10 headings. The lower score indicated the managerial tendency whilst the higher score reflected leadership qualities. This informed the design and individual support needed on the programme.

Learning sets

"Workshops are a bit like a map that was given to Columbus – interesting places we can explore some more and inform our journey to some incognito places. The workshops are the tools to get there and on how to manage when you get there".

"some of the interesting places on that map:

  • understanding self
  • understanding the people we work with
  • consequences of own behaviours on others
  • emotional intelligence
  • 360* feedback
(IL senior manager 2005)

There were 15 workshops over 16 days over three years based on experiential learning.

The contents of the workshops evolved from Defra’s values and included a series of core strategy modules coupled with bespoke learning tailored around gaps in managers’ capabilities, e.g.

  • leadership development,
  • the organisation’s development needs,
  • the development needs of individuals,
  • workshop discussion,
  • internal/external events,
  • case studies,
  • exploring new thinking on leadership/management theories and approaches,
  • emotional intelligence,
  • 360* feedback

and connecting these back to the changing culture of Defra.

Also included were examples of professional practice that highlight the link between reflection and the quality of action taken.

Course work towards the optional qualification

"In some ways it has been a cathartic experience for me – being able to record the learning that I have had during my working life is almost like putting my house in order so that I can move on. This reflective process has seeped into my everyday life, I reflect on some of my everyday experiences in a way that is new to me" (IL senior manager)

The set work of the course was an important part of obtaining the qualification. It involved:

  • Recognition of credit rated learning
  • Recognition of work-based learning
  • Completion of a learning portfolio
  • Completion of a work-based project

And could lead to the award of a Masters, Diploma or Certificate.


"A wonderful programme. It is helpful in management style and has been an opportunity for skills development" (mentor)

Senior Managers were invited to come forward as Internal mentors and attended an initial development day to help them with particular mentoring and coaching skills appropriate for "Into Leadership", facilitated by Metanous Limited executive coaches. Mentors attended a peer support group day every six months. At a recent event, they said they found the peer support group days so helpful they wanted to form a closed group with regular meetings to continue the discussions on an ad hoc basis in between the formal sessions.

Line Managers

"The benefits gained from the programme are clearly reflected in the confidence and enthusiasm brought to their work" (line manager)

General support for time at work for completion of assignments grew better as the programme developed but the pressure of every day work had many saying the intention was good but the reality much harder. As time progressed benefits began to be seen more widely and support grew proportionately.

The Metanous Limited Team

The team supporting the Into Leadership Programme was 5 strong, diverse and multi-cultural, bringing a level of skills that included leadership, consultancy, facilitation, coaching and mentoring as well as subject knowledge. It’s capacity to work with individuals on a one to one and group basis to support substantive self-directed learning is demonstrated in the level of achievement of those seeking a qualification, for example in year 2, for module one: 4 participants were awarded a distinction; 4 obtained a merit, and 9 had passes.

Independent evaluation and outcomes

"The programme is responsible for making me realise that a commitment to lifelong learning is an integral part of career and life development, if you are to maintain a fresh and enthusiastic outlook" (IL1 senior manager)

An independently commissioned evaluation, validated by Imperial College Tanaka Business School, found that the general opinion of all parties, participating managers, line managers and mentors, was that the programme had shown benefits in self-confidence and leadership of the participants and that these benefits were filtering down to the managers’ teams.

Whilst it was stressed at the outset that the programme should not be seen as a guarantee of promotion, what occurred in reality is that many participants have applied and received promotions, some jumping – missing the next level – to jobs in Senior Civil Service levels.

The qualification available as part of the programme was not seen as central to the learning experience but its level of importance reflected the level of education already achieved by participants, those with higher education valuing it less highly.

Mentors also praised the programme and found the experience of mentoring useful in their day to day work.

The line manager’s view on the programme was influenced by their attitude to training in general, the more supportive line managers giving training a higher emphasis in their management style.

Overall the evaluation showed that the learning and its transfer to the work place was highly rated.

About Metanous

Metanous Limited is a specialist HR and coaching consultancy, multi-cultural and multi-lingual, that supports organisations in the private and public sectors with organisational development, culture change, diversity and sensitive issues in the workplace. Last year we celebrated 10 years of working in this enthralling and fulfilling development area.

Our beliefs and values embrace working ethically, professionally and honestly in partnership, relating with dignity and respect and, at all times, being aware of the consequences of action.

View director Danielle Douglas’s biography here or visit