Justin Hughes writes on issues relating to team and organisational performance. A former Red Arrows pilot, he is now Managing Director of Mission Excellence, a consultancy which exists to be the first-choice partner for organisations genuinely committed to high performance. ​Justin previously spent 12 years as an RAF fighter pilot and is a renowned speaker on performance and risk and has presented alongside Richard Branson and Kofi Annan. He can be found on Twitter at @JustinMissionEx.

As the Managing Director of a consultancy helping clients to build high-performance teams and organisations, I would be some combination of hypocritical and stupid if I didn’t believe that external parties couldn’t add real value in fields like employee engagement and leadership development. 

However, I also think that there are lines that you can’t or shouldn’t cross, and indeed shouldn’t even plan to cross.

For the benefit of any readers who remember The Fast Show on 90s TV: ‘Supplier, know your limits.’ 

When we deliver leadership development programmes, the aim is not to do the leadership OURselves, but to equip delegates with the insights, skills and self-awareness to become better leaders THEMselves.

This kind of seems self-evident; how could it be any other way? 

However, when it comes to employee engagement, there is a tendency to outsource the delivery of a programme in toto.

If you’re near the top of an organisation looking at some less than ideal feedback from an employee engagement survey, this probably feels like a highly attractive option. 

There are some supplier companies in this field who can deliver really excellent programmes which can have a transformational impact on a workforce.

Until the programme finishes.

If the programme did not include a fundamental change in modus operandi and/or upskilling senior managers with the ability to engage more effectively themselves, then all you have done is put a sticking plaster over the problem.

In his bestselling book, Drive, Daniel Pink identifies 3 key sources of engagement or motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. This list passes my highest bar:  the common sense test. Offsite meetings, roadshows and teambuilding, the traditional wares of the external supplier in this context, do not appear in the list.

Autonomy is a leadership style.

It is not about delegation of task, but delegation of decision-making authority, giving people real ownership of how an outcome is to be achieved.

That sense of trust and responsibility is highly motivating to many, even more so when you let people define their own tasks and objectives to help achieve the collective goals.

They then have real skin in the game.

Mastery is a shared responsibility between organisation and individual.

The organisation can reward mastery, and provide the opportunities for development, but individuals have to want it themselves.

Not everyone pursues excellence equally.

Plus, boredom thresholds vary significantly. One person’s routine can be another person’s fantastic opportunity.

What research does show is that many people respond well to stretch experiences, whatever they look like for any one individual.

Purpose, however, is unequivocally a responsibility of senior executives.

External parties may be able to help unlock closed minds, fashion wording and advise on communication media, but externally delivered programmes must upskill executives in the core leadership capabilities required to provide sustainability of initial momentum.

Otherwise, you have outsourced leadership and simply provided a short-term sticking plaster for a chronic condition.

The Business of Excellence, by Justin Hughes, is now available to order at Bloomsbury Publishing.