Taming the succession planning beast at Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water

When the water company turned to L&D firm Call of the Wild to help mobilise its rising stars, it became clear executives not only had to have buy-in, they had to play an integral role in it

Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water is the sixth largest of the 10 regulated water and sewerage companies in England and Wales. It is responsible for providing three million people with drinking water in 1.4 million homes and businesses. Unique to the ‘not for profit’ firm is that around half of all employees move within the company internally. It’s a huge value add for long-term engagement and for keeping turnover at extremely low rates. Yet, with the responsibility of having ‘lifers’ within the business the management realised they had a key responsibility to nurture from within and ensure succession planning was top of the L&D agenda.

Going offsite

“We have around 3,600 employees and within that body there is a lot of internal movement to new roles and promotions,” explains Annette Mason, head of talent and development and inclusivity at Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water. Successors are nominated from within business areas. Mason and her team quickly realised, however, that some external support would not only offer some fresh eyes and ways of thinking, but also new ideas on how to build a framework to embed a long-term leadership development programme that was both sustainable and had impact.

Call of the Wild, an independently owned learning and development company, was commissioned with the idea that its expertise lies in the design and facilitation of bespoke courses with the emphasis on developing skills and behaviours that can be transferred back to the workplace. “We can take them out of the office and give them a platform to network with their senior leaders and find out what it is that they need to work on,” says Phil Knowles, head of programme delivery at the business.

The development programme runs across two days. On the first day all the candidates meet at the training centre located in Bannau Brycheiniog, formerly known as the Brecon Beacons. It’s a stunning 70 acres based in the National Park, the nearest one to London. The premise is that the training centre “brings the natural environment to the classroom”. The participants are split into small groups of between 10 and 12. “They spend half of the first day with myself and my colleague Lynda and we introduce each of the tools we use,” explains Knowles. This is three pronged and, while fairly technical in nature, are undertaken in a stress-free environment.

Deploying tools to understand the talent

“The first tool is the DiSC psychometric, the second is the MTQ48 mental toughness questionnaire and the third is a 360-degree evaluation,” says Knowles, explaining that the DiSC profile looks at how the participants behave at work. “They also do a task a day when they arrive at the training centre and have to list words to describe themselves.” Almost all of the cohort are already self aware of their strengths and weaknesses, which helps the process of development progress. “There is an opportunity to reflect on the findings of these assessments and Mason takes time with her team to go through each person’s individual evaluation together with feedback from the five-six executives that give up their time to attend the training centre and take a very important role in the leadership development programme,” says Knowles.

“At the end of the first day, they all go to a hotel and have the chance to relax and network together. It’s really important because the participants feel they have been invested in,” adds Mason.

The second day involves a raft of activities and scenarios that have not been presented to the delegates beforehand. “They do all of these in front of the executives that have come to observe them. It could be coaching scenarios, a problem-solving task or a management topic that can be played out, for example,” explains Knowles. The executive team has an assessment framework and has received training on this and receives a pack ahead of the training centre days. “It all links into our competency framework,” says Mason. 

Investing in key resources

The result of this is that staff at Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water feel invested in. “Individualising their development is ‘pure gold’,” says Mason. What they have also discovered is there is a lot of lurking talent: “Many of our employees who come on the programme have been hiding their talent under a bushel.” The nature and beauty of the mountain range in the Brecon Beacons, which provides the perfect contrast to their usual office space, allows staff time to pause, understand their next steps and get to know the leadership team offsite, away from the everydayness of their respective job roles. 

Much of the success of the leadership development programme relies on the relationship between Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water and Call of the Wild. Without a deep understanding of needs and desired outcomes, together with a mutual respect, much of what they achieve in the Brecon Beacons away days is not possible. “The commitment we have to each other is what makes it work really well,” Knowles explains. “Our different personalities make it gel,” Mason adds. “They understand Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water and this is crucial for the partnership.”

Mason says the working relationship is vital but the ongoing development that occurs long after the development centre has finished is also key. “We keep monitoring the attendees and we give them feedback that can empower them,” she says. Tracking their talent helps them to keep note of their progress and understand if a sideways or upwards move within the organisation is right for them at different times during their career. 

The development centre gives Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water the leverage to catapult and identify a succession plan. It takes their key talent out of their comfort zone and allows them to get to know their executive team and see how they too can make the leap to get there when the time is right. The beauty of the natural surroundings is the ideal background for a company that supplies that most fundamental element to human life, water. It’s a reminder that nature is the reckoning force and the ideal place for creativity and learning to take place unfettered by the business of normal life.