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Leadership and Management Apprenticeships Reality Check: The Works

The Works Apprenticeships

Leadership and Management Apprenticeships Reality Check: The Works

The apprentice levy has caused a revolution to the funding and structure of leadership and management development programmes. In truth, many clients and learners are still finding their way through this new world. To help organisations and their people navigate these waters, we wanted to hear from those on the programme. So we’ve started to ask the leadership apprentices. A couple of months ago I shared the experience of Apprentices from Automotive Engineering and Parts Manufacturer, Gestamp. This month I interviewed Leadership Apprentices from online and high street retail specialist “The Works”. This article documents their stories, providing insight for people thinking of starting an apprentice programme.

Growth and People

The Works plc is an instantly recognisable retailer, selling gifts, toys, books, stationary, hobbies, arts and crafts materials. Employing over 3,500 people, The Works have an established presence online and through their network of over 470 stores, many of which are on the high street.

At a time when many well-known high street retailers are suffering, The Works continues to post strong growth. Their performance is put down to their value for money offering, at a time when household budgets are feeling squeezed. However, its clearly not just products which are delivering the strong performance. Its their people too.

With so many stores and so many people, the roles of Area Sales Managers and Store Managers are pivotal. I met with several store managers and area sales managers who were part way through a Level 5 ILM Leadership and Management Apprenticeship.

Leadership Apprenticeship The Works

Career Ambitions and Challenge

It seemed to me that the type of people The Works chose to invest in a Leadership and Management Apprenticeship has certain qualities in common. When I asked some of the group about their motivation for applying for the apprenticeship, the same three words kept cropping up: Career, Ambition and Challenge.

“I want to progress, and I see the programme as a development tool to help my career move forward within The Works” – Sean

“It was a combination of wanting the progress and prove what I am capable of. I’ve spent time bringing up a family and now I want to catch up in the workplace. This programme gives me both development and career progression.” – Bryony

“I needed a new challenge, I’ve been working as an area training manager, but I knew I needed something more challenging.” – Anita

Each person struck me as being highly committed and motivated with the clear goal of progression set in their sights. They definitely had what some would call “the right stuff” to move forward up the leadership structure. The apprentice programme seemed to both tap into their existing motivation, but also spurred them on further. Sending this group of talented individuals looked like a very shrewd move for The Works. There seems little doubt that the investment would pay dividends for both the learners and the organisation alike.

What about the Programme Is it all Essays and Classroom?

I was keen to understand what their expectations were before the programme started and what their actual experience had been.

“I had no idea what to expect, which was probably a good thing. There is quite a lot of work to do and if I’d known that before-hand I might have talked myself out of it” – Anita

“I expected it to be more academic and classroom based than it actually is, and I’m glad it isn’t like that” – Darren

“I thought it would be more formal classroom learning. I thought it would be more essay writing and full on studying. But actually, its a lot less formal. Its more about gathering the evidence for what I do, but during the working day” – Bryony

The level 5 leadership apprentice programme, like other Dove Nest solutions, is built around blended learning: an approach that mixes different elements, to appeal to the full spectrum of learning preferences. Like the level 3 programme, this Leadership Apprenticeship Level 5 is a blend of classroom sessions, self-guided study with accompanying workbooks, additional learning resources, online tutor support, active line manager involvement, residential events, tutorials, one to one coaching sessions and work-based action learning sets.

Clearly, there seems to be a gap between what learners expect and reality. The blended approach seems to come to most learners as a pleasant surprise.

Leadership Apprenticeship The Works Event

Time Juggling

Like many other Apprentice programmes, learning is rooted in the reality of their actual work. Although parts of the programme require dedicated time away from the workplace, apprentices reflect and draw upon their experiences from work to provide evidence of their learning. The programme can be intense, especially as managers still have a store to run.

As we’ve seen with other groups of apprentices, the biggest challenge they report is that of managing their time. There is no short cut here: successful completion of the programme relies on Putting the hours in.

Thankfully, a large chunk of the 20% off the job learning time, is already built into the programme design. This makes life easier for apprentices. However, apprentices still need time away from normal duties to be able to get the most from the programme.

“Time has been a big challenge because we still have a business to run. I have a very good relationship with my manager, who supports my need for time spent studying. But it can be a big grey area for some” – Sean

“Time has been a big challenge. With a new team and new stores, its been quite a challenge. I’ve had to juggle work, family and moving to a new house. But Dove Nest have been very supportive” – Bryony

“The biggest challenge has been being organised and finding time. It’s a challenge because we still have a store to run alongside the programme. But I’m learning its about making the time for the programme and finding the right pattern that works for me” – Anita

Unfortunately, time is always going to be a challenge: we sadly cannot stretch it or make any more of it. But what we can do is coordinate better: linking up the stakeholders of Apprentice, Employer and Provider.

Freeing up the time necessary for the programme, whilst not abandoning all work duties completely isn’t just a pipe dream. Working together, apprentice, employer and provider can coordinate and collaborate on the differing demands: finding the right balance for each individual.

Putting Learning to Work

The proof of any programme is always measured in the difference it makes. Not only the personal difference, felt by the individual, but also the noticeable differences in how they work. On the subject of what they had learned or the difference the programme had made, everyone I spoke to reported improvements with concrete examples.

“Yes definitely, the programme has changed me. Its opened things up to me, both at work and personally. I’m now much more outgoing than I used to be. Much more comfortable engaging with new people I don’t know or haven’t met. Its really helped me to push myself” – Sean

“I stand back and think a bit more now, which is a good thing. I was apt to rush in, but now I take more time and am more considered in my approach. It helps me see the bigger picture” – Bryony

“The programme has absolutely changed me. I’m utilising the tools I’ve learned from the programme. In the past I might have taken a “stick a plaster on it” approach to problems. But now I’ve got the skill and ability to get to the root cause and really address the issue. And its working, I’m doing far less fire-fighting” – Darren

“Yes, its made me reflect a lot more and get more organised. I think about how I work. I’m the sort of person who delivers results, but it might not be in the most organised way. So I could be more organised. There’s a lot more planning and structure in what I do now” – Anita

As each person recounted their story of progress, change or improvement, a broad smile appeared on their faces. It was clear that they were proud of their progress. As the provider of their programme, I was proud for them too.

Leadership Apprenticeship The Works Group

Creating a Network of Emerging Leaders

Part of the Dove Nest approach to Leadership and management apprenticeships is learning as a cohort. Make no mistake, each apprentice has their individual learning plans, but the apprentice programme also puts great emphasis on learning as a group.

An intended benefit of the cohort learning approach is the way it stimulates and accelerates the development of an internal community of leaders.

“Getting together with other store managers has been really good. The communication and support between other managers is great.” – Anita

“Its amazing to have some time away from work, it does change your perspective. But also the time working with the team is excellent, I love the activities, particularly the problem solving.”  – Bryony

“Meeting people of the same mindset and aspirations. Its been fantastic meeting up with other store managers and comparing notes. I’m also quite competitive, so its good to be in an ambitious group where I can compare myself against the standards.” – Sean

I interviewed the group mid-way through their overall programme. But already it was pretty clear to see that they had bonded; coming together as a group. For some apprentices, the relationships forged in the programme will last well beyond the end of the course, potentially throughout their career. Creating this network of leaders has huge benefits for both the apprentices, their teams and the wider organisation.

Advice for Potential Apprentices

I’d like to thank Bryony, Sean, Anita and Darren for their time, candour and insight. Drawing together their experiences, what can we distill as advice for those thinking about starting a leadership apprenticeship.

Things to consider about starting an apprenticeship include:

The Time

Even with a well designed programme and sympathetic management, there remain significant investment the learner has to make in their time. There really is no substitute formula for success: effort in equals results out.

The Work

A Dove Nest programme is a blend of different learning styles, however there is still a significant amount of evidence that needs to be gathered. This will still require some written work, as well as documenting evidence. However, this doesn’t have to be an onerous task. Little and often can be preferable and more effective.


It sounds obvious, but communicating is critical. Before beginning a programme, Apprentices should talk to their line manager, their direct reports, their family and their apprentice provider. Then they need to keep talking to all of them. An apprentice programme isn’t a sprint, there will be natural ebbs and flows in the pace and workload. Keeping people in the loop can prevent problems and provides support.

The Benefits

Speaking to each of the interviewees on the programme, the benefits for each of them were tangible. There was no doubt in my mind that the apprentice leader development journey requires effort. But hearing about how the programme was already changing their confidence, behaviour and effectiveness, suggested that this was a journey was worth taking.

To talk about whether a leadership and management apprenticeship programme is suitable for your business, call us on 015395 67878, email us at