By Daniel Hunter

A new study of management opinion reveals that although businesses are facing tough economic times and unprecedented challenges, 84% of managers are upbeat and say their organisation is well placed to survive and thrive post-recession.

But whilst the leadership outlook is generally positive, the report also identifies worrying shortfalls in communications, succession planning, virtual working practices and trust.

The Ashridge Management Index (AMI) 2012/13, carried out by Ashridge Business School, is a barometer of workplace opinion which assesses the attitudes of over 1,100 managers in key areas of working life.

Although over half of managers surveyed say their organisation has suffered in the recession, the majority, nearly two-thirds, say that motivation and employee engagement levels are being sustained.

The report does however reveal a number of worrying shortfalls in management and leadership. For example, excellent communication skills are essential to effective leadership, but respondents indicate that top managers need to communicate more often and more clearly. Only 49% of top leaders spend enough time communicating with staff, and just 52% of top leaders are rated for communicating clearly.

Another cause for concern is that many businesses are failing to future-proof their leadership teams - 48% of managers say their organisation is not doing enough to develop the next generation of leaders.

"Talent management programmes and succession planning are essential," Viki Holton, Research Fellow, Ashridge Business School, and AMI co-author, said.

"Without investment in developing the skills and experiences of younger managers it is hard to see how such organisations will continue to be successful. Businesses are at risk of holding back economic recovery by failing to do enough to develop the next generation of leaders."

Managers' roles have changed radically dramatically since the first Ashridge Management Index was published in the 1990s. A key trend is the growth of virtual teams - most (77%) say that increasingly they are required to manage cross-functional and virtual teams. However, only 45% feel that their organisation provides sufficient support for virtual team-working.

A 24/7 business culture is having a negative impact on many managers. Over half of respondents (52%) feel 'snowed under' with too many emails and voice-mails, with 66% of those who manage large teams feeling overloaded.

Levels of work/life balance indicate that many managers continue to operate in a demanding, pressured work environment. The majority of respondents work longer than 48 hours each week and most managers (64%) say they regularly take work home.

"There are signs of strain and pressure for many managers. One recommendation is to develop resilience among staff. Resilient people are more able to maintain a steady course when the economic, political and psychological weather deteriorates," Fiona Dent, Director of Executive Education, Ashridge Business School, said.

"One way of gaining competitive advantage is by boosting employee performance through training and leadership programmes. Whilst many managers say sufficient time is allocated to their own learning and development, less than half say enough time is allocated for team development. This suggests that more companies need to adopt a more strategic approach to team development, not just individual development."

With the ongoing debate about levels of trust in politicians, bankers and in wider business since the economic downturn, the survey explores organisational trust for the first time. Trust is vital in business, but only just over half of respondents (55%) say there is a strong culture of trust in their organisation.

Businesses must ensure that core operational strategies deliver the right approach in dealings with staff, customers and investors to develop values and standards that promote honesty and transparency. Managers must recognise that trust is built not only by their reputation, but also their day-to-day behaviour when working with others.

The report findings indicate that there is largely a positive environment in most organisations, which may be partly due to the fact that the majority of respondents are at senior levels:

- Leadership is highly rated by the majority of managers - 81% believe their immediate manager is effective, and 75% say their top leaders are effective.

- Employee engagement levels are high - 80% would recommend their organisation as a good place to work, and almost all (92%) are proud to work for their organisation.

- Most managers feel valued - 75% believe top leaders value their contribution, and 89% say their own manager values their contribution.

- The success of change initiatives - 62% of managers believe their organisation achieves the benefits anticipated for change initiatives and 90% of managers say that leading or managing change is a significant part of their role and responsibilities.

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