Monthly Archives

October 2011

Technical competence without people skills – what is it costing you?

By | Leadership, Results

A common problem I see in many organisations is that somewhere in their senior management team they have a person with strong technical competence, but who lacks the essential people skills and leadership expertise. The story goes that they are leading the way with their knowledge and experience, meeting expectations, producing innovative ideas, delivering on project deadlines and are knowledge champions in their field.  However, the issue preventing them from getting ahead or a roadblock to their further success is their inability to deal with colleagues, inspire their staff and get outside their comfort zone to take the next step in their professional and personal development.

One HR Director told me that the response from a technically brilliant manager was “things are good, there aren’t any problems, no-one’s losing money – let’s keep doing things the way they are”.  Another in an accounting firm is a star – she is “a doer”.  In a client meeting, she is all business, discussing the issues and then is firing on all cylinders to get the job done. Meanwhile, the client is still pouring a cup of coffee wanting to debrief and perhaps even converse in a little banter about the weekend. In another, a technical manager has got significant staff turnover and the Managing Director refuses to do anything about his ‘leadership style’ because there is no one as good as him in the industry. Really?

At what point does technical competence excuse someone from poor behaviour and being able to operate under a separate set of rules? At what point does an organisation say enough – we love the results, but you’re destroying our culture, loosing our future talent and just a pain the butt to work with!

I’ve seen it and I’m sure you have too.  These people can sometimes appear as a protected species – anything goes because they have the knowledge, they’ve been in the business forever and are producing the results.  Here’s the problem – you can’t promote them to an executive role because they don’t inspire, empower or lead from the front.  The alternative is to leave them and continue the way they are, improve and coach them on their people skills or let them go. In my observations, most choose to leave them as they are, because it is “too hard” to do anything else.

The long-term recruitment and retention issue here is that high potentials may not be attracted to the firm due to the perceived reputation they have heard on the grapevine.  Similarly, high potentials within the business eventually leave because they can’t see a career path working for this person or in an environment where these behaviours are accepted.

The best result is to build on their leadership and people skills.  Imagine that – your highly valuable employee is now not only producing, but also inspiring others to deliver similar results.  That would be a huge turnaround for culture, results and retention. A typical by-product is the individual also benefiting through increased job satisfaction – due to not being the only technical expert with all critical pieces of work resting on their shoulders.

In my experience a technically experienced performer is not magically going to improve their people skills over-night.  Hoping that it will get better is not a strategy. In the past, what tends to happen is they are sent on a leadership course with fingers crossed that they will return a ‘changed person’.  I don’t know about you, but I have never seen such changes after attending a training program. Of course they come back with increased knowledge, perhaps even some awareness and on the odd occasion you may even see them implement a couple of new strategies! Once the course is finished and becomes a distant memory, these new ideas are generally long gone and tend to disappear.

What is more valuable and can have far reaching effects is when a person is coached on their behaviours and the impacts that they are having on other team members, direct reports or clients and the long term cost to them if they continue in this way.  The key here is of course knowing what this particular person’s triggers are eg: not gaining access to larger projects or more responsibility, bigger clients, bonus payments etc.  Linking the behavior to what motivates or demotivates them is certainly going help drive the message home while keeping them accountable to change.

I was surprised last month when someone I know left a high profile job and what I percieved as a great business.  He said to me after leaving “Nicole, life is too short to work with d#!*heads”.  I was surprised to hear something so blunt, but I got the message loud and clear.  I wonder when some of these leaders are going to get a similar message that technical competence is only one part of a much larger people picture that if dealt with can produce bigger and better results for all involved.

Who will carry your vision? Tips to develop your successor

By | Leadership, Retention

60% of companies don’t have succession plans in place and yet this article suggests “the most successful CEO’s come from within”.  It signals that many businesses take the approach that it’s hard work to build internal leaders and still relatively easy to go to market to find top executive talent.

This topic sparked my interest this week due to the sad passing of Steve Jobs and how Tim Cook, his right hand man has taken over the reigns as CEO at Apple. I also immediately connected with this article as I too, was in this position several months ago when I announced my successor.  In my opinion, hiring an external candidate to take over from my role, as General Manager would have been a disaster.  To learn the internal workings of what makes the business significantly different and gives it a competitive advantage is not easy to put into words or in the training manual. To groom and promote an internal leader was a long-term process and necessary investment to ensure a smooth transition.

My 2IC Megan Nicholson had worked with me for over 8 years and we had been working towards the goal of her taking over for a long time. When she asked me ‘where are you going’? I would brush it aside saying it didn’t matter, we had to make sure she was ready regardless of circumstances.  I didn’t know when or where I was going, the important thing was the plan to ensure that the business would continue as she prepared to take the reigns.

This process of identifying and developing a natural predecessor was a big investment.  Finding the right talent in the first place is always tricky! The goal is to match skills and experience, competencies and motivational fit which is rare to find in an individual, but to then try and determine it from an interview process is another skill altogether.  In my case, it proved to be the right hire and our journey of development happened over many years and had the following ingredients:

  1. Core values must match – working with someone or an organisation that doesn’t mirror your core values can be an exercise in frustration at the best of times.  It is critical that your potential successor demonstrates the necessary behaviours to lead from the front and execute the vision (not just the experience and results). In this case, Megan didn’t have the recruitment industry experience, however, she did display coachability, a strong desire to achieve and a dedication to making a difference.
  2. “Shop floor” experience – gaining experience from all areas of a business gives a holistic view of the organisation and a deep understanding of the competitive advantage of the business.  It’s easier and often perceived as more genuine to sell the message if you’ve been there.  Again, Megan started in an entry-level role that proved to be an essential step her development as she gained deep knowledge of candidate interactions essential for the business to succeed.
  3. High performance – your replacement must be a top performer. Being able to gain the respect of fellow colleagues and staff will be faster if there are consistent runs on the board.  Of course, results without leadership isn’t going to work either, but quantifiable results is a solid platform to lead from.  In one of my first leadership roles, I was running a team of 7 that included people all older than me.  The night before my official first day, I remember great words of wisdom from my father telling me to show them the results I had achieved and how I could help them generate the same success. It worked – I’ve always taken the philosophy that age is irrelevant; numbers don’t guarantee attitude, commitment and desire.
  4. Key clients – introducing your successor to key clients and stakeholders gives them the opportunity to build these relationships without your constant presence, assistance and approval.  I had clients that had only dealt with me for over 6 years and handing over that opportunity to account manage was a big step for everyone involved. It proved to be an essential step in building trust and credibility for future interactions.
  5. Leadership opportunity – about 4 years in and already one promotion, I gave Megan a Team Manager role where she would have overall responsibility for a team of Consultants and their performance.  This stepping-stone was critical in her leadership development for the top job.
  6. Increase responsibility – like Tim Cook was given opportunities to lead the helm of Apple when Steve Jobs was absent, I gave Megan responsibility for the acting General Manager role on two separate occasions when I was on parental leave. These situations gave her full responsibility for the business and the opportunity to ‘test drive’ the role.  This was an invaluable developmental step in the long-term investment.
  7. Make mistakes – all leaders in their rise to the top have to make mistakes, feel the pain and resolve the issue. Often, mentors/those higher up the ranks can see the writing on the wall, but without wanting to interfere and restrict a learning opportunity, you have to watch from the sidelines and be there to support in the fallout.
  8. Coaching and Feedback – absolutely essential for grooming a successor is honest and straight talking feedback on what’s working so they can keep doing it and what’s not working so stop doing it.  This was a courageous process for me as having a stand-out performer  for so long made it fresh territory to be back coaching on areas to improve.
  9. Timing and execution – when is the right time to hand over the reigns? Sometimes, it will come without warning, other times it will be a finite date in the future.  The best strategy here is to be clear in the communication around the opportunity and it will happen.  So often I interview candidates who say, “they’ll never leave” or “I’ll never get that opportunity”.  It demonstrates the importance of communicating well in advance your intentions for someone to take over.

To develop your internal talent takes time, investment and patience.  In my experience, a combination of recruiting, coaching and mentoring, in addition to ongoing opportunities was the right recipe for success. The fact that Megan and I only needed a week’s hand-over is testament to our relationship, open communication and shared vision and ethos for the business. I am completely confident that I left the business in the most capable hands…could you say the same thing if you left tomorrow?

“It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.” – Steve Jobs

nicoleunderwood works with great leaders, organisations and people to improve their results through hiring and keeping the right people.  An innovative and holistic approach to attracting, engaging and retaining top talent.

www.nicoleunderwood.com.au