Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

"Soft" skills & behaviour change: important lessons for leaders

A conversation this week reminded me that developing effective people managers takes more than soft skills, it requires consistent behaviours in the workplace. To that theme, below is an excerpt from my recent paper on employee engagement, "It's not Business. It's Personal: People Engagement that works."

Over dinner last night I had a conversation with a couple of senior leaders from a European multinational. Among various topics, what got us most animated was the question of how to develop great people managers while also keep the technical experts that are the backbone of the business. There was agreement on the need to strike a good balance between coaching and mentoring. The overall theme: soft skills are important, but not enough - organizations need to create lasting and positive behaviour change if strategy is going to get executed on a daily basis.

Skills-building & Behaviour development

Many respondents to the [McLeod employee engagement] review stressed the need for better training for managers in so-called soft or people skills […] Many felt that current skills training concentrated too heavily on qualifications and too little on how people skills were implemented within the workforce.
It’s worth making a distinction at this point: skills differ from behaviour. Skill is the ability to do something well and describes the knowledge gained when you learn a tool, process or concept on a course. Behaviour is the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially toward others; it’s about applying your skills in real business contexts, on an ongoing basis.
Developing people managers to better engage with people requires more than one-off skills-building workshops. It’s about helping them develop consistent, positive, productive behaviours. The addition of more and more technical “soft skills” doesn’t get you there. Rather it’s a matter of helping managers to develop the behaviours that are adaptive to the situation, so they know when and how to deploy their skills to best effect.
The challenge is that many managers who got promoted because of their technical expertise still relish and covet the role of technical expert. You can send them to one training course after another. But do those skills get applied in their work, or is it just another course binder that joins the others on the shelf, unused and swiftly forgotten?
It takes time to help people managers turn the corner and learn step back from doing the work in order to manage others to get the work done takes time. Developing adaptive people management behaviour also requires mentoring and coaching. So how’s your organization’s bench strength of mentors and coaches?

Dead fish in the room
[M]iddle managers who become convinced of the need for change can themselves run up against barriers […] the most formidable blocks to success were the behaviours and attitudes of the most senior managers. The […] top managers believed that their status in the organization was evidence enough that they ‘had what it took’ to be regarded as a leader, and regarded their development as therefore unnecessary. Nonetheless, they believed that the managers below them needed it. However, when the managers returned to the workplace with a clearer idea of what leadership should look like, they became much more aware of the poor quality of leadership role-modelled by their senior managers, and their frustrations increased. This was deepened by another major problem, which was that when the managers attempted to implement their learning, their suggestions for improvement were rejected or ignored by their somewhat defensive and/or reactionary bosses. The result was disenchantment, greater cynicism and lower morale among the manager group, who eventually stopped making any suggestions or trying new ways of leading.
Getting senior management sponsorship of people engagement and development programs is always listed as a must-have success factor. When you look at the dismal example provided by the “top managers” described above it’s clear why. (The old saying “a fish rots from the head down” comes to mind…) These chaps are certainly NOT mentors or role-models and you can imagine the frustration of the people managers test-driving their new leadership skills in those organizations!
While this situation is extreme in its dysfunction, it’s still true that mentoring of people managers by more senior managers can be complicated by reporting relationships. After all, it’s hard to admit to your boss that you sometimes feel like you don’t know what you’re doing!
Mentoring should be complemented by coaching, whether by internal people, an external coaching professional, or both in combination. An external coach offers an objective sounding board and helps people think through their challenges without being hampered by reporting lines and competing organizational priorities. 
Most of all, coaching enables “double-loop learning” (learn a skill, then go try it out, then talk to the coach about how it went, adjust course, go try it again) which helps your people turn otherwise mechanical skills into enduring, lived behaviours. And that, in turn, means you’re getting the full ROI out of those skills-building courses, along with practical business results.

Keep reading in the weeks to come for further excerpts on people managers, skills building and behaviour change from It's not Business. It's Personal: People Engagement that works.

And for more ideas on how to develop great people managers with the behaviour needed for success in your organization, remember you can get posts from the tmc blog sent to you automatically. Just go to the top-right side of this page and either click on the Get blog updates by RSS feed button or enter your email address under Get blog updates sent to your email.

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