Relying on the Wrong Skills

How well do you really know your job?

Most of the people I have met seem to really know what they are doing. When they sit down with peers, they can talk for hours about “the job.” They can easily leave me in the dust, with the level of detail they bring out, and of course the acronyms and other code words that only have meaning for those in the know. Sales people are clear on what it takes to get new business, and customer service people are often amazing in the breadth of questions they can answer. IT people can usually isolate and correct even the most pesky, intermittent issue, and finance and accounting people understand the causes and effects of money in admirable ways.

This does not mean these experts know everything and have stopped learning. Quite the contrary is true. They are usually quick to pick up new processes or insights and put them to immediate use. In fact, when a group of people doing a similar job are talking together over lunch or a beverage, you will hear many of them trumpeting what they have done to solve a problem, while others easily accept the information and gratefully walk away with a usable solution or two.

Ironically, all of this in-depth job knowledge and expertise frequently works against them as leaders.

Perhaps these experts do not value the human interaction side of the work as much, or have chosen not to develop those kinds of people skills and proficencies very deeply. Although either or both of those may be true, there is yet another factor. When unusual challenges occur, their brains simply default to relying on and utilizing their technical or business smarts first.

Think about a group needing to achieve a sizable goal increase in sales. Typical there is a lot of activity around sales, product, customer relationships, and even competition training. There is emphasis on a new, rock solid value proposition for customers, and clarity around the overall plan or strategy. Yet, in all my years, I have never come across the item at the top of any list that reads, “Inspire the daylights out of all your salespeople.”

I know this because the countless times I have asked people their plan of attack for achieving an ambitious target, I hear all the tactics listed above. Seldom if ever is there mention of any kind of leadership strategy to support the business strategy (sales increase in this case). I suppose the incentive plan is supposed to do all the heavy lifting for inspiring people. Trouble is, I have never heard of an incentive plan that was not loaded with shortcomings, at least from the perspective of the salespeople.  How inspiring do you think that turns out to be?

Recently I worked with a group of IT managers, who were about to get underway on several major initiatives. Oddly enough, one of the first things they did was to meet three times up front to remind everyone about leadership, the importance of leading others, and how they were going to interact with each other during the upcoming tough times. They knew there would be a number of crises, and moments of shall we say “emotional outbursts.” Their desire was to anticipate and prepare to handle these as productively as possible. That is leadership.

Yet at the same time, in many private conversations, I discovered a number of the attending directors, who were wondering why the sessions were actually occurring. I say, rather tongue in cheek, they would have understood why, had they been able to break away from the endless text and email messages arriving on their phones. Resource issues, user errors, new applications not working right, vendor problems – those were the kind of message subjects continuously chirping at them. And those were precisely the types of problems which fell right into their definitions of the value of the work they do. Their brain default was alive and well.

Setting a new default in the brain (aka changing a habit or mindset) is not so easy to do. And this may actually be the most difficult leadership challenge for many. So, don’t lose sight of the very necessary and useful repertoire of functional skills you have developed over your career. Just remember, that no matter how vast your reserve of technical smarts, you are also going to need talented and committed people working with you, to solve the really challenging problems you will continue to encounter. And that will take your leadership.

Good luck and keep leading!

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