When technical skills are insufficient

A Wall Street Journal article last week caught my attention.  It cited both surveys and industry discussion groups that have identified “soft skills” as a significant part of the current skills gap that make it difficult for employers to find qualified applicants for jobs.  While science, technology, engineering and math skills are important, it is frequently the soft skills that that are scarce – such as interpersonal skills, enthusiasm/motivation, the ability to pass a drug test, to show up every day on time, simple grammar and spelling, and an elementary command of the English language.  Business and technical schools largely ignore these fundamentals.

The Skills Needed to Survive Change

Kodak is a prime example of a dinosaur that thrived as long as the environment stayed the same, but did not have the skills to survive change.  The resulting 30 year death spiral has negatively affected customers, communities, and thousands of people.   This comes from being more concerned with operational improvement than with business strategy; with people compliance and paternalism being more important than people and leadership development (can you think of a high profile leader who began his/her career at Kodak?) and a ‘not invented here’ culture instead of eyes-open innovation.  Are you building the skills needed to continually renew your company?

Diagnosing Conflict

Conflict in the workplace has three primary sources.  The first two are most common:  Disagreement over objectives and differences over alternatives.  For example, Democrats and Republicans agree that the “fiscal cliff” needs to be avoided, but disagree on how.  Israel and the U.S. agree that Iran’s nuclear program must be curtailed, but disagree on the approach.

When you aren’t clear what the source of the disagreement is, it’s common for objectives and alternatives to get intermingled and then it’s very difficult to make any headway.  In Chicago, the teachers union and mayor Emanuel with the Board of Education both claim to only have the best interest of schoolchildren at heart…wait…is that the objective?

Conflict is part of everyday life.  Zero in on the source of the conflict to find a faster resolution.

The third cause of conflict?  Mutual dislike, personality disorders, and other factors having nothing to do with objectives or alternatives.

Appraisal vs. Coaching

There’s a significant difference between appraising performance and coaching performance.  Appraisal is judging the past while coaching has to do with the future.  While both are important, only coaching will improve performance.  I frequently see companies combining appraisal and coaching in one performance management session.  It doesn’t work for a bunch of reasons, but they keep doing it. I also know that most leaders who get feedback from their direct reports are told that they are weak at coaching and providing recognition, but they’re not sure how to do it well.  An executive can learn coaching skills fairly quickly with practice and a straightforward, effective process.  The return on investment is very high. 

Listen Up!

During a heated election season, all the signs of weak communication and miscommunication are on full display.  One clear sign of a poor communicator is that he interrupts others.  In addition to being rude and disrespectful, it indicates someone who is not really willing to listen to others’ thoughts and ideas. 

In my 30 years of consulting, I’ve witnessed excellent leaders and weak leaders of very large companies as well as small organizations.  All of them communicate, but some do it much more effectively than others.  The very best leaders spend a large percentage of their time asking questions and listening, and a small percentage of their time talking.  Weak leaders, however, tend to do the opposite – they dominate discussion and regularly interrupt others.

You’ll learn a lot more by listening than by talking.  And there’s considerable research that says you can’t effectively do both at the same time.