Are management skills overrated?

Mindset matters too, says Paul Glen

Recently, I decided to visit the Society of Human Resource Management’s national convention. The conference is an astonishingly large gathering of HR professionals and hundreds of vendors of everything from health insurance to holiday hams, 360-degree review services, recruitment advertising, web-based services and training programmes.

I went to see what was being offered in the way of leadership and management development services. Since I believe that one of the greatest challenges IT departments will face in the next decade is a leadership gap as baby boom managers retire, I wanted to check out what the marketplace had to offer to smooth the transition.

Let’s just say that I left the conference a bit overwhelmed by the number of programmes on display and underwhelmed by the likely success of those programmes. There were boot camps and coaches, videos and e-learning programmes, self-guided courses and seminars.

What almost all of them had in common was their focus on leadership skills. Skills, skills, skills — everything was reduced to skills. There were courses on things like listening, communicating, writing, emotional intelligence and “visioning” (I despise that pseudo-word). It was as if someone had set off a grenade in the leadership section of a bookshop and each of the resulting fragments had been turned into a stand-alone curriculum advertised as the one solution to all your leadership deficits.

Now don’t get me wrong — I’m all for skills, but most of these programmes seemed at best to misconstrue and at worst to willfully obscure the purpose of skills, which are far from the only things effective managers need.

Leaders need skills as much as carpenters need hammers and drills. Skills are leadership tools. But, as my wife can tell you, just having a toolbox full of hardware doesn’t make me a talented craftsman. The difference between a handy husband and a master carpenter is not in the hammers, or in the eyes and hands, but in the mind.

To grow new leaders, it’s necessary to focus on developing the managerial mind before developing leadership skills. Good leaders need a combination of managerial maturity, business acumen, wisdom and ethics in order to know what to do with skills. They must be able to look at the world through a number of distinct lenses, synthesise the chaos of reality into a coherent image and then use leadership skills to move people to positive action.

Given a choice, I’d take a less skilled but more thoughtful leader over a highly trained but more limited thinker. A leader with a good mind and heart can usually overcome a deficit of skills, but an immature yet skilled manipulator will eventually self-destruct, taking the organisation with them.

So why are there so many programmes that focus on skills rather than mindset? I suspect that the reasons are as follows:

- Skills are easy to teach, encapsulate and measure. Mindsets are vague and idiosyncratic.

- Skills are more concrete than mindsets, which makes training and development programmes easier to sell.

- Skills can be learned quickly (at least in theory). In a few hours, anyone can be taught a conceptual model and a few simple techniques for any skill. Changing minds takes time and patience.

So, what’s an earnest leader interested in developing the managerial potential in their organisation to do?

Chances are that no single product on the market will meet all your needs. You’ll have to construct your own development programme using a combination of best-of-breed commercial products and custom-developed experiences.

Sound familiar? Building your people infrastructure is a bit like designing your software infrastructure. Every organisation has its own culture, its own strategy and its own management style. Generic leadership training, like packaged software, will only go so far.

So when you start thinking seriously about developing your leadership bench strength, avoid the skills-only nostrum. Tools alone are no substitute for insight and ethics — the products of the educated and mature managerial mind.

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