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What to do when your senior leaders suck at people managment

When folks with authority lack people skills it spells trouble for everyone. Attitudes cascade with effect from the top and if the attitude stinks of ‘I don’t need management training’, or ‘I know all that stuff already’ while they go on and create upset teams, then the organisation is in for a rough ride. The solution does not start with the leaders, it starts with systems.

We’ve all seen this happen. A technically brilliant professional gets promoted to a position of leadership. And then things start to unravel. While they might be great in their technical expertise, they suck at people management.

We often assume that capable, confident people will naturally pick up the skills of people leadership. Some do. Most don’t. Sometimes we end up with a senior leadership team with limited people skills assume the responsibility of guiding the organisation to fulfil its goals, and find themselves stumbling on getting it done. Not because they aren’t smart, but because they haven’t deciphered how to leverage people and the hidden force of culture. It’s a miserable experience for all.

If you’re in human resources, or in people and culture, this can be very frustrating. Especially if you have the solutions to their ills, namely a fabulous leadership development program. This is when you often get one of two responses:

“I don’t need to do the fundamentals of people management. I’m an experienced leader!”

or

“I’m too busy to do training.”

If you’re the CEO these retorts can be equally frustrating. These excuses can hamstring any directive from you to undertake development because to do so would indicate: “You need training because you are incompetent in my eyes” or “Your priorities are not as important as mine”. Not great relationship builders!

What’s really going on:

They don’t feel safe to say ‘I don’t know how.’ Current culture may not allow for weaknesses or gaps in performance, especially if they have been in the role for awhile. To admit doubts in their ability over the people stuff casts aspersions over the whole of their ability (so they think).

They are suffering from a serious case of imposter syndrome. They’re worried that at some stage somebody will work out they have no idea how to manage people. They just want to get on and do the technical job, like they did before. It’s easier just looking after our own stuff.

Or they might be completely oblivious! Sometimes if we have very strong technical expertise we have not yet developed the skill of self awareness, let alone other people awareness – the fundamentals of good people leadership.

Here’s where we can look to make changes. We need to focus on how to make the workplace safe so senior leaders can feel open to their own development.

Systems

Have a look at KPIs. What are the leaders being ‘graded’ on? What do they need to deliver? What is the reward and recognition scheme in the organisation? These will drive particular behaviours, sometimes useful to people leadership, often times not. Chances are KPIs need to be redefined and reoriented towards improvement in culture, not just delivering financial results.

Support

Any conversations with senior leaders need to be funnelled through two lenses. The first is reassurance. They’ve got to their position because they have demonstrated competence in at least one area. They have the potential to be brilliant as people leaders, as well as technical experts. Reassuring them that these are two different skill areas is critical. When we get promoted from expert to leader it’s like starting over from the beginning. We feel like a complete novice as we discover there is a whole new skillset to learn. Letting them know that this is completely normal – and expected – helps diffuse the tension of feeling out of our depth.

The second lens is to focus on preview, not review. Every professional wants to be a star performer. We can inspire senior leaders by painting a picture of what a brilliant and confident leader looks like and where we see they can have the biggest impact.

Success

How do they define success? This is the most important secret lever. Is it about accolades? Is it about promotions? Is it about approval of others? Is it about high employee net promoter scores? Is it about their own internal world of satisfaction knowing that they’ve done the best in their role and in supporting others? Fleshing out what success means to the senior leader will help uncover where their priorities lie. It also offers an opportunity to broaden and extend what the definition of success could be. We can highlight the joys of cultivating other leaders because ultimately this makes life easier for the leader!

It’s a tough gig. Being a technically competent professional, we build our ego around the success of that experience. To move into a role where we find the people stuff a surprise, especially how much time and effort it takes to handle the subtleties of people relationships, can be a little overwhelming. Many leaders I deal with speak of the shock of how much time it takes to deal with people stuff on the job, leaving very little time to get their own deliverables done.

We need to celebrate the joy of mastering the people stuff. To see someone we supervise thrive and flourish under our leadership is one of the greatest privileges and pleasures of leadership. It’s an undiscovered and uncelebrated aspect of leadership. Making these people skills explicit, measurable, and accountable is critical to successful leadership development pathways.

First, we need to address the systems, support, and success that underpin it all.

How do you make people skills part of the development pathway of senior leaders? What have you seen that works well in making these skills visible and more tangible? How are people stuff skills dealt with in your organisation?

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Zoë is on a mission to encourage big thinkers with big hearts to make a big difference. She is passionate about showing leaders how to challenge limitations so they can live and lead with boundless energy, confidence, and conviction. With over 30 years experience developing leaders, she has published three books: Composure: How Centered Leaders Make the Biggest Impact, Moments: Leadership when it matters most, and Loyalty: Stop unwanted staff turnover, boost engagement, and create lifelong advocates. These are available here.

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