Technical competence without people skills - what is it costing you?

A common problem I see in many organisations is that somewhere in their senior management team they have a person with strong technical competence, but who lacks the essential people skills and leadership expertise. The story goes that they are leading the way with their knowledge and experience, meeting expectations, producing innovative ideas, delivering on project deadlines and are knowledge champions in their field.  However, the issue preventing them from getting ahead or a roadblock to their further success is their inability to deal with colleagues, inspire their staff and get outside their comfort zone to take the next step in their professional and personal development.

One HR Director told me that the response from a technically brilliant manager was “things are good, there aren’t any problems, no-one’s losing money – let’s keep doing things the way they are”.  Another in an accounting firm is a star – she is “a doer”.  In a client meeting, she is all business, discussing the issues and then is firing on all cylinders to get the job done. Meanwhile, the client is still pouring a cup of coffee wanting to debrief and perhaps even converse in a little banter about the weekend. In another, a technical manager has got significant staff turnover and the Managing Director refuses to do anything about his ‘leadership style’ because there is no one as good as him in the industry. Really?

At what point does technical competence excuse someone from poor behaviour and being able to operate under a separate set of rules? At what point does an organisation say enough – we love the results, but you're destroying our culture, loosing our future talent and just a pain the butt to work with!

I’ve seen it and I’m sure you have too.  These people can sometimes appear as a protected species – anything goes because they have the knowledge, they’ve been in the business forever and are producing the results.  Here’s the problem – you can’t promote them to an executive role because they don't inspire, empower or lead from the front.  The alternative is to leave them and continue the way they are, improve and coach them on their people skills or let them go. In my observations, most choose to leave them as they are, because it is “too hard” to do anything else.

The long-term recruitment and retention issue here is that high potentials may not be attracted to the firm due to the perceived reputation they have heard on the grapevine.  Similarly, high potentials within the business eventually leave because they can’t see a career path working for this person or in an environment where these behaviours are accepted.

The best result is to build on their leadership and people skills.  Imagine that – your highly valuable employee is now not only producing, but also inspiring others to deliver similar results.  That would be a huge turnaround for culture, results and retention. A typical by-product is the individual also benefiting through increased job satisfaction - due to not being the only technical expert with all critical pieces of work resting on their shoulders.

In my experience a technically experienced performer is not magically going to improve their people skills over-night.  Hoping that it will get better is not a strategy. In the past, what tends to happen is they are sent on a leadership course with fingers crossed that they will return a ‘changed person’.  I don’t know about you, but I have never seen such changes after attending a training program. Of course they come back with increased knowledge, perhaps even some awareness and on the odd occasion you may even see them implement a couple of new strategies! Once the course is finished and becomes a distant memory, these new ideas are generally long gone and tend to disappear.

What is more valuable and can have far reaching effects is when a person is coached on their behaviours and the impacts that they are having on other team members, direct reports or clients and the long term cost to them if they continue in this way.  The key here is of course knowing what this particular person’s triggers are eg: not gaining access to larger projects or more responsibility, bigger clients, bonus payments etc.  Linking the behavior to what motivates or demotivates them is certainly going help drive the message home while keeping them accountable to change.

I was surprised last month when someone I know left a high profile job and what I percieved as a great business.  He said to me after leaving "Nicole, life is too short to work with d#!*heads”.  I was surprised to hear something so blunt, but I got the message loud and clear.  I wonder when some of these leaders are going to get a similar message that technical competence is only one part of a much larger people picture that if dealt with can produce bigger and better results for all involved.

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Comment by Anthony Sork on October 27, 2011 at 13:45
Absolutely and totally agree with you on this one Nicole. The research shows that coaching has long-lasting impacts on people's behaviour, and interestingly our research shows that 2/3's of Managers think that they are having a different impact from the one that they are having. Great post.
Comment by Nicole Underwood on October 27, 2011 at 14:21
Ahhh Anthony that is spot on - I regularly coach on other people's perception of your communication - not what you think you are communicating. A great example last on Celebrity Apprentice with Pauline Hansen!

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