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It’s About the People, Stupid…

Not the stupid people! For every leader that complains about the lackluster or dense or lazy or difficult or self important or entitled employee I will show you a leader who scores low on interpersonal skills. I dare you to pick up a random handful of business leadership articles or books and I would bet that you will find few or none with social skills in the title. There is much out there on strategy and inspiration and technology and globalization and innovation. Embedded in some of these books will be a chapter on partnerships or using social media to strengthen your networks. But I’m talking old school interpersonal skills here; speaking comfortably with people who think differently than you do, listening intently, raising difficult topics, saying no, supporting the ambitions of others, saying please and thank you, looking someone in the eye, drawing out the ideas of others. Social skills that we all should have learned as we grew up but may not have been rewarded, developed further or written about in those books about how to be a successful leader.

I am a frequent reader of Adam Bryant’s Corner Office column in the NYTimes. ( I caught a TV interview with him as it relates to his new book. I’m oversimplifying here but he made a strong case for excellent people skills being a primary factor in leadership success. And this comes from the mouths of CEOs…many of whom probably know how important this is but are likely to be imperfect in their practice. It got me to thinking about the state of the art in today’s environment.

You can look at the literature, research, case studies and executive education resources out there and they are heavily tilted towards the nuts and bolts of running a business: strategy, technology, process improvements, economics, M and A. Then there are the few writers and resources that focus on interpersonal skills and self awareness. I have wondered for years…why isn’t this voice louder or bigger? With new research coming out every day about how the younger generations coming of age in the social media age are less likely to acquire or practice interpersonal skills in real life…why aren’t we worried about this? In our globalized work lives where understanding and responding to cultural nuances is so important…why did we stop developing these skills in the early 2000’s?

So here are my observations and thoughts on the matter of leadership and interpersonal skills.

  • There is a striking and obvious difference between the vast majority of decent and productive leaders and those who excel at people skills. You know it the second you are in the room with them. They engage you in open, comfortable and interested ways. You feel heard and part of a mutual discussion. You don’t feel talked to or like there is uneven footing. You walk away from these conversations either ready for action or needing some time to reflect. You do not need time to gather your wits or decompress or have that inner talk with yourself about how much longer can you possibly hang in there.
  • The most frequent conversation I have with leaders is about having to raise tough issues with a staff person. This is true of interpersonally adept leaders as well as tone deaf aggressive ones. There is something about delivering bad news that makes most people lay awake at night. I’ve seen tough guys delegate firing one of their direct reports to a henchman and I’ve seen others avoid the unpleasantness altogether. My understanding of this is that most of us have no exposure or practice with how to work through difficult topics in productive ways. The wiring isn’t hooked up. Or else we have too much experience with things going badly; threatened law suits, crying, screaming, payback.
  • Most good leaders know in their hearts and minds that having good people skills is essential. Yet because these may not come naturally or fluidly they default to other gears that work smoothly. You approach your boss to discuss problems you are having with two of your key people and get her advice. After hearing you out she says, “It sounds like you’ve talked with them several times and documented it. Maybe you ought to go to HR.” Or your boss delivers some rough feedback and you say, “It sounds like that is one data point from someone who left the company. Have you talked with other people? You’ve never asked me about this before.” And your boss responds, “Good point. I’m just concerned that your productivity may be slipping.” Incomplete, unsatisfying, unresolved. And the negative impact will linger on for you.
  • Many companies invest in engagement surveys and upward feedback processes and other tools for assessing leadership effectiveness. When the scores come back the leaders who are rated the lowest are dinged for poor interpersonal skills. (It is under the category of good management practices of listening, engaging in two way feedback, frequent/effective communication etc.) The approaches for improvement are minimal. More face time with the boss or an improvement plan or assistance from a senior HR person. For more enlightened companies leaders are sent for a week at the Center for Creative Leadership (and are forever changed!) or they get an executive coach. This is not part of a larger leadership enhancement program…just a one off response for specific individuals.
  • Interpersonal skills can absolutely be learned….but you have to be motivated to try and practice and work at it until it becomes a habit. That means you need to invest your time (and usually money) and persevere in spite of your discomfort and shortcomings. You need to think of it as attaining another advanced degree.
  • There are a few geniuses that can succeed wildly in spite of underdeveloped or neanderthal people skills (think Steve Jobs) but most of us are just regular folks and we need some secret sauce. Challenging yourself to interpersonally excel pays a huge dividend in leading your organization. And your people will like the difference.

Jim Collins writes about the Level 5 leader…which I write about here as the understated leader. These are people who are not flashy and are steady-as-you-go types. He doesn’t address social skills per se but I’d love to see him feature this in a study just as I would like to see Adam Bryant continue to call this out. My worst fear is that we will soon (if it isn’t here already) have two camps of poor people skills; those over 45 who have an idea of the right thing to do but are horribly uncomfortable doing it and those under 45 who never learned these skills in the first place. Trust me, you can’t have a productive exchange in 140 characters!

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