Technical Competency Is The Tip Of The Leadership Iceberg

Posted by Rick DeMarco on 2 April 2015

Tags: , , , ,

What Lies Below The Surface Are Strong Interpersonal Skills

Often when we facilitate working sessions with clients, we ask participants to think of someone who they consider to be a strong leader.  After they have someone in mind, we ask them to list the characteristics and behaviors that describe this leader.  Over 3,000 people have participated in this exercise and without exception the characteristics they list are interpersonal skills, not skills that relate to technical competency.  The list includes descriptors like honest, compassionate, good listener, and approachable.  Not once did the participants say that the leader that came to their mind was the best accountant or the best engineer or the best salesperson.  These results are consistent with research conducted by noted experts who have concluded that over 80% of leadership effectiveness is determined by the strength of interpersonal skills, not technical competency:

  • Research conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation, and the Stanford Research Institute has shown that 85% of job success is based on an individual’s people skills, with only 15% attributed to technical skills and knowledge.
  • Daniel Goleman, the father of Emotional Intelligence, and Norman Cousins, UCLA Professor, confirm that in fact, the possession and use of strong interpersonal skills contribute more to a person’s success than any technical skills or intellectual capacity.
  • The Harvard Business Review conducted a study that revealed that 85% of respondents have witnessed a high-level leader fail due to poor interpersonal skills.
  • In his book, the 8th Habit, Stephen Covey states that 90% of all leadership failures are character failures.

Don’t get me wrong; of course you have to have knowledge and expertise to lead people.  But technical competence is the price of admission to the world of effective leadership.  If you’re going to be a CFO, you’re expected to understand finance and accounting.  If you’re going to be a CMO, you’re expected to understand marketing theory and current practices.  But in order to create a culture of team alignment and engagement, you must have the ability to inspire people and create a shared vision.   

Remember, leadership is about behavior, not title.  And behavior is learned.  So to improve your leadership effectiveness, focus less on being the smartest person in the room and more on being the most influential and inspiring.  Here are a few steps you can take to improve your interpersonal skills.

  • Seek first to understand.  There is a difference between hearing and listening.  In order to be a good listener, you need to truly focus on the person speaking and not on what you’re going to say next.  A strong tool to affirm good listening is to take the time to repeat back what you just heard before responding.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.  Experts on delivering presentations will talk about the “listener’s frame of reference”.  We often are more intent on saying what we need to say instead of what the listener needs to hear. 
  • Authenticity and honesty will make bad situations tolerable.  All of us can accept that everything does not always go right.  But insincerity, phoniness, and dishonesty make it tougher to keep people inspired and engaged when things do go wrong.  Authenticity and honesty build trust and trust is at the center of all relationships.
  • Take responsibility for your actions and decisions.  Some decisions work out and some don’t.  People respect and follow leaders who are willing to admit they made mistakes and show vulnerability, and then take actions to correct them.  
  • Be approachable.  Have you ever worked in an environment in which you had to test the temperature of the waters before bringing up an issue or problem?  Major problems often remain unaddressed when a leader is not approachable by those he/she leads, so these problems often compound. Make sure people know you’re open to hearing feedback so that issues do not escalate into crisis.
  • Finally, lead by example.  People really don’t care what you say as much as they care about what you do.  Leaders need to walk to talk. 

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  In order for a leader to create a culture of employee engagement and team alignment, he/she has to first earn the respect and loyalty from those he or she leads.  And that comes from mutual respect, empathy, and a positive attitude.  Knowledge and technical competency alone will not create that culture.  It’s the strength of one’s ability to relate, inspire, and connect with others that is the true mark of an effective leader.