Is your Leadership Development Developing Leaders?

Soft skills are increasingly important in creating successful leaders

Guest post from Gary S. Shamis:

One of the most gratifying experiences in writing a leadership book is the introspection

youallow yourself in the process. You are able to hold a proverbial mirror to your successes and failures, and view them both more objectively. If you are honest with yourself, the experience can yield a treasure trove of teachings.

As I wrote Building Blocks — Case Studies of a Serial Entrepreneur, I realized that over the years, I toiled with many of my failures, but I never analyzed the variables of the successes. It wasn’t until I could put those lessons into play as a consultant that I realized their value.

I managed a national top-forty accounting and consulting firm (SS&G). In thirty years, I grew it from 20 people to 500 with revenues of $80 million before it was acquired by BDO. Several of our initiatives set the industry standard for successful firm management.

Today, I help (mostly) professional services firms — law, accounting, insurance, architecture, finance — attain growth, productivity, and profitability. Together, we identify deficiencies and implement solutions.

Remarkably, the most consistent area of incompetence pertains to developing leaders.

Culture Club

Talent was our greatest asset and as the industry became more and more competitive, the urgency with which to attract, hire, and retain exceptional professionals became paramount. The cost of turnover was too great. We analyzed, overanalyzed, and re-analyzed what future leaders, Generations Y and Z, sought in a desired employer.

In turn, we adapted our culture to meet their needs — casual dress codes, flextime, healthy lifestyle options, community involvement, challenging work, more defined advancement. As a result, our voluntary turnover rate hovered at six percent, significantly lower than the industry average of 25 percent.

While it didn’t take long to weed out incompetence, we recognized that technical ability alone was not reason enough to promote professionals to managers. Inept managers were responsible for losing talent with leadership potential. And in a competitive marketplace, it cost us dearly.

People leave managers, not companies. But more often than not, we do a poor job of preparing them for the role and its responsibilities.

Getting Soft

The issue with leadership development is that there is too much emphasis on the hard skills (technical knowledge, teachable, easy to quantify) and not enough focus on the soft skills (interpersonal skills, subjective, harder to measure).

Ninety-one percent of HR professionals surveyed by LinkedIn believe soft skills are very important for the future of recruiting. In its 2019 trendsreport, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) stated that workplace soft skills are important for the future or recruiting talent and exceedingly valuable for competitive organizations.

Even the nation’s top business schools (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Wharton, Berkley) are injecting soft skills into MBA curricula to support new management models such as remote teams, emotional intelligence, predictive analytics, passion and purpose, and mindfulness in the workplace.

Increasingly, executives are beginning to realize the benefits soft skills offer their organization and are placing equal importance on both. By ignoring the benefits of soft skills in leadership programming, companies are sacrificing the ability to identify strong leaders, whether innately or by coaching their mastery, let alone keep and grow them.

At my firm, we identified the professionals we wanted to invest in, those with the potential and desire. We included courses on working a room, presentation styles, dressing for the occasion, writing etiquette, and creating your brand, and offered a complimentary physical bootcamp to support wellness goals, teamwork, communication, and trust.

Leaders Over Lifers

As you move people up in the organization, ask yourself on what grounds they are being promoted. According to Gallup, “…two things that usually earn a promotion to management have nothing to do with great management ability: tenure and mastery of a previous, non-managerial role.” “This is a flawed strategy with serious consequences for an organization’s engagement, financial performance and long-term sustainability.” Many are generally minor performers. Few, if any, have had soft-skill training in actual management topics such as difficult conversations and delegation.

Employees who possess soft skills can directly impact the bottom line (SHRM). Professional development supporting those skills can be one of the most impactful investments you make.

So how does an organization go about creating a culture that distinguishes between leadership development and developing leaders?

Create a program that addresses the importance of the soft skills (effective communication, difficult conversations, constructive feedback, delivering presentations) necessary for success in the role. LinkedIn’s 2018 Workforce Report found that the four most in-demand soft skills are within leadership, communication, collaboration, and time management.

Then, consider:

External Development. While it’s most cost effective to create in-house training using senior-level employees, go outside of the organization and tap into true, dedicated expertise.
Personalized Learning. Some will be better than others at developing and enhancing certain skills. Recognize that the experience is an evolution and confidence is gained by practice.
Measurable Outcomes. Performance evaluations should ensure that these professionals are at the very least meeting the expectations the organization has established. Take into account that once-a-year assessments conflict with consistent accountability.

As with all good strategies, the execution, measurement, and evaluation are imperative. Curricula that effectively develops capable leaders is the most vital means with which to ensure their success. Only when developing leaders becomes a natural part of your culture is it successful.

Gary S. Shamis is CEO of Winding River Consulting and the author of Building Blocks—

Case Studies of a Serial Entrepreneur. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.