Interpersonal Skills: Vital Tools for Today's Senior Leader

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Senior leaders must possess technical competence and enterprise-specific knowledge. Of greater importance, however, is their ability to work successfully with people. Contemporary research suggests that interpersonal skills have become increasingly more important to achieving business results as individuals advance through organizational ranks of responsibility.

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Interpersonal Skills: Vital Tools for Today's Senior Leader

  1. 1. INTERPERSONAL SKILLS: VITAL TOOLS FOR TODAY’S SENIOR LEADERBy Keith Malo, Research Managerand Chris Blauth, Senior Product ManagerSenior leaders are responsible for translating strate- developed the model “Strategy to Resultsgic focus and direction into day-to-day operations. Through People” (Figure 1).These leaders must possess technical competence First, strategy owners define the result they wantand enterprise-specific knowledge. Of greater to achieve. Then they ask, “What needs to happenimportance, however, is their ability to work to bring about this result?” The response is thesuccessfully with people. Often leaders are plan of action to bring about the defined endrequired to produce results through others, and to result: the strategy.accomplish their desired objectives, leaders mustbe able to manage people. Contemporary execu- Figure 1tive leadership research suggests that interpersonal Strategy to Results Through Peopleskills have become increasingly more important toachieving business results as individuals advancethrough organizational ranks of responsibility.1STRATEGY TO RESULTS THROUGH PEOPLE ExecutivesAchieveGlobal believes that people are the key to Strategybusiness success. Until people take action, goalsand strategies are nothing but words on a sheet of Senior Managerspaper. Results come from people equipped withthe appropriate skills and energized to do the right Resources to transform the vision to actionthings at the right time. Any seasoned business Managersleader knows that even the most brilliant of strate-gies will collapse if an organization fails to invig- Leadersorate, invest in, and support the people responsi-ble for implementing it. Individual ContributorsTo better understand the link between business Organizational Resultsresults and individuals, as well as to illustratehow an organization may produce results in commitment » » assessment » » knowledge acquisition » » skills practice » » reinforcement » » applicationan efficient manner, AchieveGlobal has Strategy to Results Through People1. AchieveGlobal draws this conclusion based on an extensive literary review of works related to executive development and training. Some suggested reading on this topic may include. “Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance,“ (December 2001) and “The Young and the Clueless,” (December 2002) each in Harvard Business Review, along with selected works by Daniel Goleman and Stephen J. Zaccaro. 1
  2. 2. Next, senior managers direct the resources and with bridging the gap between strategic goalsprocesses to transform that vision into reality. It and daily operations. In a world with constantlyis critical that this group is successful, as they are changing landscapes and backdrops, this is nothe bridge that unites the organization’s vision simple task.with the organization’s producers, resulting inthe end product. “Success is painting the vision and having people really know how they impact thatThereafter, it is the responsibility of frontline vision on a day-to-day basis.”supervisors and managers to develop the capa-bilities within the individuals, processes, and – Assistant Vice President, Information Technology,systems of the organization to execute and Insurance Providerimplement the strategy.Finally, individuals deliver the results through Moreover, each day leaders are pulled in multipleproductive behaviors. They take appropriate and directions as they address various businesstimely actions – supported by knowledge, issues, implement the objectives of strategycommitment, and ability – and get things done. owners, and balance the needs and expectations of their clients, direct reports, and frontline staff.Once again, organizations get results when indi-viduals are equipped with the appropriate skills Research clearly shows us that individuals whoand are energized to do the right things at the advance through corporate leadership ranksright time. often do so as a result of their proven commit- ment to the organization, or because of theirPeople deliver results. mastery of profession-specific or technical skills and not because of their ability as effectiveTHE IMPORTANCE OF INTERPERSONAL SKILLS people managers. Once promoted, however, these managers are not always successful.Supported by a vast library of literature andAchieveGlobal’s own collective experiences of To survive and thrive in today’s global work-over 30 years of working with organizations to place, leaders need to be more than book smartdevelop leaders, it is apparent that the most and friendly. They need to know how to bringsuccessful organizations have senior leaders with out the best in others. Today’s leaders must besolid interpersonal skills. It makes sense to rely equipped with the people skills that will bringless on technical competencies the further one optimal efficiency, productivity, and profitabilityadvances from the delivery line. to their organizations.Despite intense “management training,” many In a series of focus groups conducted by Achieve-studies over the years have shown that most Global with senior and mid-level managerssenior managers are less effective because they across the United States and the Uniteddon’t know how to motivate and coach staff, Kingdom, one director succinctly described hissolve conflicts, or relate to other people. This view on the popular system that promotesdeficit poses a major challenge to meeting orga- managers as a “double whammy.” Citing thenizational goals, as leaders are required to common occurrence of the “best salespersonproduce results through others. To realize the being promoted to sales manager,” he stated:desired objectives, these leaders must effectively “First you lose your strongest producer on thebe able to relate interpersonally. delivery side and then realize conflicts and chal- lenges on the management side.” He furtherToday’s senior leaders continue to be charged 2
  3. 3. explained that the new managers often lack the emphasis on possessing more technical andnecessary human skills to manage conflicts with strategic qualities. However, some have arguedother managers and the skills to coach and that the appropriate balance was a third each ofmentor direct reports. strategic, technical, and leadership or interper- sonal skills. Consider the idea that “middle levelTo build on this theme, another senior manager managers need the same one-third of the skillrecalled her organization’s recent downsizing mix in interpersonal skills. These managers areexperience and stated, “It was the only layoff we sandwiched between the lower level managershave had since [incorporating in] 1991. In all and the top managers – requiring finely tunedhonesty, I personally don’t believe it was people skills to survive.”3managed as well as it could have [been]. MostlyI think it was due to the newness of it all to the The viewpoint has shifted. More recent litera-managers.” She went on to recall how poorly the ture, in particular some works by Stephen J.managers executed the layoff notifications and Zaccaro on the nature of executive leadership,how unsuccessfully they managed the morale and suggests a greater need for interpersonal skills theproductivity declines of the remaining employees. higher one progresses in organizationalThis manager later disclosed that their managers level.(Figure 2)were not equipped to handle the human sensitiv- Figure 2 4ities related to downsizing or stabilizing and re-invigorating the remaining work force. To makematters worse, at a crucial moment in the orga-nization’s quest for survival, these managerslacked critical interpersonal skills.These situations are not unique.In another research study2, AchieveGlobal askedrespondents to assess the presence of leadershipbehaviors within their organizations. The care- Again, as leaders advance within an organiza-fully recruited online sample of executives, tion, interpersonal skills become increasinglymanagers, and non-managers across the United important to achieving success. Whether it isStates and the United Kingdom replied that the managing a small group of managers, leading anmost observed behaviors were more operations organization-wide initiative, or working with anrelated, such as self-motivation, commitment, external party such as a client or vendor, theand competence. ability to communicate a plan successfully and manage the human interactions throughoutFrom our most recent primary research2, it is execution is crucial to accomplishing businessevident that today’s global workplace, from the objectives.perspective of managers and non-managers alike,continues to be managed by technically compe- “I think it is showing that you are human.tent individuals who lack the required interper- You can be all of that – decision maker,sonal skills to bring an organization to greatness. problem solver, strategic – but you could be a robot. If your team doesn’t feel youHistorically, it was believed that as one moves to are approachable, it won’t work. It’shigher levels within an organization the need for having a ‘human side.’”interpersonal skills remained relativelyunchanged. This previous generation of executive – Head of Direct Marketing, Mobile Telephonedevelopment thought leadership placed greater Retailer2. AchieveGlobal primary research includes (a) focus groups conducted in the United States and the United Kingdom with director-level and above audiences and (b) an on- line leadership survey across the United States and the United Kingdom in which 32 percent of the total sample represented an executive management position or a posi- tion of vice president to CEO.3. Buhler, Patricia. “Managers: Out with the Old and In with the New – Skills That Is.” Supervision, June, 1998. 4 Stephen J. Zaccaro, Ph.D, The Nature of Executive Leader- ship: A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis of Success, American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C., 2001.4. Stephen J. Zaccaro, Ph.D., The Nature of Executive Leadership: A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis of Success, December 2000. 3
  4. 4. TOP BUSINESS ISSUES THROUGH THE EYES OFSENIOR LEADERS “You have to know your environment. Our greatest denominator for successTo better understand the priorities of the over the past 15 years was ourmodern-day global workplace, AchieveGlobal willingness to change. If we hadn’t,conducted a research study to identify the key we’d be like several of our competitorsbusiness issues of senior business leaders in the who are no longer in business becauseUnited States and the United Kingdom. The focus they refused to change.”group participants represented a cross-section ofindustries and company sizes, including govern- – Director of Transportation, Automotive Parts Manufacturer/ Distributorment and military, and all were director-level andabove in their positions. CRITICAL SKILL SETS THROUGH THE EYES OFThe top five global business issues that emerged SENIOR LEADERSfrom this effort may be found in Table 1. Table 1 In the business issue research study, AchieveG- lobal also asked the participating senior TOP FIVE BUSINESS ISSUES managers to think about critical skill sets or competencies they believed were most needed by Surviving in a changing economy and marketplace themselves and their peers to meet or overcome Operating at more profitable levels the challenges of their top business issues. The Daily delivery of customer service top five skill sets that emerged from this effort are (Table 2): Meeting the demands of owners and stakeholders Table 2 Maintaining quality control TOP FIVE SKILL SETSIn a separate AchieveGlobal online survey withbusiness leaders in the United States, four of the Communication skillstop five business issues listed in Table 1 (those Strategic skillsshaded) were also top priorities of that sample. Problem solving skillsThe business climate of the twenty-first centurywill undoubtedly be classified as a time of great Technical skills 5challenge. The future, analysts and opinion Decision-making skillsleaders report, will bring even more uncertaintyas we all adapt to this “new world.” In a time with rapidly changing markets, contin- uous movement of targets, and unforeseen obsta-Yet, despite contemporary events, business leaders cles appearing daily, leaders – now more thanin the United States and the United Kingdom ever – need to have the skills necessary to mapcontinue to be focused on core issues that drive their way through a maze of issues and dilemmas.business survival and growth. Traditionalconcerns associated with remaining competitive The senior managers placed the highest emphasissuch as shifting gears in a changing marketplace, on the communication skill set and believedattaining greater margins of profit with declining many attributes were vital to success, including:revenues, and the daily delivery of solid customerservice, along with maintaining quality controlcarry on as top concerns for many organizations.5. An “umbrella” term that encompasses non-soft skills content areas such as personal computing, software and hardware; enterprise-specific (e.g., company policies, processes, procedures); profession-specific (e.g., CPA, engineer); financial (e.g., reading a P&L or U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission 10K or other management report with financial data); project management; sales, and marketing. 4
  5. 5. ■ Being perceptive to the audience and tailoring employees. The need for committed employees is the message accordingly, while simultane- critical due to our shifting business environment, ously remaining self-aware of one’s own body which seems to be placing greater premiums on language and mannerisms in delivering the increased productivity and profitability to message. achieve competitive advantage.6■ Listening to what the audience and others have to say. Often, the senior managers “When we were working on getting our suggested, managers will hear, but fail to workforce stabilized, we did employee listen to what peers, direct reports, superiors, surveys and found that communication and clients are saying, and that can hurt was our biggest animal. The more we across a number of lines, internally and exter- communicated, the more engaged our employees became, and the higher the nally. productivity became, and believe it or not, the better our financials became.”■ Sharing information to empower teams and to build credibility and loyalty. Openly – HR Manager, Manufacturer sharing information, such as financial performance, can make a significant differ- ence in creating high performance teams, High levels of employee loyalty have been linked especially during tentative or challenging to an estimated 11 percent boost in productivity. times. Commitment issues also explain more than 34 percent of employee turnover. And this outcome■ Equally important to sharing information, the can cost organizations an estimated 100 to 150 senior managers repeatedly stressed the need percent of the departing worker’s annual salary. to share with teams and others the “why.” Furthermore, loyal workers enhance an organiza- The senior managers believed that explaining tion’s reputation in the marketplace and this also helps to recruit better employees. Employee the reasons why a decision was made (or not commitment is one of the most important meas- made) was critical to further building under- ures of leader success. Worker commitment reaps standing, credibility, and overall cultures of benefits far beyond improved organizational trust. performance. 7Leader communication has long demonstrated Strategic skills, the managers believed, wereitself as a critical factor in worker motivation and important not only in the visionary sense, butperformance and has great potential to aid also in a practical and tactical context. Theirorganizations in their quest for committed prevailing opinion was that executives truly set the organizational vision and mission. Senior “I’m in a position where I’m over the managers, they believed, have to understand production staff, the mechanics, the those goals so they are able to develop their own electrical people, the instrument people department or division-wide strategies to support and all of those folks have to give me feedback. Communication is of the utmost the larger organization’s objectives. In addition, importance to solve problems they believed their role was to continuously expeditiously. Time is money if we remind direct reports and delivery-line staff of have a machine down.” their individual roles in meeting overall organiza- tional success. – Production Manager, Juice Company6. Mayfield, Jacqueline, and Mayfield, Milton. “Leader Communication Strategies Critical to Improving Employee Commitment.” American Business Review. June, 2002.7. Ibid. 5
  6. 6. Daily decisions need to be made and problemsresolved. The participating managers strongly “The real skill is knowing when you havebelieved that decision-making skills and enough information to make a decisionproblem-solving skills were also critical for because the chance of you having 100 percentsenior managers. And the managers were careful is nil. Can you make it at 50 percent or do youto note that decision making and problem solving need 60 percent? Knowing when you haveare two unique skill sets. enough information to make it is the skill.”With respect to problem-solving skills, the – Administrative Manager, Municipal Governmentmanagers believed that a model problem solvercan sift through information overload or anumber of issues and emotions to identify thebase issue and then develop solutions for poten- INTERPERSONAL SKILLS AND TODAYStial implementation. This skill, they agreed, BUSINESS ENVIRONMENTrequires taking the base problem down to smallerparts for more effective resolution and manage- So what does this mean?ment. For the most part, it was held that problem Consider the business issue, “surviving in asolving is more of a team oriented exercise than changing economy and marketplace,” which maydecision making. include a period marked by recession-like pres-Decision-making skills were considered the sures such as reduced spending, labor reductions,ability to choose an option with the best increased costs, lower profits, and contractingoutcomes for all parties, including having the and shifting markets.wherewithal to foresee the impact of a decision To survive these conditions, organizations muston another party, directly or indirectly affected. It develop and execute any number of strategicwas agreed that most decisions are made on alternatives. For example, some organizationslimited information. Moreover, it was perceived may reposition themselves by promoting theirthat a good decision maker has the confidence customer service orientation and/or makingand self-esteem to assume an unpopular stance themselves the lowest cost provider within thefor the greater good of the organization. One market. Other organizations may send seniorsenior manager noted that her organization leaders to the field to articulate a clear strategicwould call an effective decision maker a “true vision that rallies the team around a commonbeliever.” The prevailing opinion of the managers focus during tentative times – all in an effort towas that senior managers are more apt to be keep employee commitment up and productioncharged with decision-making responsibilities as on track. Some organizations will focus onthe context of the decision may have widespread lowering and controlling the costs of customerimplications related to policy or strategy. and employee retention to weather the storm. YetResearch has shown that employee loyalty, others may promote teamwork and securemorale, productivity, and satisfaction are greatly systems that support the people who interactinfluenced by a manager’s interpersonal skills with customers.and technique. To remain competitively viable, it Each of these strategic alternatives comes withis crucial that senior managers adapt skills that significant human considerations and challenges.commit to sharing, listening, and directing. For example, effectively leveraging the contribu- tions of all team members in light of rightsizing activities requires a number of critical leadership skills. 6
  7. 7. Likewise, successfully meeting goals, financial or CONCLUSIONotherwise, in light of constant restructuring andorganization-wide changes, requires critical lead- Regardless of the state of the economy or currentership skills that will maintain morale during the world events, today’s business leaders continue totough times, keep operations at peak level in be responsible for translating strategies to thespite of lower headcount, and facilitate the tactical level. They must direct the practices andacceptance of change to remain competitive. processes that support and develop competent and confident individuals. Development thatConsider another business issue, “maintaining recognizes and helps senior leaders shape andquality control.” Customers and shareholders are reinforce desirable individual behaviors trans-once again expressing a preference for quality lates into measurable organizational advantagesstandards and processes such as ISO 9000 regis- such as superior customer service, greatertration and Six Sigma. productivity and profitability, and uplifted team morale.To respond to this concern, organizations areexecuting a number of strategic alternatives. Forinstance, some organizations are attempting tounderstand and measure the value of qualitystandards. Others are establishing quality teamsfor analysis, planning, and implementation.Some organizations are establishing universalcorporate values, while others are participatingin formal registration or qualification programsand processes.Once again each of these strategies comes withsome human considerations. For example, identi-fying and recognizing employees who identifyways to build quality at the source or achievequality goals may be an obstacle for leaders nottrained or experienced at delivering recognition.Additional challenges may arise in terms ofperformance development – specifically, in build-ing empowered teams to solve problems or devel-oping individuals to be effective problem solvers.In each of these situations, senior leaders mustwork with other individuals and support teams.They must exhibit strong interpersonal skills.Remember people deliver results. And to accom-plish the objectives, leaders must execute acombination of interpersonal skills that willdevelop and maintain employee buy-in to thegoals and incessantly improve morale andproductivity to remain with and ahead of thecompetition. 7
  8. 8. ABOUT THE RESEARCH Review, Personnel Psychology, Supervision, and assorted works by Stephen Zaccaro, includingBetween December 27, 2002 and January 6, The Nature of Organizational Leadership:2003, the AchieveGlobal research team Understanding the Performance Imperativesconducted an online survey on business issues Confronting Today’s Leaders and The Nature ofand skill sets with a random sample of business Executive Leadership: A Conceptual and Empir-leaders in the United States. A total of 373 ical Analysis of Success.respondents completed the survey, of which 125were executive managers (e.g., vice president, C- ABOUT THE AUTHORSlevel), while the balance represented othermanagement ranks. The margin of error is ± 5 Keith Malo is research manager with thepercentage points at the 95 percent confidence AchieveGlobal research team. He brings 12 yearslevel. of supplier-side research experience to AchieveG- lobal. Keith’s research career began with the full-Throughout November and December 2002, the service market research firm National ResearchAchieveGlobal research team conducted focus Corporation. Over ten years with Nationalgroups in Omaha, Nebraska; Tampa, Florida; Research he held a number of operations andand London, United Kingdom. The audience for client service positions, which included theeach session was director level and above. Topics design, management, and execution of variousincluded the identification and definition of key research projects, quantitative and qualitative,business issues and the competencies required in utilizing an assortment of methodologies. Hismeeting or overcoming the challenges of those career continued with Sterling Research Group,business issues. In total, nearly 60 individuals Inc., a full-service market research firm, where heparticipated in the groups. served as a client services manager. In addition to his management experience with both firms,The AchieveGlobal research team conducted an Keith has been a research consultant to a numberonline leadership survey October 31 through of clients representing segments within theNovember 21, 2002 in which 747 persons healthcare, hospitality/lodging, and entertain-responded. The survey re-assessed the presence ment industries. With AchieveGlobal, Keithof critical leadership behaviors in the global manages a number of product and marketworkplace. The survey effort included a random research projects. He has authored and co-sample of workers in the United States, a authored a number of articles and has presentedsubsample of U.S. AchieveGlobal research findings at professional conferences.government/military clients, and a random Keith has a B.A. (political science) from thesample of workers in the United Kingdom. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is a memberNinety-five (95) percent of the total sample was of the American Marketing Association and theemployed full-time, 40 or more hours per week Marketing Research Association. Keith is a direc-while five percent were employed part-time, 20 tor-at-large on the board of directors of thehours or more per week. Thirty-two (32) percent MRA’s Florida chapter.of the total sample represented an executivemanagement position or a position of vice presi- Chris Blauth is senior product manager for lead-dent to CEO. Survey results are ± 5 percentage ership with AchieveGlobal. Since joining thepoints at the 95 percent confidence level. AchieveGlobal product management team, Chris has been responsible for maximizing revenue forAdditionally a number of published articles, numerous products through the creation andresearch reports, and books were reviewed and execution of product management strategy. Heconsulted, including American Business Review, also guides the organization to develop andGovernment Executive, Harvard Business maintain products that meet the training 8
  9. 9. industry’s current and future needs. Chris’ recentaccomplishments include launching an asynchro-nous Web-based tool, designed to reinforce skillstaught in AchieveGlobal’s flagship sales programProfessional Selling SkillsTM, and trainingprograms addressing competitive selling andsales presentations. Chris has also facilitatedAchieveGlobal’s popular sales performance andleadership courses. Prior to joining AchieveG-lobal, Chris spent seven years with LeicaMicrosystems, Inc., holding financial analyst andproduct manager positions. Chris earned a B.S.(accounting and finance) from the University atBuffalo and an M.B.A. in marketing from Cani-sius College. Chris is a member of Beta GammaSigma Honor Society and the American Manage-ment Association.ABOUT ACHIEVEGLOBALAchieveGlobal is the world leader in helpingorganizations translate business strategies intobusiness results by developing the skills andperformance of their people. We are a singleresource for aligning employee performance withorganizational strategy through training andconsulting solutions in sales performance,customer service, leadership, and teamwork.With offices throughout North America and apresence on every continent, we serve more than70 countries and offer programs and services inmore than 40 languages and dialects. We contin-ually adapt and translate our programs and serv-ices to meet the needs of global cultures. 9
  10. 10. Strategy To Results Through People©2003 AchieveGlobal, Inc.No. M0257 v.1.0 (7/03) 10

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