Talent management presents a unique challenge for the knowledge-intensive, clever environment. While many people in clever environments have great technical minds, they fall short in their ability to engage and communicate well with others. When clever people reach management and leadership level, they can begin to present a risk to the organisation. Despite their technical skills and expertise, many of them display a degree of immaturity in their interpersonal skills and ability to self-manage.
I have often been surprised to find when working with some senior, high calibre professionals at the peak of their careers, that they need coaching to develop basic levels of self-awareness and self-management. Many of them have needed coaching to increase their receptiveness to feedback and to give them the tools to both motivate others and have conversations about performance with their teams. Too often, professional organisations allow their people to move too far on in their careers before addressing the development of their people skills.
The gap that clever people often have between their high levels of sector expertise and their sometimes lacking interpersonal skills is important to address, especially in the wider context of the shift in leadership thinking that I think we are beginning to see. In the high-tech age, the role of the leader is changing. Increasingly sophisticated information systems have given more people greater access to knowledge and data, so it is no longer as important for leaders to be the primary expert in their teams. Instead of focussing their energies on controlling all aspects of how things are done, they now need to step back and set the context and framework to enable others to do their best work. This new way of leading has come about because of the speed with which technology is taking on the work that has traditionally been done by experts, number crunchers and technicians. Rapidly changing work environments have led to higher levels of organisational ambiguity that managers are having to navigate, if they want to make the right judgements. The speed at which these changes are taking place make it impossible for leaders to rely solely on their own knowledge. They must bring others together to collaborate on understanding the complexity of challenges they now face and finding the solution. These two aspects, namely better access to knowledge and the speed with which work environments are being changed by technological advances, have meant that a leader’s ability to manage the breadth of relationships such as with stakeholders, team members and clients has become even more important 1.
The change in leaders’ primary role has brought with it an increasing need for them to focus on the moral and spiritual dimensions of managing. So what does this mean for leadership in high-tech, research and professional services organisations? Netflix’s talent management strategy statements that recently went viral, talk about the need to focus on recruiting ‘fully-formed adults’, and having zero tolerance within the organisation for the negative behaviours sometimes displayed by those they call ‘brilliant jerks’. The message is clear; for those wishing to work in top performing organisations, being a brilliant individual contributor is not enough anymore, it has to be coupled with an ability to get the best from others.
A new level of maturity is required for those taking on leadership positions. But what does maturity mean exactly?
Qualities of the Mature Leader
When I talk about the maturity that needs to go alongside the intellectual and technical abilities of leaders, I see there being three critical elements;
- spiritual maturity
- emotional maturity and
- social maturity
It is my argument that the ‘fully-formed’ adult with leadership potential has all three. I would also argue that all three elements are likely to be less developed in those individuals who have spent many years absorbed in development and the execution of very technical and professionalised skillsets.
Diagram: A model for leadership development in clever organisations
Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz2 talk of spiritual energy as the ‘why of living’, and the most fundamental of energy sources for leaders. Spiritual maturity provides a foundation, underpinning a person’s energy levels in the emotional and social domains. It is what gives us the reason for doing what we do, and the clear sightedness to tolerate setbacks and adversity. Understand your personal values and they will act like a compass, keeping you moving in the direction that is right for you. For managers and leaders, having spiritual maturity means a keen awareness of why they go to work every day, which when well communicated to others, can inspire followership. I worked recently with a housing organisation whose CEO was determined to improve the resident experience, a passion which radiated from him. By inspiring his people to work for a cause, he had generated a focused energy in the organisation.
Too often, professional organisations allow professionals to move too far on in their careers before important personal skills are addressed.”
Emotional maturity is the ability to understand and manage our own emotions. This may sound similar to one half of Goleman’s emotional intelligence model that says we need to be aware of our own emotions so that we can self manage3. However, it is more than this, since it also refers to the role that emotional responses play in our resilience and ability to adapt in response to the environment and its pressures. Emotional maturity turns threat into challenge, turns panic into focus and turns reaction into action. It is the ability to sense things on a human, feeling level, but read and harness that feeling rather than be harnessed by it.
At a simple level, it is the capacity to manage our emotional reactions. Take the senior lawyer I was recently coaching. One of her juniors had made a significant mistake which had seen her castigated harshly by one of the Partners. The junior was now dealing with the resulting loss of confidence caused by the Partners’ outburst. Beyond this, emotional maturity is about channelling our emotions for better performance. Tennis fans will have seen that Andy Murray has developed both his physical and emotional maturity to withstand five set onslaughts from the likes of Federer and Nadal without seeming to capitulate as he did in the early stages of his career. Instead, he manages to stay focused and professional to the last point, and now he is Wimbledon champion. When leading others, the ability to sustain pressure from your environment whilst giving a sense of confidence and direction to the team is critical in maintaining your focus and performance, and in buffering the effects of that pressure from the team.
some people, no matter how long they are given, will never develop high levels of maturity in these areas”
Social maturity arises from well-developed interpersonal skills that adapt for various stakeholder groups; the ability to engage clients, stakeholders and the team in different ways, through flexing style and approach, by sensing what is needed and responding instinctively. To know and be yourself, whilst seamlessly adapting your own behaviour to have the right impact, is a skill that some may acquire more readily than others. There are some very bright technicians who, having little contact with clients through their careers, struggle to know how to speak their language. Conversely there are the great commercial business developers who don’t learn to work well with others within their own organisations. Many struggle with the transition from individual contributor to people manager, and for those that make the transition, a great deal of social maturity will be developed along the way. I recently coached a technically strong but shy IT technician, newly promoted into managing her peers. She was finding it challenging to establish herself as a leader while faced with some envy from more assertive team members. With development of strategies to adapt her style when needed and take the lead by managing dissent more effectively, she learnt over time to manage others’ attempts to sabotage her and establish herself in a new role.
So what does this mean for organisational talent management?
The most crucial qualities for leaders in clever environments to grow in are those qualities that can’t be developed through intellect alone. These are qualities that are experiential and emotional in nature.
So am I saying we need to leave leadership to the elders who have had time to experience more? Not at all – some people, no matter how long they are given, will never develop high levels of maturity in these areas. Maslow theorised that only around 1% of society will ever reach the point of self-actualisation 4 and some readers may note the similarity to the tone of Maslow’s humanistic theories.
Organisations can develop this leadership maturity through leadership development programmes and structures that allow people the freedom to develop these qualities in their own way:
- When assessing candidates, consider broadening the framework of assessment to consider not just those qualities critical to the immediate job at hand, but build in elements of maturity to your assessment criteria. OE Cam can help you to develop a leadership competencies framework, and systematically look for potential in candidates long before they reach leadership positions. Qualities of maturity, by their very nature, take time to nurture and develop.
- Reduce the level of instruction and increase the level of self-directed learning in leadership programmes, with the supporting structures and context in place to support this. Provide access to resources, facilities and social structures that enable individuals to direct their own learning, and the more mature will embrace this most effectively. OE Cam’s approach to leadership programmes focuses on developing the personal skills for learning with and through other people in networks and through collaboration. As the role of the leader shifts from exercising control to setting the context, this needs to be reflected in how and what leaders learn.
- Increasingly organisations will need to enable personal development of spiritual maturity and awareness. This may be through instruction in activities underpinned by wellbeing philosophies such as mindfulness, as well as personal coaching. For example, personal consulting is a holistic approach to psychological coaching that is emerging to meet the needs of both personal and professional development in an integrated way. OE Cam’s approach to coaching provides the psychological intervention that can achieve business benefit through personal change.
- Career management structures should allow for encouraging ‘time out’, career breaks and sabbaticals as important in giving broader experience, as well as programmes of regular pro bono and charitable work as part of increased flexibility in working arrangements.
1. Dewhurst, M. and Willmott, P. (2014). Manager and machine: The new leadership equation. McKinsey Quarterly, Sept. 2014
2. Loehr, J. and Schwartz. T. (2004) “The Power of Full Engagement”
3. Goleman, D. (1996) “Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ”
4. “A Theory of Human Motivation” by Abraham Maslow published in Psychological Review (1943)
5. Popovic, N. and Jinks, D. (2014). “Personal consulting”