I was participating in a division-wide virtual town hall recently during which employees had the opportunity to submit questions anonymously via sli.do. One of the first questions that got asked went something like this:
“Will we ever start promoting people who are strong contributors instead of good communicators?”
That was five days ago and I’ve been mulling the question over ever since.
Rather than reading into the question any attempt at denigrating effective communicators, I prefer to understand it as an expression of interest in how organizations pick – or should pick – people for various types of leadership positions.
Implicit in the question as I understand it are a few underlying beliefs: 1) That one can be effective in a leadership role without being a good communicator; 2) That being a good communicator and being a strong contributor are somehow mutually exclusive and; 3) That being a successful individual contributor is a good predictor of success in a formal leadership position. All three views are wrong.
People in leadership positions (henceforth “leaders”), first and foremost, deal with people and that means communicating with them. Effective communication can take many forms and accommodate many styles but in one way or another, communication is and will always be central to the role of any leader. I have come across great many people who are extremely good at what they do and are very effective communicators so there should not be a need to sacrifice on either aspect. But what about this idea that what makes somebody a great individual contributor should also make him or her effective in a leadership position?
I was on a long flight yesterday and by pure coincidence, came across an article in the May-June 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review which, I believe, is relevant to this exact question. Titled “Managers Can’t Be Great Coaches All by Themselves”, the article identifies four types of managers: Teacher Managers, Always-On Managers (similar to helicopter parents), Connector Managers and Cheerleader Managers.
Teacher Managers, which align most closely to the idea of a strong individual contributor elevated to a leadership position, are described as follows:
“Teacher Managers coach employees on the basis of their own knowledge and experience, providing advice-oriented feedback and personally directing development. Many have expertise in technical fields and spent years as individual contributors before working their way into managerial roles.”
After stating that “hypervigilant Always-on Managers are doing more harm than good”, the article goes on to identify Connector Managers as the clear winners: “The employees of these managers” according to the Gartner research quoted in the article, “are three times as likely as subordinates of the other types to be high performers.”
What follows, in my opinion, is the most interesting passage of the article:
“Historically, being a manager is about being directive and telling people what to do,” Roca says. “Being a Connector is more about asking the right questions, providing tailored feedback, and helping employees make a connection to a colleague who can help them.” The most difficult part is often self-knowledge and candor: Being a Connector requires a manager to recognize that he’s not qualified to teach a certain skill and to admit that deficiency to a subordinate.” (my emphasis)
If it’s true that even the best managers are often not qualified to help their employees with some important aspects of their work, this all begs the question: What is the role of managers?
First, allow me to state that I don’t much like the term “manager”. When looking to promote someone to a leadership position, I am looking not for a manager of people but for a leader of people and there’s an important difference. To “manage” someone, to me, reflects a morally empty occupation aligned with an antiquated view of the commercial enterprise. You manage a team or a business, in this conception, as you would operate a machine. As I said earlier, leaders deal, first and foremost, with people. People are not machines or objects and as a result, I reject any utilitarian conception of management, as I previously explained here.
For me, people who hold leadership positions must strive to be more than just managers, whatever their level in the organization. That’s why many organizations, including the one I work for, view leadership as a profession in its own right. Of course, identifying good leadership talent is not easy. After all, you can’t just rely on what is making someone successful at his or her current role. As a result, leaders higher up can often get it wrong. Still, I agree very strongly that “Leadership as a Profession”, as it is known where I work, is the way to go.
As for the role of business leaders, I discussed this in a previous article titled “So, what is it again that you do for a living?” which you can read here if you’re interested in my views on the matter. And yes, it does require an awful lot of so-called “soft skills” including people skills, social skills and those pesky yet all-important communication skills.