For People Skills, Go Back to School

Last Updated Sep 2, 2008 5:02 AM EDT

kidschool.jpgJohn is a very successful CEO of a leading international payments business. He was reflecting on his hiring successes and failures. Quietly, he said "I find I hire most people for their technical skills and fire most for their (lack of) people skills".

In one quick aside, he had accidentally summed up the typical business career.

When we start our careers, we learn some craft trade: IT, accounting, law, analysis or whatever. If we master the technical skill we get promoted. And that is where our problems start. Many people fail to make the transition from technician to manager. The technician does things by himself or herself. Managers do things through other people. The skills set is completely different.

The gulf between technical and people skills grows as people progress through their career. Anyone who is still doing stock checks at the age of 50 has probably not become a partner in the accounting firm. By the level of CEO or partner, the craft skills which were so painfully acquired twenty years before have become more or less redundant. All that is left is the ability to make things happen through other people: hopefully, to make the right things happen.

This is known in business academia as a BFO: a Blinding Flash of the Obvious. It just happens to have devastating consequences in terms of career management. People who want to move ahead need to master people skills at an early stage: unlikely experiences such as being a teacher (dealing with stroppy kids), hotel receptionist (dealing with stroppy customers) and the army (dealing with stroppy squaddies and armed enemies) are great ways of learning people skills from an early stage.

Teach First, a successful UK start-up, is based on the idea that people can accelerate their path to leadership by learning these people skills early on. Within five years of start up, Teach First has become one of the UK's top 10 graduate recruiters, placing top graduates to teach for two years in the country's most challenging schools. It explicitly attracts the high fliers with a "learning to lead" value proposition. Already, one of its participants has become the youngest head of a secondary school in the UK.

Not all of us want to take this route, though. It's challenge enough dealing with our peers, bosses and team members. The way we learn is largely through experience and copying or avoiding the example of people around us.

This makes our road to leadership something of a random walk, depending on what experiences and peer groups we encounter. We can give some structure to our random walk through courses and good books (at risk of shameless self promotion start with "How to Lead" and "How to Manage"). In the meantime, the blogs which follow will attempt to give some clues as to how to deal with the typical people challenges we all have to face.

(Photo: Foundphotoslj, CC2.0)

  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership