Developing Skills AND Passions: A Sign of True Leadership

“If you don’t know your people, a manager is all you’ll ever be.”

During my first overseas tour of duty in the Navy, many such statements were thrown my way by the Executive Officer of Naval Security Group Activity, Misawa, Japan.  As the military is ripe for platitudes, the underlying meaning was often missed as I stumbled my way through my first real experience of leading others.

Much of my coaching these days is focused on leadership transitions.  For military veterans, the road from “boots to briefcases” is one of constantly readjusting expectations, managing perceptions and breaking down misperceptions, as well as significant cultural refocusing.  Those who understand the potential minefields before them and gingerly navigate in, over, and around looming derailers typically go on to provide some of the strongest and most resilient leadership.  Those who fail to recognize and adapt to their new environment struggle for years to find purpose in their civilian contributions.

The biggest culprit for failed military transitions (and one that is as applicable to non-veterans as to our military brethren) is often a lack of awareness in the experiences, skills, and abilities of new employees.  A remarkable amount of my coaching time has been spent helping individuals overcome this tendency.  And while this has real impacts on the employees undergoing these transitions, this is really a leadership issue.  Let me explain…

Leaders, first and foremost, you are responsible for ensuring the quality of talent on your team.  Talent includes the abilities and competencies articulated in job descriptions and project requirements, but it goes much further than that.

We’ve talked about it before…modern organizations must be agile and adaptable.  They must be able to, and they must actually, change.  Always. Constantly. Aggressively.

A leader who only knows the skills and abilities as articulated in the set of job descriptions of those reporting to him, only knows how to manage current situations.  In fact, he’s not a leader at all, but merely a manager.

I recommend a four-step remedy to this issue:

1)   Exchange Resumes.  Anytime transitions take place, there needs to be an exchange of resumes, up and down the organization.  Employees (particular if they are “inherited” resources, not directly hired by the leader) should present their complete background to their new leader as a way of initiating a deeper conversation about talents, skills, and interests.

2)   Dig Deeper.  Leaders need to learn more about their employees than simply what jobs they’ve held and degrees they’ve earned.  Too often, individual are pigeonholed onto a career path from which it is difficult to retreat.  Only through detailed, probing conversations can leaders hope to uncover these situations.

3)   Develop Skills and Passions.  I often tell leaders to hire for talent, but develop for passion.  What I mean by this is simply that once your current talent requirements have been met, focus development dollars and resources toward expanding your employees’ interests and passions.  If their passions are not the guiding development principle, their interest and engagement will forever be at risk.

4)   Deploy Passions Strategically.  Leaders who truly know their people will be positioned to redirect key talent proactively and strategically.  Not only will they understand the additional (perhaps underutilized) skills and interests of their employees, but tapping into those passion areas will produce a more adaptable and engaged productivity level.

Looking back, my Executive Officer was right.  The manager who only pays attention to employees’ titles and job descriptions will not only fail to fully empower and engage his workers, but will fail to move proactively in a direction that keeps the organization competitive and relevant.

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