Frequently when it comes to leadership and management development, the skills that are described as ‘hard’ are the ones that are the easiest to teach. So many leadership development programmes focus on these ‘hard’ skills, in their content – for example, the models and theories that offer explanations and insights into how people and organisations work. This content may also include how to develop visions, missions, strategic plans and KPIs, as well as how to write project plans, how to set measurable targets and SMART goals, and how to structure organisations. This important knowledge, developed over decades by academics and practitioners, stops the wheel being reinvented; it helps share good practice and contributes to a common language of business.
Leadership is, at its heart, relational. It is a contact sport and only happens when it involves other people – you cannot get better at it by yourself.
When you look at the ‘soft’ skills, however – how to build relationships with people, how to listen, how to be empathetic and resilient, how to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, how to ask great questions, how not to rush to solutions, how to conduct difficult conversations – knowledge and frameworks offer insight and understanding, but these soft skills speak to the very fabric of who we are. New knowledge alone might not be enough to change behaviour or develop leadership capability – this is why these soft skills are often the hardest to improve. If soft skills aren’t also developed, then leadership development stalls. This is where coaching can help.
In 2014 The Institute of Leadership & Management undertook some research, Coaching for Success, looking at what makes successful coaching and how people who are coached improved in the workplace. Very few people mentioned that knowing more models or theories helped them to become better leaders. Instead, people reported being better at understanding themselves, better at relating to the people they worked with, appreciating somebody was interested in them, believed in them, and that somebody cared about their daily experience of leading and managing.
Improving your leadership
So, how can you develop hard and soft skills? Online learning is a great vehicle for delivering attractively presented, brilliantly edited knowledge. It can be accessed on the go and certainly offers the opportunity to improve knowledge and understanding. It can entertain and sometimes inspire us with case studies and great motivational speeches from successful leaders. What it is not as helpful with is how we get better at relating to people – the softer side of leadership. How that happens depends so much on an individual’s propensity to learn and change, the context in which we want the leadership and management to take place, and the culture of the organisation. Fundamentally, it’s about a willingness to engage with one important question: ‘how am I going to improve the quality of the relationships with the people that I have about around me?’
Leadership is, at its heart, relational. It is a contact sport and only happens when it involves other people – you cannot get better at it by yourself. The only way you know whether you’ve got better is by gauging the response you get from other people. It is with honest feedback, and looking for evidence that you understand your colleagues and organisation better than you did previously. It’s noticing that your meetings and conversations are more productive, communication between your team members and other teams has got better and fundamentally work is a bit nicer. It’s those important responses you get from other people that tell you whether your leadership development activities are working.
How to make leadership development work
leadership development interventions are to be successful, we have to know what is needed for those leaders in their own leadership context. What are the important features of the culture that we want people to understand and get better at contributing to – and changing if necessary? It’s useful to return to the important lessons from the coaching research, such as who is going to be interested in the leadership improvements that take place? To whom are the leaders going to be accountable to for that development? Who will be interested in the new insights the leaders are exploring? Who will care that the leadership development is working? Who will say, ‘well done, keep it up!
As is so often the case, it is the line manager that has a big role to play here. Identifying that someone has potential, interest and confidence is the first step but making resources available, however generous, for that potential to be developed will not guarantee success. Asking questions about the new knowledge gained, listening to what individuals think they have learned, exploring what that means in the actual leadership context and providing important feedback that says, ‘yes this is working’ is key. Those familiar with coaching approaches will know why it works, whereas those less familiar will improve their own leadership capability if they incorporate coaching techniques into their everyday conversations, because they help build relationships in the context where the leadership is needed.