Leadership without management
Earlier in my career, I felt stressed about getting onto the leadership track. I figured this was the way to develop and raise my career. Why did I think that way? Well, isn’t that how careers work? The trajectory of success is to start as at entry or graduate trainee, work hard and become a manager. You get the rise in status and paycheck because you tick certain boxes.
All the arguments said, I should aim for a leadership position. There was a problem, however: I was neither good at it, nor motivated by it.
A mindset shift in understanding skills
This insight turned out to be a big win for me - clearly I’m with an employer who values soft skills. But, more importantly, an evidence-based understanding of what constitutes success offers development opportunities for specialists. At Alva we call them “Independent Contributors” - that is people who contribute to our growth but have no managerial responsibility. That term fits around 90% of Alva, including me.
But I am a leader. How does that work?
Growth without hierarchy
Broadening the sense of what leadership and career can look like opens up TA and succession strategies for a much more efficient use of everyone’s talents, and with that, opportunities to grow the company.
As a psychologist, I’m lucky to know that my main soft skills are:
- knowledge development
Creativity and knowledge development are key to any team member who is going to help you to bring in new ideas, inspiration and emerging-edge insights - all leaders need them.
However, autonomy is usually not the main soft skill you’d look for in managers. A manager who is high on autonomy is less likely to remember their team’s needs as we’re people who value working alone and doing work where we can focus our energies and follow our creativity. If we’ve recruited people who work well this way, and have the optimal level of Logical Ability, this can lead to valuable insights that allow our employers to retain and grow competitive advantage. But that does not make us successful people managers.
Soft skills for management
Imagine a world where the people who are on your managerial track are the ones who should be on your managerial track. Who are motivated by helping others to succeed, who understand how to harness team strengths; how to juggle in-house, freelancers and consultants; how to spot mental health needs, and how to really listen to their colleagues? Who knows how to manage both difficult business and people decisions, and how to deliver bad news with compassion - but aren’t they so affable that they won’t give out the bad news? In short - those that have the soft skills necessary to be a good manager.
When we base our placement decisions on soft skills, we’re able to avoid large human and economic costs: one-third of all promotions fail, costing businesses at least £45,000 a year. We need to look past our conventional chains of promotion, our stereotypes of what managers look like, and who is shouting the loudest to get ahead. Instead, we need to focus on those broad, personal characteristics that give someone the right potential to develop great leadership.
Employees with high potential for a certain role will make much more of the training and experience they receive. For decades, research has shown that when work aligns with our strengths and our interests, we are so much more likely to develop: employees who see good opportunities to learn and grow are 2.9 times more likely to be engaged at work.
We’ve all experienced a terrible manager, one who doesn’t thrive on balancing team needs, delivering tough news with compassion or remembering birthday cards. Will their leadership skills become better over time? Not necessarily - since the work isn’t really in concert with their natural strengths. They won’t pick up on feedback as effectively. They won’t notice the subtle signals. And they won’t spend as much time and energy trying to improve.
Hire for potential to succeed
Working with future potential is about realizing both people’s strengths and their limitations. We might all have periods in our lives where we try to become something we’re not; when we’re not playing to our strengths. As HR teams and leaders, we need to be mindful of the balance between nurturing people’s motivations and gently steering them towards their strength areas.
Focusing on future potential and soft skills helps us get the right people in the right place and helps us build a much more engaging hiring process, since our focus shifts towards the future, and towards human growth.
Inspecting people’s historical track record for proof is all well, but it’s a poor fit for a world where change is the new constant. Instead, imagine what your recruitment would look like if an inquiry into people’s soft skills and potential took center stage. Imagine a job interview where the number one focus is what the candidate wants to develop into and how that could add value in ways more dynamic, change oriented and profitable than “leadership = management”. How much more useful than reviewing a CV that both of you have already read.
A lead recruiter at a large engineering consulting firm is working with Alva, and they told me “I can have the most skilled, well-educated candidate in the room. And then I ask them about their future aspirations, and there’s just no spark. No match with the change orientation and drive to learn that we’re craving at our company. And then I know straight away that this is not the right candidate for us, and we’re not right for them.” We know that by assessing personality and potential we’re helping people find jobs and career paths where they can thrive.
Hiring tools for potential
But just talking about this isn’t enough. We need the data and the common language to make soft skills something concrete and tangible in the organization. One of the best ways to get there is to use evidence-based, data-driven tools, and make them household. In the future, for instance, it will be normal that everyone knows their own personality traits. Knowing whether you’re mostly introverted or extroverted, or more conventional or innovative, for example, will help you steer towards a suitable career, and also communicate your wishes better to your manager.
None of us know what the future will look like. We don’t know what jobs will exist 10 years down the line. It’s scary and it’s happening now. But what we can know is that soft skills and self-knowledge are two of the most future-proof resources we have at our disposal. And any tool that can help us to understand ourselves and our workforce better, will only benefit us.
Let’s stop judging people based on where they’re coming from, and start taking the time to truly understand: who are you, what are you great at, and how do we build for tomorrow?