In our work with clients, we often use a conceptual phrase to frame the skills necessary for good leadership: competence and connection. The long-standing cliché in leadership development is that new managers are usually promoted for their technical competence but lack the connection skills to be good leaders. This, like most clichés, has survived because it frequently is true. In your early career, you stand out by being good at getting the job done—which doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good people leader. Because of this typical imbalance in these two attributes, we often stress that we’re primarily in “the connection business.”
However, lately another truism has landed top-of-mind, showing a shift in the marketplace’s attention: Every boss is a genius when times are good; it’s when things go wrong that their true capabilities are exposed. That correlates with the practical concern I’m hearing a lot more from clients in the last couple of years: All the connection skills in the world won’t help if your team thinks you don’t know what you’re doing.
In our work and assessments, we often start by looking at competence categories:
- Job-related experience
- Business aptitude
- Sound reasoning
- Taking responsibility
- Delivering on promises
We also evaluate the connection side of the ledger: trust, empathy, giving and receiving feedback, active listening, etc. But in times of stress and rapid change, it’s crucial first and foremost for followers to believe that the leader actually understands the work of the group and makes decisions based on real, relevant facts and data. This perception is most shaky when a new leader joins a group, or when organizations merge under senior leaders who are familiar with one part of the business but not others. Many organizations that are restructuring around the new world of work have thrust leaders into positions where their competence is at odds with the experience and expertise of the teams they now lead.
I tend to see two distinct approaches from leaders in these circumstances: hubris or curiosity. An insecure leader often arrives like a bull in a china shop, assuming, “They made me the manager for a reason, so I must know enough to start fixing things because I’m the boss.” Alternately, a more thoughtful leader can approach a new group with an honest desire to understand the work, learn why things are done the way they are, and gain the team’s trust (to mix metaphors) by spending some time in the trenches and walking a mile in their shoes. Then, by co-creating the needed changes, the team naturally signs on for the new journey.
Hubris can work for a while. When business is good, the team can find work-arounds and back-door processes to mitigate poor or uninformed decisions. If staffing levels are stable and workloads are appropriate, managing around the leader can give the impression that all is well. It’s when things turn difficult (like the 2020s have been for most companies) that the lack in true understanding of the work and its challenges is felt—in the downstream effects of bad decisions.
One of our executive coaches tells the story of a client experiencing office turmoil and high turnover who asked him to work with a senior manager who had an “empathy problem.” This leader would make unilateral decisions and counterproductive process changes and, when the team pushed back, would resort to some version of the statement: “You’re all really smart; it shouldn’t be that hard for you to adapt.”
In working with this leader—and talking with the team—the coach discovered the real problem wasn’t about empathy; rather the leader’s cavalier attitude demonstrated the fact that they truly didn’t understand the impact of their decisions. This was a crisis of competence. The leader had only a superficial knowledge of the work their team did. All the empathy in the world wouldn’t help this leader as long as they continued to make decisions exposing a disconnect with the reality of the team’s day-to-day work.
In my own career, a small talent management start-up brought in a leader to kick-start the sales organization where I worked as a consultant. He came in hot with schemes and plans for transforming a team he knew very little about. In my first meeting with the new boss, he spent an hour confidently prescribing a “better approach” to working with a client I’d been supporting for 20 years—including a long stint as a client-side employee. Based on a quick online search for org charts and job titles, he assumed to know more than I did about my long-term client. I did eventually learn a lot from him over time (he had good experience as a sales leader), but it was many months before I felt he earned any credibility, let alone my trust.
So how should a leader respond when they find themselves installed at the helm of a team that doesn’t fall within their current area of expertise? With curiosity. With a true desire to get to know their team members and the what, why, and how of the work they do every day.
Too often, leadership connection skills like emotional intelligence, active listening, or empathy are thought of as “techniques”—like something out of How to Win Friends and Influence People. But for any leader, and in particular a leader in this position, the key to active listening is to actually, really LISTEN. And the impulse behind really listening is curiosity.
I learned this the hard way as a new leader in the aerospace industry, quickly promoted to lead a diverse team across multiple functions. I made all kinds of mistakes and alienated almost everyone around me until I learned the reason for the pushback. It wasn’t that they resented a new, much less-experienced leader. They just had a hard time following one who had no idea what they were doing. Once I started to engage with humility and curiosity, my relationships with team members changed for the better. Communication in all directions improved, and the team’s performance reflected the turnaround.
A leader who joins an organization or a new team with hubris will never earn the trust of their people, no matter how skilled they are at connection. But when that leader makes a sincere effort to understand—at least at a high level—what the team does and why they do it, and brings them along to make changes together, the team will be more likely to follow.
And that leader’s decisions are much more likely to be good ones in the first place.