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Tackling the senior leadership skills gap

Matt Chittock

Senior leadership skills gap

In many corporations training is focused on new recruits. But is this approach leaving a large skills gap with senior management, asks Matt Chittock

The recent high profile scandal involving former Co-op Bank chair Rev. Paul Flowers wasn’t short of salacious details, which were gleefully picked up by the press. But for many trainers, one of the most shocking moments was when Flowers admitted to the Treasury Select Committee that he’d only completed “part one and the best part of part two” of his Institute of Bankers exam.

“I would judge that experience is out of date in terms of the needs of contemporary banking," he told the committee – something of an understatement in the circumstances.

But should we really be so surprised? Many people can name senior managers who have grown out of touch with the day-to-day running of their business and so let their skills and basic knowledge slip.

“I think it’s pretty much impossible for senior managers to really know what’s going on in their organisation,” laughs management trainer Peter Honey.
He relates a story of one enthusiastic CEO who was determined to keep in touch with the front line by pulling surprise meetings and banning managers so he could get a flavor of what was really happening on the ‘shop floor’.

But all too soon he found that staff’s superiors were rehearsing what they should say to get on his right side. In this kind of competitive environment it can be hard for managers to admit they need to support to stay on the ball.  As people get higher up the corporate ladder, the pressure is on to appear competent, even though staff may not feel it.

Scared of skills gaps

“Part of the problem is that they (foolishly in my view – although I can understand the pressure they’re under) don’t want to admit they’re still learning,” says Honey. “It’s do as I say not what I do!”

Honey says that another issue is that staff who excel at their job naturally want to earn more money – and they generally do this by entering management, even though they might not be suited to the role.

Leadership coach Nicky Moran believes this can create obstacles simply because the skills managers need have to be learned, and are not developed instinctively.

“People often get promoted because of their competencies,” she says. “For instance, an engineer might be promoted because they’re excellent at engineering. But they don’t take into consideration that management is a whole other set of skills which they need to develop.”

Moran says that people who are good at their jobs can sometimes enter senior management and just carry on doing their specialist tasks rather than delegating to others.

“People can end up as control freaks – and this can lead to an atmosphere of mistrust,” she says.

It can even end up with executives experiencing “imposter syndrome” where they suddenly don’t feel qualified for their day-to-day role and ultimately feel they’ll be found out.

“It’s when they think they ‘should’ be good at their job, but realise they’re not and they don’t want to admit that they’re out of their depth,” she says.

Leaders who learn

So what can be done to ensure leaders’ learning doesn’t languish, and that they feel secure in asking for help when required?

“In an ideal world there would be a process in the organisation that features regular learning reviews,” says Honey. “So in the same way you have a regular budget review, you meet up with the sole purpose of reviewing what’s happened in the organisation and how people can learn from the experience. This helps turn learning into a way of life.”

Moran adds that regular appraisals, in which even senior staff are given a set of expectations, is a good way of making sure they come to terms with management skills.

And Honey says that the “growth area” of executive coaching and learning can play a key role in ensuring senior managers feel free to ask for help.
“Often the coach is from outside the organisation – so they have no axe to grind,” he says. “They won’t be jockeying for position or have an eye on the manager’s job. This means it’s easier for the manager to talk about feeling out of depth to someone who’s disinterested.”

All of which means they can get access to the skills and knowledge they need so you avoid any whiff of Paul Flowers-type situation happening in your organisation.

Are your senior leaders developed in your organisation? Share your experiences below or over on Twitter @ILM_inspire

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