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In Developing Leaders, Companies may be Missing the Mark

Posted by Elaine Varelas September 8, 2014 09:00 AM

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What makes a great leader? HR and other organizational executives often ponder this question when making hiring, development, and, advancement decisions. What are the qualities that the company’s top performers must possess to drive success? The traditional archetype of a leader is someone who is smart, tenacious, is a visionary, and has strong technical skills. Yet, these skills alone do not beget a true leader.

Over the past two decades, many business experts have written about “emotional intelligence,” or EQ, and its impact on an individual’s and an organization’s success. These so-called “soft” skills focus on interpersonal and social expertise, such as communication, self-awareness, ability to motivate, and empathy. EQ can serve as the basis for critical thinking and decision-making. EQ skills are equally important for HR professionals to consider in choosing and developing leaders. While some cutting-edge companies are already accounting for these skills in their talent management decisions, many more are missing the mark. Organizations that don’t value or hone these skills in their leaders will always lag behind.

Success on the job and high emotional intelligence are inextricably linked. According to Bradbury, Greaves, and Lencioni, authors of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, 90% of high performers also possess high EQ. Conversely, only 20% of low performers have high EQ. However, the authors contend that these skills can be learned even if they aren’t innate.

In making hiring and development decisions, most companies focus on the job-related skills needed for the position. This could be technical expertise—IT, software development, or writing. While these quantitative abilities are important, they don’t necessarily translate into leadership skills. In fact, as employees advance in their careers to management positions, technical merit typically becomes less important. If a software developer becomes a team leader, she will become more reliant on her ability to communicate, relate to and motivate others, and understand how her behaviors impacts her team, than her code-writing skills.

Fortunately, these soft skills can be developed. Yet, many organizations still focus a majority of their development dollars on the “technical” skills. This strategy can truly short-change your employees and leave your company at a disadvantage. Too often, employees with technical expertise are promoted to management positions without possessing the people skills to be successful managers. They are set up to fail and their team members fail too. While it is never too late to infuse emotional intelligence skills into a manager’s repertoire, it can feel like an insurmountable challenge, or at least a steep learning curve, for new managers to learn a plethora of skills while getting acclimated to a job and trying to lead a team. Often, these extremely talented people, not accustomed to these kinds of challenges, just quit—taking their technical expertise with them.

Other times, high-performing individual contributors are passed over for promotions because they lack soft skills. This can lead to decreased morale, frustration, or to valuable staff leaving the company.

That’s why it is vital for HR professionals to give equal credence to these skills in their development plans from the beginning. Some technical stars may balk at developing these aptitudes because it is out of their comfort zone. HR professionals need to be clear about the organization’s expectations. Even if, for example, a scientist in R&D claims he is content to stay in the lab, EQ skills are important. He still needs to work collaboratively with other members of the team. He may also need to communicate his knowledge and passion by presenting his research to clients, board members, or investors or serving as a mentor to others and passing along his expertise.

HR professionals must work with the leadership team to ensure that company leaders are on board with investing in these proficiencies. Emotional intelligence needs a place in the organization’s culture, so that employees know cultivating people skills is valued and will be rewarded. HR executives can then set expectations around these skills. Good judgment, motivation, self-regulation, and communication must carry the same weight as technical skills.

It is also wise for each employee to have a development plan in place that encompasses an array of technical and qualitative skills and is tailored to their unique needs and challenges. This plan can become part of the performance review process or happen off-cycle. Encourage employees to broaden their vision of themselves and their careers and aspire to their highest possible performance. The goal is to nurture both hard and soft skills to create better leaders and stronger employees.

An enormous part of what makes organizations successful is having leaders and employees who have also mastered the soft skills. Yet, many organizations overlook these abilities in their hiring, development, and advancement strategies. The best leaders have highly developed interpersonal and social skills. Organizations that invest in and value EQ as much as IQ will have the strongest leaders and be more successful.

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About HR Columns

Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.