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The Missing Link in Leadership

There are two key management skills that seem to be missing in every management training program in most colleges and organizations that provide management training–the missing links, if you will, as follows:

  1. The importance of immediate practical application and how to use new skills
  2. Knowing where to focus the organization’s people in the application of new skills

In management training in colleges and in organizations over the last 50 years, we learned about many important aspects of being in a leadership role. We learned about management by objectives, Theory X vs. Theory Y management styles, Quality Circles, the Heshey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Model and the Deming 14 Points. Remember the One-Minute Manager books? Almost everyone I know with 20 or more years of management experience remembers all this stuff very well.

More recently, we have learned about high-performing teams, the Bono “Six Thinking Hats” and Farrazi’s “Who’s Got Your Back” thinking around how you get your whole organization to work effectively as a cohesive team.

Over the last 50 years, there have been more than 100 well-received and useful books and programs that managers have been encouraged to learn and adopt in order to be more effective leaders and managers, as well as programs designed to improve human performance. Unfortunately, most organizations have gotten VERY LITTLE tangible benefit from these best practices.

Why? I believe there are two HUGE gaps. The first is a general failure to find ways to put these skills into practice in such a way that education turns into training–the acquisition of skills that make a difference versus just knowledge about best practices. The second gap is intrinsically linked to the first–the lack of ability by leaders and managers to find something meaningful and important to focus on in the practice of new skills.

Let’s examine each of those gaps. The first is fairly easy: committing to finding ways to practice new skills to be learned before committing to the training. At one company where we were coaching them in developing their continuous improvement program, we uncovered a significant gap in management skills around holding people accountable and in constructive conflict management.

Instead of sending all the managers out for training (actually, education), we decided to create a workshop setting for the managers involving typical accountability issues and specific types of conflict unique to their organization. This training program was coupled with another initiative–revamping their job descriptions and performance reviews. These, in turn, were being shaped by the organization’s new continuous improvement program and the need for people to break down functional barriers and work as a cohesive team. With several hundred employees with an average tenure of 20 years or so, this meant some big changes were needed… and fast.

The last component of this approach was requiring immediate application of the new skills for managers. At the end of the workshop, every manager had a partner. They had two major assignments over a two-week period: 1) practice the new skills with their partner as a team; and 2) deliberately find at least one opportunity to practice their new conflict management skills in the real workplace centered on issues related to working as a team on important continuous improvement efforts in flight. By carefully developing a strategy to practice new skills with accountability and to report out to the bigger team on the results, we increased both the learning and the benefit of application tenfold over just sending them to training.

The second gap is much harder to fix–making sure we have something meaningful to focus on. Why is this important? If we are not practicing our skills on something that really matters, the whole thing becomes just an exercise of pretending to use the new skills. When the future of the organization, our jobs and the fate of our stakeholders are hanging in the balance, this becomes much more serious and grabs our attention.

One of my favorite openings for a presentation or training program related to improving business performance is to start with walking on stage and talking about what makes me CRAZY. I then explain that it’s because of the FACT that most organizations waste 30% to 70% of every dollar they spend running the business. I even pull out a big wad of (fake) money, tear it up and throw it in a trash can for a visual aid. Now that we have their attention and know we are talking about something really important, we can get to the practical matters.

This is critical: if we don’t have something readily at hand for folks to focus on, we need to create something. For managers and leaders, the universal skill required is the ability to know or lead your team to finding the reasons why we waste so much (30% to 70%) of our time, money and energy, followed by taking action to eliminate them.  For more on that skill, let me refer you to the APICS magazine archives for the article, Stop the Senseless Waste in the January 2009 issue of APICS Magazine.

By picking a deadly serious set of issues on which to focus our new skills in implementation, we reap two huge benefits. First, we avoid the trap of failing to provide something to use for practicing new skills. Secondly, we are going to be making a real and long-lasting impact on overall performance.

The next time someone in your organization starts talking about “doing some training” to improve performance, I am hoping you will use your new missing-link skills I shared here. You will then say, “STOP! Let’s talk about this and make sure we are going to do this right the first time…”

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