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  • Writer's pictureJohn Bowie

Keys to the Boardroom: The Soft Skills of Leadership

The following story from the Fortune 500 CEO of a major international computer and instrument company says it all….

I wish someone had pointed out to me more clearly at the start that the fun of management – the real accomplishments of management – would come mostly through other people. Management means multiplying your ability to get things done by inspiring other people to respond to your leadership. That’s not a very profound conclusion but it’s one I believe very strongly now.

That wasn’t my thinking when I left Wharton. Back then, I thought my analytical skills and the tools that I learned, such as statistics, accounting and operations research, were going to make me successful. It must have been the engineer in me. I had studied mechanical engineering as an undergrad. I thought I was going to distinguish myself in the working world by my ability to use all those tools. Don’t get me wrong, the tools are valuable. But equally as valuable, if not more so, is the touchy-feely stuff. Finding a way to inspire teamwork, getting people motivated to achieve a common goal- what some people call the softer side of management, as opposed to the hard, quantitative side.

Frankly, when I was in Wharton, I tried to stay away from the soft management classes-psychology of management, leadership skills- as much as possible, concentrating more on financial analysis and operations research.

I can recall sitting in one required course, called simply “The Organization.” It was about leadership issues and teamwork. At the time I couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could go to the advanced OR course. I discovered what I’d missed when I was given my first management job at the company, a couple of years after I went to work at the company. Somehow that first job wasn’t what I had imagined myself doing while in business school...They made me responsible for the maintenance department! Suddenly I found my MBA was more of a disadvantage than a help.

Those maintenance folks were pretty skeptical of me at first. So I didn’t make much of the fact that I had an MBA. I tried to keep it very quiet, but somehow word got around. The differences between me and the people in that group made that job a real challenge.

In other “leadership” experiences I’d had before – for example, serving as president of my fraternity as an undergrad – the people I worked with were just like me. Students, academically inclined, with similar goals. All of a sudden, I’m managing plumbers and electricians, very skilled, very capable people. But none of whom had degrees. In many ways, I just didn’t share a lot of common life experiences with them. But our differences helped me learn some valuable lessons fast.

I realized what was hard about management wasn’t the quantitative stuff, it was the people stuff. Fortunately, I worked for a good person at the time who coached me a lot and finished my education, in a way. I learned to pay attention not just to what the people who worked for me did, but how they felt about it, too. I learned to give a lot of thought to how I dealt with other human beings, to show them I wasn’t some kind of unapproachable, stuffed-shirt MBA, but someone they could trust. I learned to listen a lot. And certainly I learned to respect and rely upon the people working for me. After all, they could do so many things I couldn’t do at all. I was a terrible plumber, still am.

Their help was vital to me for making plans and decisions. It’s fortunate that this was my first management job. Because the differences between me and the rest of the maintenance department forced me to pay a lot of attention to human-relations issues. If I’d come in and supervised folks just like me, doing the kind of work I knew well, then the people side of things might have come more easily at first. But consequently, I wouldn’t have learned about the softer side of management as quickly as I did.

Sooner or later, when you’re a manager, you are going to encounter some tough people issues. And as you advance in an organization, eventually you will manage a diverse group. So, learning how to value and pay attention to the human side of management was really an important lesson for me. And it’s something I still give a lot of thought to today. The way I contribute the most to the company isn’t by developing brilliant strategies myself, but rather by getting groups of people to work together as a team, helping them find a way, collectively, to come up with better ideas than they could on their own.

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