Sport is a popular source of inspiration for corporate leadership. Coaches attend off-sites and make good money telling executives how to be better motivators. Sports journalist Simon Kuper recently made an interesting observation in his column in the Financial Times about famous football coaches falling into decline, supplanted by younger, more innovative rivals. These superstar coaches were the original innovators, but they ran out of gas. Well not all of them. Almost as an aside, he flagged the difference between the shorter longevity of the "innovators" and those more hardy types who excelled at "people management".
This is an interesting observation because often we surge through our careers based on our ideas, innovation or technical expertise. In Kuper’s article, the age of 40 was singled out. The planets start to align and leadership hopefuls begin their move to the very top. In my native Australia, historically, you were not thought to be a real man until you reached the age of 40. At that point you were considered to have amassed the knowledge, experience as well as the physical strength for pioneer life.
Kuper notes that at this age, when you get the big promotion or the shot at a significant job, you have probably expended all of the your innovator ammo just getting there and now it is all downhill. What does this mean for those who have risen in the organization, based on their technical knowledge or the strength of their ideas?
A lot of firms value those hard skills over the soft skills. The culture is geared that way and so are the promotions. Somewhere along the line the soft skills become more important in practice, but often there is not the organisational recognition that this is the case. Being the smartest technical person in the room is fine but not much help. Organisations today are more collaborative, require leadership and accountability at all levels and are screaming out for insights into how to beat the competition. Teams need to have good teamwork – that means producing more collectively, than what can be achieved by a couple of superstars.
Getting the best ideas out of everyone in the team, ensuring clear, concise communication and a culture of going the extra mile in the plan execution are not driven from the hard skills toolbox. The leader’s soft skills are required and now the gaps arise. Being the best technician runs its race at some point, as we are overtaken by rivals or technology. What then will happen to us for the rest of our worklife? Are we going to become victims, cast aside on the corporate scrap heap? We need to be able to substitute "I do it all" with "we do it all together". The key question is why would anyone in the team care? They don’t, so we need the communication and motivational soft skills of the leader.
For aging leaders, the younger generation are a headache. These young staff are marching to the beat of a different drum. Companies are being treated like cafeterias. You slide in there, select what you want from what is available and then slide on out again. This might be fine for the upwardly mobile young but it is an expensive exercise for companies. We are becoming the training grounds for our rivals and there is an army of recruiters in Japan, ready to assist in improving Japan’s work mobility profile. Poaching these people you have spent time and money training is how that industry thrives and with declining numbers of young people the competition for talent has really heated up. This issue is not going to go away – ever!
So, the ability of leaders to retain young people will become a new measure of success and trust me, your technical knowledge won’t be much help here. They will milk you and move on. Understanding how to frame their future with your organisation is a key communication skill. Creating the right environment where their ideas are seen as valued is a soft skill.
Like the most successful sports coaches, we have to learn how to become excellent people leaders. When you get to 40, understand the clock is ticking and start working on your people management capability big time. Technical knowledge is important but it isn’t enough, so get help now rather than being a casual observer of your own career crash.
1. Don’t find yourself at 40 armed with only technical skills
2. Become an expert on team leadership, combining the power of the many together
3. Become a persuasive communicator, especially with the younger staff
4. Renown for you ability to retain key people will boost your rise in the organisation so master this skill set