Building a Leader’s Skill Set: Why Technical Skills Alone Are Not Enough

The skills that a leader requires can be quite different from the technical skills that got them into a leadership position in the first place. However, organisations rarely promote based on excellence in those softer skills, says IDG’s Ben Epps.

In professional sport, ex-players are regularly given prime managerial posts seemingly based purely on the fact that they were good players. Nostalgia and romanticism often blind the powers that be when appointments need to be made, and these apprentices are thrust in to managerial positions much quicker than they should, clouded by their own ambition.

In most cases, this leads to well documented struggles such as dealing with pressure, motivating a group and handling the media. Examples include Gary Neville, recently sacked from his first managerial role after a mere 119 days; former England rugby captain Martin Johnson, who won the 2003 World Cup as a player [NB: it may not be advisable to click that link if you’re an Aussie] but presided over a desperate failure as a manager in 2011; and North American sporting legends Wayne Gretsky and Magic Johnson, both of whom failed in managerial roles in their respective sports.

Organisations often make the same mistake: promoting individuals based on technical skills, without taking into account managerial capability or potential. Someone who is technically competent may not be a good leader. Both businesses and individuals need to recognise the different skill sets they require before moving into a managerial role.

Ambitious people should understand that taking time out of the spotlight to develop new skills is not a sign of weakness. Upon Gianluca Vialli’s appointment as the Chelsea Manager in 1998, Fabio Capello commented that the appointment “was like driving a Formula One car without a licence.” Why take an unnecessary jump before you have trained and updated your skill set to perform to the level you expect of yourself, and of the offered position?

Organisations should look to creating a sustainable Leadership Pipeline. It was Charan, Drotter and Noel (2001) who defined the Leadership Pipeline’s processes and procedures to help organisations grow leaders internally at every level, rising from entry level up to senior managers.

Adhering to the Pipeline can generate the leadership infrastructure required to help organisations develop and keep hold of their top talent. In layman’s terms, the model allows potential leaders to train themselves within their organisation, before taking the next step up the leadership ladder at the right time.

Obviously there are exceptions to this portrayed view, and there are common examples of leaders with great technical skills flourishing within modern day business and sporting organisations. It is just as important to teach leadership skills as it is technical, and organisations who do promote based on technical skills need to put in place an effective training programme to ensure their managers have the right skills to succeed in the future.

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