When Leaders Struggle with the Soft Stuff—Hire a Qualified Expert

Mon, Mar 22, 2010

Leadership ChallengesThe toughest leadership challenges include navigating tough organizational changes, leading tricky merger integrations, or smoothing out ugly personal dynamics on an all-star leadership team. It is tough enough to work your way through these situations even with the best of help. Merger integrations and strategic change efforts often fail because leaders don’t hire the right help. I recently came across a situation in which a large company asked someone with light educational credentials and a marketing and branding background to lead a mission critical and yet nasty change integration.  This person hired on others with similar backgrounds to guide the change process.

It wasn’t until I read Adam Bryant’s interview with Guy Kawasaki in yesterday’s New York Times that a light bulb went off. Guy learned that what he thought was the hard stuff, finance, sales, marketing, etc. was the easy stuff. What was hard was dealing with people issues. Guy explained: “I should have taken organizational behavior and social psychology — and maybe abnormal psychology, come to think of it.”

I have spoken with a number of executive leaders who wish they had paid closer attention to their MBA organizational behavior courses. In the Corner Office interview, Guy observes that in Silicon Valley, some engineers believe that everything is easy compared to engineering, and that they can successfully master and oversee other functional areas. Not. Time and time again in my own field I have observed many with education in the hard sciences claim to be organization development consultants and coaches. I have seen others with backgrounds, education, and experience in marketing, public relations or communications claim to be experts in human behavior. Unfortunately, the barriers to entry are very low in my field. Those with no relevant education, credentials, and experience can claim to be experts. In my opinion, understanding, mastering, and being able to assist others with the soft stuff takes years to master.

Yes, by successfully managing others, individuals do learn about human dynamics. Being a spouse, one learns about relationships. Being a parent, one learns something about early childhood development. Those experiences alone are not enough to be an expert in the fields of leadership development, marital counseling, and child development.

Last year, I enjoyed watching the HBO show, In Treatment. Dr. Paul Weston is a psychotherapist, played by Gabriel Byrne. We watch Paul work with patients over a series of weeks. Paul is an excellent therapist who is also in therapy himself, with Gina, played by Dianne Wiest, his former supervising therapist. In one of Paul’s sessions with Gina, Paul exclaims that he believes he has failed as a husband and father and wonders how he can effectively help others. Gina reminds Paul that being a parent or husband is very different than being a trained observer of human behavior. They require different skills. Gina reminds Paul, that as a therapist, he has spent years learning his craft. He is trained to make observations, to ask insightful questions, make interpretations, and encourage others to look at their patterns of behavior.

So too with true experts in human and organizational behavior.  We are trained to understand human development, organizational systems, and the difference between what is bunk and what is not. We understand the underbelly of organizational change and know that crafting messages and selling change is destined to fail. We also learn that what works in one situation may not work in another. There is both an art and science to helping leaders unravel complex human dynamics challenges. We also have to hone our own interpersonal skills and do the necessary inner work to function well in highly charged, political corporate environments. We have to be approachable and personable, grounded and no-nonsense. We have to be able to come in like a Trojan Horse and sometimes give tough feedback in a way that can be heard. This takes specialized skill, insight, experience, and training.

When you hire a management consultant to help navigate tough organizational changes, tricky merger integrations, or to smooth out rough dynamics in your leadership team, be sure you check the consultant’s credentials and experience. Someone with a background in branding and marketing communications is not an expert in human dynamics. Those with training and business experience in finance or sales are not experts in the nuances of leadership and human behavior.  The field of human and organizational behavior is a specialized discipline.  

Guy Kawasaki encourages leaders to hire people who are specialized and proven experts in their field. He also stresses the importance of being aware of your own biases when hiring someone, and I would add, bringing in consulting help. It may cost less to hire a quasi expert. It will cost more to clean up the mess.

For help with really tough leadership and organizational challenges contact me at info@rubenconsulting.com for a complimentary consultation.

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

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