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You’re in the people business; hone relationship skills

You’re in the people business; hone relationship skills

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Talk to any business owner or leader and they’ll tell you: “We’re in the people business. Our success depends on relationships.”

I hear that standard line from manufacturing heads and health care administrators, professional firm partners and retail owners, one-person shops and global organizations.

Based on that widespread belief, you would think leaders would be tenaciously focused on relationship research, rapport-building strategies and people skills. You would assume that teamwork, handling tension and mentoring would show up on professional development plans.

You also might expect business schools to offer a rich spectrum of courses on how to get along with partners, how to regulate arrogance and how to deal with scratchy people issues.

But none of that matches reality.

When it comes to teaching relationship management skills, family-owned businesses, professional firms and large organizations are in a state of advanced lip service.

Success skills
So-called “soft skills” (increasingly termed “success skills” by enlightened leaders) are mostly missing in action.

Recently, a head of talent management asked me what suggestions I had on how his midsize company could become an industry leader in developing people.

“We’ve got the technical part down,” he said, “but we’re doing a lousy job at leadership and relationship skills.”

We discussed a wide spectrum of important skills. The list included attentive listening, which is the ability to suspend your own agenda and bring full focus to understanding the other’s message; developing a nose for assessing talent and character, which is essential for selecting and hiring; and tenacious curiosity, which is the ability to ask penetrating questions that help another think more deeply.

I suggested he consider building his talent management program on the two most important people skill sets that most companies never address: self-awareness and establishing deeper connections with others.

Becoming aware of self is a pre-eminent skill because without it, all other abilities are weakened. Self-awareness begins to stir when leaders ask questions about themselves:

  •  What are my beliefs about leadership?
  •  Why am I doing this work?
  •  How am I being perceived by my co-workers, boss, spouse and children?
  •  What are people up against when they try to connect with me?
  •  How honest am I with myself, about myself?
  •  What personal challenges do I usually run away from?

Self-aware leaders make the bold decision to pay attention to their motivations, biases, fears, thoughts, wants and needs. They make efforts to observe and adjust their emotional over-reactions. They catch themselves giving knee-jerk advice or avoiding uncomfortable conversations. Unlike most, they develop the ability to see themselves as they really are.

Many problems facing our world would recede if leaders decided to work more on their own self-awareness. But why would they? What would motivate a person of status to try to understand themselves and their motives at a deeper level?

Experience tells me that self-awareness usually spikes in times of adversity. Most of us only ask the tough questions about ourselves when we face a crisis or a difficult problem: A stuck relationship, a sudden loss, a life-threatening disease or a loved one in trouble. Remarkable leaders seek self-awareness in times of calm. The rest of us wait for hurricanes.

Self-awareness is driven by the motivation to reflect. Self-insight kicks in when we think more deliberately about what’s happening in our lives. When we wonder what’s really going on. When we imagine ourselves responding differently. When we see more broadly than blame and judgment. Our perspective shifts, and wisdom sneaks in.

Self-awareness is the non-negotiable requirement for skillfully coaching others. The folly of trying to lead others without working on self might be our most daunting societal problem. An empty glass cannot fill another’s cup.

Self-awareness can be accelerated in a one-on-one coaching relationship. But experienced coaches are hard to find. Don’t be sucked in by credentials alone. To develop self-awareness, look for a self-aware coach.

Connecting with others
I’ve never had to look very far to watch a master people-connector at work: Without knowing it, my mother incessantly taught this skill to her five children.

Now 93, my mother lives alone, yet is seldom lonely. A steady stream of younger friends and relatives comes to visit every day. From as far back as I can remember, people have wanted to be around her. Many feel a special bond with her and would do anything for her.

What’s her secret?
I’ve noticed two persistent connecting skills my mother employs that are rare to observe in leaders I work with:

First, she exhibits that genuine curiosity I referred to earlier. Mom’s desire to learn about others sets the stage for ease and rapport. It’s routine for her to acquire a large amount of information in a relatively short time frame. Her tool of choice is questions: “What do you think about every day?” “Do you ever wonder where you’ll be in 10 years?” “Who’s the most important person in your life?”

Organizational leaders are prone to ask leading questions instead of genuinely curious questions. Leading questions are shortcut ways of telling others what to do. Leaders who ask these questions reveal a focus on directing others, not learning about them. To the contrary, curious questions stimulate others to think for themselves.

Second, self-disclosure. My mother generously shares her own experience by telling stories. The stories might be about how she got here, what she values, mistakes she’s made or experiences that changed her point of view. Her willingness to open up and let people in continues to establish robust connectedness with those she meets.

Most leaders I work with are stingy about self-disclosure. Their exaggerated privacy builds walls that prevent real connection. Days can easily get filled with a series of superficial conversations in which projects get center stage and connecting gets ignored. “Letting you see who I am” is a powerful way to connect.

When it comes to essential people skills, self-awareness and connecting with others top my list. The technology-driven focus of organizations today makes these skills scarcer and more essential than ever.

Leaders instinctively know they are in the people business. Developing their relationship skills backs up that claim.

John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected].

12/5/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].