Why Don’t Leaders Have The Skills They Expect Us To Have?

This was prompted by a comment in my blog from Dave McCoy, a long time contributor:

‘As always I am struck by the irony that “leaders” rarely show the qualities they expect in their staff…’

Let me know what you think.

This is something I have seen more often than I can count and I imagine you have too. But Dave’s point is why is it the case?

I think there are six main reasons:

  • Lack of awareness
  • Not taking responsibility
  • Poor feedback
  • No example to follow
  • Lack of training
  • Poor recruitment

Let me start with a short story. I was at the sixtieth birthday party (yes, another party) of a friend recently. He is from Jamaica and told a great story about one of the people who influenced him in his life. It was his grandmother.

One day she said to him:

‘You’d better get yourself an education, man.’  He paused and we all held our breath as we waited for her words of wisdom, so we could pass them on to our own children.

‘Coz you’re USELESS!’ he bellowed, impersonating the great lady.

‘You can’t even climb a tree like your brother…’ The tirade continued.

I was stunned, as was the rest of the audience. Then we all laughed. It was this piece of feedback that had prompted our friend to pull up his socks and, eventually, get a good education.

Sadly many leaders do not have as perceptive a grandmother as our friend did.

None Of Us Is As Self-Aware As We Could Be

This is the first reason, I think. No matter how skilled we are, there are faults we have that we are blind to.

It’s Worse For Leaders

However, most of us have the benefit of the odd piece of feedback from friends and family, or even colleagues.

How we respond to that feedback determines how much feedback we get in the future and whether it is reliable.

Unfortunately for leaders, the quality and objectivity of the feedback they get is often dubious. The paradox is that the worse their skills are the less likely they are to be given objective feedback (and to act on it).

This is because people are frightened to give them feedback or don’t have the skills themselves. The reason they don’t have the skills is because they have not been developed by their managers (because the managers don’t have the skills….)

Blame The Middle Managers

Many times we have heard of swathes of ‘middle managers’ being cut from an organisation that has become ‘top heavy’. In the health service in particular people are always concerned that the money goes ‘directly to the patients’, not to bureaucracy which, to them, is ‘middle management’.

But you must ask yourself: Who appointed all the middle managers? Who decided they were necessary? Who identified the skills required and drew up the organisational plans?

Yes, it was the senior managers. The ones who are so often immune from the cuts.

Why Don’t They Realise It’s Their Fault?

If you have children you will be familiar with the difficulty of choosing a school. Even when you’ve got a good one, if the head or principal changes, you know the school will too.

Like any organisation, the school is only as good as the person at the top.

The problem for the person at the top is that they have no example to follow. Whereas people lower down the chain can raise their game, can learn from their manager and be inspired to greater things by them, this option is not automatically open to someone at the top.

They have to make a conscious effort to do it. And many don’t. It simply doesn’t occur to them.

As a consequence of this, they do not improve their skills and this lack of development is cascaded down the organisation to the detriment of all.

Why Don’t They Go On The Training Courses Like Everyone Else?

They have lots of excuses but I think the main reason is fear. They don’t want to be found out.

One of the most successful programmes I have ever run was successful because the Managing Director (a man who had several glaring faults) insisted that all employees went through the programme and that included the directors.

We had one director on each module. Initially this was a struggle for some of the people there (not just the directors). But it soon started to work. They just mucked in with everyone else and the benefits were tremendous.

The Benefits

During a time of recession we increased orders and market share, whilst halving the number of complaints received.  (Their competitors all made cuts in staffing levels.) Having the directors on the programme meant that they knew what everyone was talking about and got help in implementing the new ideas.

It’s no good keeping them separate in some ivory tower so they can be allowed to imagine they don’t need to learn new skills.


Perhaps one last reason why you get this problem is the poor recruitment processes often used at senior levels. This can include badly drawn up person specifications so that the management skills required are given a very low priority if any value at all.

The worst case of this I saw was a man, apparently a ‘technical expert in his field’, who had previously been in academia and was recruited to run a massive department. Before this he had managed one secretary.

The HR representative warned the directors not to recruit him due to his appalling level of management skills but they ignored her advice. I was asked in much later to see what I could do to retrieve the situation. By then the damage had been done and it was far too late. I’m sorry to say that he was not able to learn the skills he needed to master in time; it would have taken years.

Looking at this list, perhaps it’s surprising that we have any skilled people at the top at all! But I think if they are prepared to accept the salary, they should be prepared to learn the skills and this should be made clear to them at the start. The trouble is, the rest of us let them get away with it.

Are You In The Talent Pool?

Why I Left Two Really Good Jobs

After nearly four years in my first job, I left. I needed to see something different.

When she heard I was leaving, Joan, the head of HR, called me to a meeting.

‘We were just about to promote you.’  She said and went on to tell me about all the great opportunities I was leaving behind. A few years later, I had a similar experience. I handed in my notice and was summoned to see the Group Manufacturing Director.

‘I had you in line to be the next Manufacturing Director at your site when your boss, Paul, moved on.’ He told me. ‘I’m very sorry you’re leaving.’

What these situations have in common is that neither of them had told me about the plans they had for my career. Had I known, I certainly would not have left when I did.

Talent Pools

Many of our customers have ‘talent pools’. At a very good lunch recently I was discussing this with an old friend. He’s an extremely talented individual (I mustn’t be too over the top because I know he reads this and it might go to his head, but he is very good).

The problem is, at his organisation, it really isn’t very clear if you are in the Talent Pool or not. And even if it is clear, no one really knows why they are in or out.

No manager is able to say to their team member ‘If you want to be in the Talent Pool you need to do this.’ Which is what they really should be able to say.

So the whole system is the source of rumour and misunderstanding (at best).

Should You Have A Talent Pool?

A good question. You need to ask yourself why you want a Talent Pool and how it will help.

In my view you should certainly have a clear idea of the possible potential of each employee. You should be clear what the opportunities are for them and what they need to do in order to meet the requirements for opportunities.

You should also know what talent you are going to need over the next few years and be matching that up with the people you already have where possible.

It may be that you want to identify people who have the potential (as far as you can tell) to join the Senior Management Team or the Directors.

Why Do People Keep It A Secret?

I’d like to think this is just incompetence rather than a deliberate attempt to annoy people. Usually it’s because the criteria for being in the talent pool are woolly and no one really understands them.

Often it’s because people don’t want to upset those who aren’t in the Talent Pool. Personally I think it’s worse for people to waste time speculating when knowing the answer would be quite useful. It almost implies that the company is ashamed of having a Talent Pool if they won’t let you know if you are in it.

Or it’s a way of wielding power over people.

Generally this approach just backfires (as it did in my case).

Clear Criteria

In many cases organisations have a box divided into nine squares and managers are asked to put their people into the correct box. The top right hand box means you’re in the pool.  What managers should be doing is assessing the skills of each individual carefully and objectively. However, only some managers are skilled enough to do this properly.

So you end up with seriously flawed information. If you’re going to do this, you need to have extremely clear criteria for each box so that managers can make an objective assessment and be confident in the assessments of their colleagues.

Unless there is this trust that all the assessments are carried out objectively and to the same standard, people will not have confidence in the system.

So if you are going to do it you must have clear and open criteria so you can make decisions easily. This is not as easy as it sounds, which is probably why people fail to do it so often.

What’s Important

In these situations you first need to be clear about what it is you want to achieve. So work out your objective. Then work out what’s important about the way you do it.

Once you’ve done that, you can start setting up a Talent Pool in a way that is appropriate for your organisation. I would urge you to do it in an open, straightforward way if you are going to do it.

Usually we want to improve the skills of people in our company, so there’s generally no harm in letting people know what skills we need them to develop and why.

Once you have your Talent Pool you need to be clear what you are going to do with it.

I have seen many cases where these people have left because expectations were not fulfilled. I’ve also seen cases where they were badly thought through.

In one particular case a company identified lots of very talented people and gave them the opportunity to get extra experience and training, but then, for some strange reason, others in the company were not willing to give them the opportunities they wanted, so many left. It’s hard to calculate the cost of this to the company involved.

Are You In The Talent Pool?

It’s always worth asking your manager about this. He or she may not be able to tell you, or may be reluctant. But it might avoid you making the mistake of leaving just because you are unclear about your prospects.

Of course you must remember that, however fantastic your skill set, sometimes there just aren’t any opportunities for you in your current organisation. You might as well find out now.

How to save yourself a lot of time

Another Party

A couple of weeks ago I was at yet another party – we have a rampant social life here.   It was the 25th wedding anniversary of some very old friends of mine.

Actually, it was really the 26th anniversary, but who’s counting? The party was so good that we thought we should do something similar ourselves, if we make it that far.   The food was excellent, as I was expecting. (I lived with these friends for a while and, as you know, I have a good memory for food.)

The wine was local and the beer was superb. There was also a great ceilidh band with a woman who called the dances so we just about managed to do them all in safety without any serious injury (though I did lose my shoe in the very first one).

We only knew a few people there, but that didn’t make any difference to our great enjoyment of the event. One of the people we did know was Viv, an old colleague of mine. It was so good to let her know that her influence has spread far and wide.


I have told several stories of her great skill that inspired me over the years. Here is one of them.   When I was a production manager we had a purchasing department that was a nightmare to deal with. It once took me nearly 25 minutes to get one of them to agree to place an order for some parts that we had run out of (that they should have ordered anyway).

Slippery Dave

Dave, or ‘Slippery Dave’ as we called him, would ignore you till you were right at his desk. Then when you asked about the missing parts, his answers were vague and worthless. It was like pulling teeth. Here’s the conversation:

Me ‘Do you know when the leaf springs are coming in?’

Dave ‘Possibly’

Me ‘When’

Dave ‘Soon’

Me ‘How soon?’

Dave ‘Quite soon?’

Me ‘What day?’

Dave ‘Wednesday’

Me ‘Which Wednesday?’

Dave ‘Next Wednesday.’

Me ‘How many?

Dave ‘Quite a few?’

Me ‘How many, exactly?’

Dave ‘A few boxes.’

And so on.   As Basil Faulty once said ‘I could spend the rest of my life having this conversation.’

The New Recruit

Then a new person, Viv, joined. I was not happy. It had taken me years to work out how to get what I needed from Dave, and now I was back at square one.   I walked up to her desk, gritting my teeth. Here’s the conversation:

Viv (Before I was even close to her desk.) ‘Hi, I’m Viv, how can I help you?’

Me (Surprised and suspicious.) ‘Hello, I’m Nancy. Good to meet you. We’ve run out of leaf springs. I need to know when they are coming in.’

Viv ‘What’s the part number?’

Me ‘0224 546489.’

Viv ‘How many would you like?’

Me ‘2400’

Viv ‘When would you like them?’

Me (Startled) ‘Thursday please.”

Viv ”What time on Thursday?’

Me (Aghast.) ’10’.

Viv ‘I’ll sort this out and call you within the hour.’

Too Easy

I was not to be taken in that easily. I made a note in my book to call her back the next day, sure she would let me down. However, Viv called me back half an hour later to let me know the springs would be there when I needed them. And they were.

An Accident

A few weeks later there was a very bad accident on the motorway and the whole department, except for Viv and the secretary, was in the pile up. None of them was killed but they were badly injured. They were all off for at least six weeks.

In the mean time Viv ran the department, doing her job and the jobs of four men with just herself and the secretary. Guess what? Everything ran smoothly.

The Odd Thing

I was intrigued. How could she have done it?   No one else even seemed to notice how spectacular this was. I decided that I would find out what she did that was so special, so I got myself on a project with her. I learned a huge amount. (Most of it is in our booklets.)

The Answer

Simple. She could carry out a conversation in 2 minutes that took the rest of them over 20 minutes. When you spread this through the day you’ll see how she could be so efficient and such a joy to work with.

So here are a few tips:

Identify the people who are most affected by your time management Ask yourself (or them!) what you could do that would save them the most time, with minimal effort to yourself.

Remember that doing things promptly often takes less time than leaving them and doing them later (such as passing on or delegating work).

Be clear and sensible in your communications, don’t keep beating around the bush. It wastes your time and everyone else’s.

What Do You Need To Know About Managing Performance?

A Really Good Manager

One of the best managers I ever had the good fortune to work with was Ken, who was the production manager where I was the manufacturing director.

I am convinced he was virtually telepathic. He always seemed to know about everything before anyone else. He had the ability to walk onto the shop floor and know instantly if there was a problem.

One day a member of another team in my department came to see me. He asked me if I knew that one of the lads in the production department had been ‘bothering’ one of the younger women. Apparently he had been following her home and kept asking her out.

I was thrilled. At last, I was ahead of Ken. I wasted no time. I thanked my informant and went straight to see Ken. I was trying hard not to let a grin of satisfaction intrude on the conversation – after all it wouldn’t look good if I was smiling when I broached the subject with Ken.

‘Ken, did you realise Paul is causing a few problems with Marie?’ I asked innocently, holding my breath as I waited for him to ask me what it was about.

‘Spoke to him yesterday.’ Said Ken. ‘I think that’ll be an end to it.’

I have no idea how he did that. However, the rest of his tools were more obvious to we mere mortals.

What Is Managing Performance?

Managing performance is what a manager’s job is all about. He or she is responsible for getting the performance they need from their team.

Unfortunately not every manager is like Ken. Over the years I have encountered many examples of very skilled managers and also many examples of the complete reverse.

We have often been asked to run workshops on various aspects of managing performance. These cover anything from dealing with poor performance to delegating and empowering people.

One of the most important skills of any manager is to be able to identify the objectives and make sure they are SMART objectives or SMART goals.

New Tips Booklet

After several prompts I thought it was about time I put all the key points into a tips booklet to go with the others, but covering aspects of performance management that are not included in our material on objective setting, performance reviews, motivation or giving feedback.

However I want to make sure that we get everything that you need into the booklet.

So now it’s over to you.

What Do You Want?

What are your most important questions about this area? What is it you’d like to know? Or what would you like the managers in your company to know?

Please let me know by adding your ideas to this blog so that others can see them for inspiration.

One of the biggest problems many managers face is not being able to deal with poor performance. Probably about 90% of the performance issues I come across could have been tackled easily if they had been dealt with at the initial stages. But many managers either don’t notice or hope they will go away. I think this is because they don’t know how to tackle problems.

So let me know what it is you’d like to see in this new booklet – if it’s about tackling and spotting problems or about how to set things up so you don’t get them.

We have always had a great response from you whenever we’ve asked for your thoughts on these kinds of areas so I look forward to getting your questions and ideas and perhaps an interesting discussion on the blog.

Many thanks in advance.