Bridging the skills gap |
Home > Career Advice > Featured Story > Bridging the skills gap

Bridging the skills gap

Published on Friday, 11 Dec 2009
Illustration: Winnie Ho
Is your company's leadership strong in what is important for success? Nothing says you need a PhD in computer science to run an information technology (IT) company or a commercial pilot's licence to head an airline, but it can still come as a shock to find out how poorly qualified some executives are to lead their organisations. Their credentials may look great on paper, and their list of influential contacts can stretch from here to the door, but that is very different from having the vision and practicality to motivate staff, drive profits and consistently take the right decisions in a changing business environment.

Intrigued by this, the Center for Creative Leadership undertook research based on 20 generally accepted leadership competencies. This was done from 2006 to last year and involved talking to around 2,200 managers in the United States and Asia, mainly in the finance and IT sectors. 

They were asked to rate the importance of the various competencies for the success of their own companies and then to comment on the degree to which they thought the skills were actually present. It turned out that many of the managers felt there was a mismatch. Their corporate leaders obviously had skills and strengths, but these were not necessarily the ones seen as most important for guiding the development and success of the organisation. 

The big question, of course, is how does this happen? When so many companies put so much time and money into leadership development, it is quite disturbing that their strategies seem to veer off course. Part of the problem is the persistent belief in the idea of a generic set of leadership skills. The assumption is that if, for example, you've come up by a certain route and jumped through the same hoops as successful people elsewhere, you must be ready to lead. 

What this fails to recognise is that generic skills are nothing more than a starting point. Companies have to compete through innovation and finding new strategic directions. Therefore, they can't just rely on leaders schooled in doing things "by the numbers" and applying best practices drawn from their own and other industries. A continuing change of emphasis means that companies need to develop specialists well versed in general management rather than generalists who stand above the fray and view delegation as the supreme skill. 

The research also showed that most companies use a "star" system to develop their next generation of leaders. Essentially, they devote considerable resources to getting up-and-coming managers to fit a certain mould. The logic is understandable: the company needs a particular "type" of leader, based star performers who have done well in the past.

A predictable outcome, though, is that organisations look for and develop talent which duplicates what they already have. Certainly, it is important to have a wide range of "business as usual" skills. But to forge ahead, what every company needs - and always will - are new perspectives and fresh ideas at the top, not a production line of people who basically think and manage in very similar ways. The latter can easily result in a leadership team that lacks cutting-edge technical skills and is too remote from some of the complex challenges their organisation faces.

In order to bridge this leadership gap, the focus should be on creating not individual stars, but "constellations". By doing so, there will be greater potential for innovation, maximum use of diverse abilities and a strong leadership culture. 

The way forward is to identify where there are obvious gaps between existing skills and what will be needed. Three steps can help to achieve that aim:

Articulate your strategy for 10 years from now In effect, this is a high-level analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats. Industries are changing at an increasing pace, so companies must become more adept at foreseeing trends and setting the right strategic direction. The most dangerous thing is to assume, for example, that next year will be the "status quo plus 10 per cent". Companies that let themselves think that way are heading for trouble. 

Identify new leadership competencies
If change is coming, there is no point just waiting for it to arrive. Being ready depends on tailoring your leadership development programme to match the organisation's 10-year vision and acquiring new skills accordingly. Companies in Europe, for instance, may talk about plans for expansion on the mainland, but the ones that will come out ahead are already arranging Putonghua lessons for their middle managers. 

Invest accordingly
After classifying competencies into four basic groups - on-track, overinvestment, key gaps and reserves - it is possible to redirect and recalibrate. The categories are, of course, all relative and where a competency sits can and should shift to reflect expectations in the overall business environment. This should be part of a continuous process, inspired by imagination and supported by a sensible level of investment. What often surprises us is the disconnect between, let's say, clear plans for expansion in India from 2012 and any preliminary investment in relevant training about the country for staff who will be expected to build a sales structure. 

To bridge the leadership gap between where a company is and where it wants to be in terms of skills, we recommend a specific approach. This should ensure sustainable and effective "bridging" and depends on the following elements: 

Describe For each of the competencies initially identified, it always helps to note down why this is important and how it can be developed. There is no need for a lengthy or exhaustive description, just something that can act as a reminder or ready reference. In that way, the competency and any training courses related to it can be tailored more precisely as times change or the business evolves. Also, staff who are part of the leadership development initiative will see what they have to aspire to and understand more clearly how the company is helping them contribute towards medium- and longer-term objectives.  

Sensitise Establish various practices and policies, and allocate resources to raise awareness at different levels of your organisation. This could mean engaging senior managers in one-on-one meetings or arranging workshops and focus groups, so all staff are completely clear about what they may be asked to do and the reasons why. In addition, these sessions give the opportunity to explain in as much detail as necessary the links between what is expected of individuals and the company's strategic goals. Employees of every rank are usually very accommodating. But most prefer to hear explanations and requests rather than instructions where changes or new initiatives are involved.

Enable After sensitising managers to recognise and bridge specific leadership gaps, it is vital to follow up immediately. The key is to put in place a comprehensive programme enabling employees to build their skills. When up and running, the process should be continuous. That may sound like a tall order, but with access to online learning modules, there is no real reason why staff engaged in leadership development initiatives can't be taking some course or other throughout the year. 

To maintain the desired effect, the company must demonstrate not just continued support, but also the willingness to react to circumstances. Nothing is gained if an organisation makes a big deal about introducing change and stressing a new approach, only to let things lapse back into the old ways or fizzle out through lack of support.

Contributed by Anand Chandrasekar, a research associate with the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked global provider of leadership education. He is the co-principal investigator for the Understanding the Leadership Gap research study.

Become our fans