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Ensure the leadership basics are in place

Around 70% of all leaders do not have the skills they need to deliver on the leadership element of their job

When I work with leaders I always ask them questions to gain their perspectives.

Sometimes I am shocked by their answers. Most leaders confirm they have the HR basics in place – recruitment, performance management and development of some type – and are reasonably happy with what is happening.

But there are other answers that should seriously worry any HR professional, if not the CEO. I propose that to be successful leaders must do three simple things: have a firm foundation of basic leadership capabilities, get the best from people, and focus on what delivers success.

Each cannot be optimised unless the previous one is effective. Herein lies the problem. I ask any audience of leaders anywhere in the world this simple question: ‘have you ever been taught how to delegate effectively?’ Given what line managers do day to day you would expect the answer to be ‘yes’ among maybe 80%-plus. But consistently it is 30% or less, with well over 1,000 leaders asked.

When I ask about time management, prioritisation, briefing a team and giving feedback, the figures are similar. In simple terms that means around 70% of all leaders in most organisations do not have the skills they need to deliver on the leadership element of their job. This isn’t only junior leaders; it extends into the boardroom. Given that, are we surprised that things don’t get done effectively and that the HR initiatives we give to line managers don’t often achieve the success we’d hoped for?

The next question is: ‘how does that really affect implementation?’ Despite the skills gap are they able to still get things done? Hence the next question: ‘Of all the projects, initiatives or strategies you have ever seen launched over your entire career, what percentage do you think were anywhere close to fully and successfully implemented?’ Most groups split at between 20% and 30%. When I ask if they genuinely mean that 70% to 80% of activities we launch never quite succeed they confirm this. This figure is also confirmed by a number of studies.

Clearly this lack of basic management and leadership skills feeds through to ineffective implementation. It forces line managers to be constantly firefighting to recover control. To do this they focus only on the task and not on the people. Then the second stage of delivering success – getting the best from people – is seriously impaired if not doomed from the start.

Picking up the pieces after unskilled line managers have left a trail of chaos takes up HR time. Leaders who do have these skills are able to control tasks, which then gives them time to focus on people and inspire them. This is precisely what institutions such as Royal Military Academy Sandhurst do to develop some of the best leaders.

My simple plea – be it in HR’s self-interest, for the good of the organisation, or for the good of all employees – is to make sure that every line manager has a firm foundation of basic leadership skills that allows them the bandwidth to then inspire and focus effort on success.

This might not be the sexy, strategic HR we all want to focus on. But unless it is done that strategic HR will never be fully effective. Only when it is will all the initiatives, from customer service to talent, risk to innovation, change to cost efficiency, be implemented effectively through well-led, inspired teams that don’t constantly require HR to deal with problems. Not bad for a few basic training sessions that have minimal cost and last just a couple of hours.

So my appeal to the HR community is to check the basics are in place before delivering the strategic and complex. It will make HR more effective, the organisation more successful, and help reduce your stress levels.

Chris Roebuck is visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School. He features on HR magazine’s HR Most Influential Thinkers 2017 ranking