Too many companies undervalue ‘soft’ skills and fail to take a long-term perspective on their workforce, often leading to a lack of focus on people issues at board level. Appointing a more diverse set of personalities, with a broader range of skills, to senior positions would start to solve the problem.
Promotion structures tend to favour self-confident, technically adept and analytically-minded individuals. Softer skills such as empathy and a long term outlook are viewed as fluffy additions which aren’t necessary to get ahead. The people who get to the top in business can end up in a bubble, disconnected from their customers and the people who work for them at grass roots level. The terminology itself tells a story about the status these skills are afforded. Viewed as easier, not cutting edge and something a junior can handle. Despite some businesses’ efforts to get their staff on board and on message, too many focus more on satisfying customers rather than creating a positively-engaged workforce. As a result, many boards delegate HR-related issues and don’t’ direct enough energy into the wellbeing and development of their staff. This feels a little old-fashioned to me. We’re moving into an age of a more mobile workforce. A single individual may have a series of different interactions with an organisation over their lifetime as supplier, customer, employee or contractor. Limiting focus to a single interaction type i.e. customer is no longer enough.
People-related strategies require a long-term perspective, but we often only reward and incentivise people to think in the short term. Boards, politicians and leaders in general are looking for the next immediate big win.
Businesses don’t promote long-term thinkers for the same reasons. They want to see their numbers add up today. As a result, people issues are dealt with only when they require urgent attention, instead of being seen as a long-term priority.
People assume non-executive directors will step into the breach. Although with honourable exceptions, they too are often more focused on what’s happening during their tenure rather than 10 years down the line. Businesses generally fail to value people leaders as drivers of innovation and positive change. HR has been viewed as an easier career option that anyone could under take. You would be hard pushed to find someone who says that they can’t relate to people, although we all know not everyone can. It’s more the case that some people who lack those ‘soft’ skills also lack the self-awareness to realise it.
In the same way that boards need to have a balance of analytical and empathetic skills, so do HR directors and departments. However, it can be difficult to attract this kind of thinker to an area of the business that has traditionally been under-represented at the very highest level.
Recognising the tendency of appointing largely self-confident short-term thinkers in top positions is the first step to breaking out of this cycle. Engaging with lobbying groups such as the 30% Club which works to raise female representation on boards, can be helpful to get diversity on the agenda. The conversation does not need to be focussed on gender, race or sexuality, but rather in getting different skill sets on boards and valuing each set equally.
Making every person count
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This article represents the views of the author only, and does not necessarily represent the views or professional advice of KPMG in the UK.