When a company is an enormous success — or a dismal failure — there’s usually someone at the top who is responsible. Regardless of the size of the enterprise, this one executive puts together a leadership team, a group of individuals who are all going in the same direction and, as far as customers and suppliers are concerned, operate as one. When the team works successfully, the executive properly takes credit. When it fails, the executive takes the fall.
Selecting and training the right kind of team members is one of top management’s most important tasks. And it requires not just practical business experience, but compassion, sensitivity, benevolence, and kindness — or, in one word, humaneness.
If humaneness is an important trait in executive teams, how can a top manager make certain that his or her colleagues don’t just pay lip service to this managerial attribute, but rather incorporate it into daily routines and use it as a yardstick for performance?
Helmut Maucher, the grand old man of Nestlé SA, found his answer in his description of a strong manager. He once observed that personality, responsibility, and intelligence — attributes that have been in demand for at least a thousand years — still are the prevailing characteristics of leadership. Additionally, Mr. Maucher added, management skills should be enhanced with other characteristics: first, a blend of courage, nerve, and calmness; and, second, the ability to communicate internally and externally. Alfred Herrhausen, a Deutsche Bank AG board member, once articulated his credo for the successful manager: “One has to say what one thinks, do what one says, and be what one does.” When humaneness radiates from the top, it works its way through the rank and file.
It’s as simple as this: Managers who want to succeed in a networked, knowledge-based world must be able to communicate with co-workers. “In difficult times,” executive search consultants Heidrick & Struggles-Mülder & Partner concluded in a recent survey, “the manager must be able to set clear rules. In day-to-day business, however, the manager is well-advised to talk with the staff and learn from them, for they are highly qualified knowledge workers who are indispensable for the future of the company.” Strong communication is based on the integral attributes of humaneness — compassion, sensitivity, benevolence, and kindness. The most successful manager has a broad perspective encompassing not only financial topics, but cultural understanding as well. This manager recognizes the specialized talents of different people and keeps their needs in mind. And he includes their networks and interdependencies in the social fabric of the company. To do so — to make best use of team members’ skills and talents — the manager must learn the internal machinations of the workplace. To do all of this properly means working hard to learn skills that go far beyond spreadsheet analysis.
A top manager’s ability to integrate and to communicate is most highly challenged by the networked enterprise. A smart leader must be a successful integrator. And that kind of leadership requires social competence. Leadership is no longer a matter of ordering and instructing, but of having and using the ability to convince. Personality, even charisma, is an important part of the leadership skill set.
Social competence is the ability to motivate, to understand different (even opposing) points of view, and to manage a number of different character types (and emotions). As a whole, these varied criteria form the humane factor. They are the foundations of teamwork, of balance within a successful organization.
How does one acquire social competence, that managerial skill that enables a single manager’s output to exceed the work of committees? Understand first that “social competence” is one of those terms that becomes fashionable, falls into overuse, and quickly loses its real meaning. But that makes it no less important. In the U.S., managers get bonus points for studying various applications of social competence; proper training in its skills can facilitate promotion to more responsible positions. Social competence can be learned as part of a formal program at work, or, just as valuably, by volunteering at a local fire department, for example. In either case, the lessons come from the experiences of coping with problems in the social arena — with people from different backgrounds — in many dimensions that traditionally have not been a part of formal professional life.