Becoming a Leader – The Transition from Management to Leadership

Our course participants and newsletter subscribers regularly emphasise the issue of Leadership in the Energy industry. We asked Leadership expert Dr Yanos Michopoulos for his views on the transition from management to leadership and to discuss some of the attributes of great leaders.

Yanos will be delivering our Leadership programme in London in June. He has 25 years’ experience in Oil & Gas, Renewables, Shipping and related industries and is an acclaimed lecturer in Leadership with various business schools and institutions. Here are his thoughts on the Leadership question:

Defining the key characteristics of a great leader always makes for an interesting start of any Leadership programme. “Great leaders are born, not made”, some would argue, usually citing Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela as examples. Others disagree: leadership involves a range of skills that people can learn, just as they learn how to assess Oil and Gas reserves or to structure a production offtake agreement. Naturally, there are some innate personality traits that might help (e.g. a high EQ score), but most leadership skills can be developed over the course of a career.

The Dilemma of Hard skills vs Soft skills

Professor Goleman coined the term Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in 1998 to describe “the capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships”. According to a 2013 HBR report, your level of EQ is firm but not rigid, which means that it can improve with the right training. Moreover, it has been claimed that successful leaders are characterised by high EQ, not necessarily high IQ scores, e.g. strong intellect and well developed “hard, professional skills” are necessary, but not sufficient.

During their early and mid-career stages, Energy professionals typically rely on their “hard management skills” for success, evidenced by qualifications and experience. Some of these may even be required for regulatory reasons e.g. accountancy, engineering, legal qualifications. However, as you move up in your career, there will be situations where your experience and qualifications are largely irrelevant.

In a world – like the energy industry – full of ambiguity and uncertainty, disruption and continuous change, facing political and economic challenges,  leaders must demonstrate a vision that guides and inspires their teams as they transform their business. This cannot be done with functional expertise alone. Energy professionals need to develop a range of “soft, leadership” skills, to build multi-functional teams, accelerate change and manage internal and external stakeholders. This transition from management to leadership is a key challenge for any would-be Energy leader: how best to navigate such a move from the application of hard skills, that are necessary and essential at the early career stages, to the so called soft skills, needed for mid to senior executive roles. Bain talk about that dilemma as “performance skills vs inspirational skills”: in a world of flat hierarchies and cross-functional teams, inspirational skills matter more.

Defining the soft skills

But what are these soft skills and at what stage do they become important? Michael Watkins called them the Seven Seismic Shifts™ in his framework, to describe the capabilities needed in order to become an effective business leader. For instance, when you are leading a diverse team operating across multiple functions, countries, sectors, projects, or driving the transformation of a business unit – it is these soft skills that take precedence over the hard skills. It’s your ability to develop a compelling vision, listen to, support and connect with others from different backgrounds, influence them, understand their motivations and get them to work together, that will make the difference.

Many studies – from management consultants, business schools, leadership gurus – have tried to define these soft skills more precisely. Resilience, being supportive, seeking out diversity, focusing on results, looking ahead are all behaviours that consistently come up. Bain, in their “Inspirational Leadership Model”, identified 33 characteristics of great leaders, with “Centeredness” at the heart of all of them – picking up on the current theme of mindfulness in the workplace. McKinsey add effective problem-solving to the mix. Others include listening, communication and negotiation and other interpersonal skills. These are all necessary for leading people and for setting strategy and making good decisions. Professor Goleman talks about the 6 Leadership styles, ranging from more autocratic to more empowering, each applicable for different business situations. Jack Welch, writing on LinkedIn recently, listed 5 qualities – positive energy, the ability to energise others, the ability to make tough decisions (“edge”), a talent to get things done and above all, passion. But a common theme is always the ability to handle – and drive – change. John Kotter highlighted this in his HBR article many years ago, noting that the leader’s primary role is to help organisations prepare for, and successfully cope with, change. Change involves uncertainty and discomfort that cannot be managed away with “hard skills” – e.g. budgets and plans: Kotter highlights how leaders must apply their “soft leadership skills” to align the whole organisation behind the change.

Does your company encourage the transition?

But how best to get trained and supported in such a transition? Developing and applying these soft skills is easier if the organisation’s culture encourages it. Firms that successfully develop their leaders make such a transition from “hard professional to soft leadership skills” easy. They create a culture of openness and empowerment. They enable considered risk-taking and encourage challenges to the status quo, and they expose managers to change early on in their careers. This doesn’t happen in companies where leaders rely on authority rather than influence, and where a particular “hard skill” such as finance, or engineering, or sales, dominates their management thinking and the company’s culture.

Yanos has held a variety of leadership roles in energy related sectors, including Oil & Gas, Renewables, Infrastructure, Shipping, Technology and Private Equity. He regularly lectures on Leadership issues and will be delivering WBC’s Leadership in Energy programme in London in June 2018, a 3-day course designed to help managers make the transition to Leadership. Click here for details.

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