Managing People is Not a Soft Skill

it is a Hard and Complex Journey

Published on: October 2017

Written by: Madhu Reddy

Interview with Madhu Reddy, originally published online by People Matters

People Matters is a niche media company working to create an HR community focused on following best practices and finding innovative ideas. It is the first Indian HR magazine with a global scope and multi-media integration. The following article was published online on September 22, 2017.

Q: You have a diverse career experience. Please walk us through your professional background and how your interest in people development led you to your current role as Managing Director at BTS, a consulting and leadership development company?

I’m an engineer by qualification and I started to work in 1985 at PSI Data doing software development. Then I moved to TATA Consulting Services. At Hughes Software, I was introduced to the telecom industry and specialized in software and systems. Later, I helped to set up the operations in Bangalore. Recruiting the right people was not a challenge because of the brand name. As time went by, the business focus moved from ‘quality’ to ‘quality plus quantity’. That was when I started to think about how we needed to develop people in order to retain them.

After a stint as an entrepreneur, I ran the India operations for a couple of smaller companies. It was general management-related work; everything from setting up organizations, hiring people, and finding office space to running the daily operations. Although I had led several people and teams at this point in my career, it didn’t really hit me how important people development skills were until I ventured into my own startup. I could see how difficult it was to hire and retain talent and the people aspect of business started to interest me more.

It was around that time—25 years into my career—that I was looking for an opportunity to get out of an air-conditioned office and I ventured into the construction industry. That was when I was introduced to BTS and shortly after they needed someone to run the India business and I took on my current role. For me, BTS is really all about how you develop people. How do you appreciate what truly help people improve? What are the things you need to shift as a manager?

Q: What are the main challenges at the middle management-level, as you see them?

The biggest struggle that people leaders at this level have is managing their time and making sure they are spending enough time on developing their team members. They have so much on their plate and such high expectations – right from strategy execution and building relationships with your teams, to serving the role of the advisor to the top management and executive leaders. The demands on them are very high that managing time and prioritizing their team members are often the biggest challenges.

Q: How should mid-level managers look at their role as people leaders? What should they be doing?

I spent a big part of my career as an engineer manager and used to believe that people truly appreciated me for my engineering capabilities. This essentially proved to be a false belief. If you believe in that, you will look for the reinforcement of that belief from everyone that you interact with. Like me at that time, many mid-level managers need a mindset shift.

Reading Ram Charan’s book “The Leadership Pipeline” helped me understand what truly would make a difference to other people. I realized that I needed to spend more time and energy on things other than engineering and technology. In your mind, you may be thinking that tasks like managing people, having one-on-one meetings, and communicating the company vision are boring compared to solving a cool engineering problem. This is a mindset shift that we need to reflect on as leaders.

Take the example of giving feedback, which is a key part of leading people. This process demands a lot of different skills, including:

  • Listening
  • Removing emotion and being fact-based
  • Structuring feedback constructively, with actionable recommendations
  • Understanding the emotional state of the person you’re giving feedback to

All the facets of giving feedback make this process more complex than some engineering or business projects, but, if done effectively, it will create an environment where people are open to adapt and change the way they work. And, as a leader, you need people who can move with the changes in the business.

Q: That means, a stronger focus needs to be on the soft skills at work, not just technical skills, for managers?

I think a lot of people are hard-wired to think that soft skills are not important. They tend to dismiss it as something that is easy. I would not advocate using the word ‘soft,’ because these skills are hard to acquire and the journey of leading others is complex. And it is challenging as it involves people and not machines that don’t have emotions or talk back to you.

Q: One of the challenges at the middle management-level is the advisory role that you mentioned earlier and that managers need to invest in relationships with senior leaders. How should they do that?

A part of overcoming this challenge is to learn how to build those relationships on an on-going basis. It should not be left as the typical boss-subordinate meeting at the yearly performance review. A manager needs to show enthusiasm and curiosity by asking relevant questions in the right forums. When people see that you use the information to explain company decisions to others it shows that you work in alignment with the organization, even if the original decision was not taken by you. That is what builds credibility and trust to enable relationships with your manager as well as with your subordinates to develop.

To do this well, you need to understand the why and how of business acumen. Successful middle-managers knows how to connect each team member’s role to the context of the organization and explain the dynamics.

Q: How is BTS enabling people managers to develop?

In the last 30 years, BTS has worked across industry and sectors with clients such as Accenture, Bharti Airtel, DBS, Nike, Apple, General Motors, Citi Bank, Microsoft, Tencent, Google, and Uber.

Through our extensive client work, we have found best practices that we apply in our approach. Perhaps the most important best practice is that we do not offer solutions that are generic. People leadership at a bank is not for the same as at a retail company. For instance, a branch manager at a bank and at a retail store may seem similar in process but would require different kinds of support and development. Leadership and management programs need to be contextualized to the industry, the business strategy, and company values.

Another best practice is when people are able to convince themselves, they are more likely to adopt a different way of working and bring the learning back to their jobs. Therefore, rather than to lecture people, we create powerful learning experiences that help to inspire new ways of thinking and build skills. At these workshops, we use business simulations and other experiential learning tools to ensure people get “aha”-moments and come to their own conclusions to change.

Q: What is the one thing that HR leaders need to work on from your experience?

What HR, and especially L&D, professionals need to do is to build relationships and connect with the business. They need to ask relevant questions, understand a business leader’s reasoning and answer, and design solutions in alignment with the current business need and context.

To illustrate, if the business need is to build strategic talent, L&D needs to ask, “What does that mean? How will they be able to add value to your team? Give me some examples.” Understanding how to speak the business language in the context of their organization is key. This is the only way for L&D to be better understood for the immense work that they truly do.