What’s Lacking in 21st Century Management Skills?

by BILL SITTER

Equipment distributors face a monumental problem when challenged with the need to fill supervisory and mid-management positions. All too often key management skills are woefully lacking in both internal and external candidates.

Jordan-Sitter Associates (JSA) has explored this topic, and we want to provide solutions to the challenge of staffing a distributor’s or manufacturer’s leadership team for the new millennium.

We surveyed industry executives to gain insight into three areas, and the response was excellent. This again proves that our industry leaders will share ideas to benefit others.

The first survey question asked executives to identify the areas of concern or shortcomings most often encountered when attempting to fill lower and/or middle-management positions. Respondents then rated these concerns as: very serious, moderate or low. Following are the rankings listed in order of importance, using the 10 choices provided:

  1. Interpersonal skills
  2. Team skills
  3. Mentoring/training skills
  4. Conflict resolution
  5. Ability to hire and fire
  6. Business planning
  7. Stress management
  8. Financial management
  9. Computer skills
  10. Education level

SOFT SKILLS THE BIGGEST CONCERN

Interpersonal skills and team skills dominated as areas of greatest concern. They, along with the other three of the top five, are soft skills and represent the greatest challenge according to our respondents. Soft skills include a wide range of topics: people-to-people relationships; motivation and attitude; and how people deal with emotional and political issues. All of the top five choices relate in some way to dealing with people.

Four of the bottom five concerns fall more in the area of hard skills. Even the write-in notes leaned heavily toward the softer side of the management grid. Survey responses included these as “special mention concerns”. These concerns include: problem solving, ability to work with others and to “fit” the company culture, character issues such as honesty and integrity, ability to prioritize, time management, specific job related experience, writing ability – especially the knack of capturing key issues, decision making, marketing skills, leadership style-including the use of organizational power and the willingness to take reasonable business risks.

TRAIN THE TRAINERS

Our survey panels’ responses promoted the need for renewal of “train the trainer” programs. The concept of training the trainers is certainly not new to the construction equipment industry. In fact, I recall attending such a session in the early 1970s. However, after 30 years of this activity, mentoring and training skills still ranked very high on our panel’s list of concerns.

As I was preparing this material, I was fortunate enough to fly next to the President of one of the nation’s prominent quality management consulting and training firms, Philip Crosby Associates II, Inc. Wayne Kost shared an experience that indicated how widespread the need is for this training. His firm had prepared a complete series of quality training modules which were to be taught by supervisors to employees. But early on they identified the need to add a front-end training module, which equipped first-line leaders with the necessary “how to” training skills, so they could competently present the quality modules.

The experience of this training expert, plus the input from dealers and our own observations strongly suggest that we need to dust off some of our own “train-the-trainer” materials from the ’70s, then update and use these techniques to develop our next generation of potential leaders.

HOW DO I GET PROMOTED?

How are candidates evaluated for promotions? The survey indicates that several progressive evaluation approaches are in common use. Of the six survey choices, following is a ranking of techniques most frequently used: subjective evaluations and annual performance reviews were the top two choices by a wide margin. However, we were very pleasantly surprised to see that two-thirds of those responding are also regularly using 360-degree peer reviews. It was also very encouraging to see that one third use both career track planning and objective third party evaluations. Of all the choices, testing was the least popular tool for purposes of determining promotability. However, several panelists use various testing or written assessment tools as part of their human resources process. “Caliper” assessments received several specific mentions from U.S. distributors.

We have observed that managers and employees at all levels generally want to know:

  • How they are rated?
  • How they can get promoted?
  • How they can increase their earning power?

Progressive companies have devised consistent methods for two-way communications with employees and their leaders. This includes senior managers, even to the executive level. In general, it is almost impossible to over-communicate in the critical area of career track planning and management development.

REAL WORLD INPUT

For this article, we attempted to identify problems and provide solutions. Many survey panelists took the time to add special thoughts about their successful evaluation processes when selecting future leaders. We concur with their input and hope their excellent ideas will help you.

  • A large Midwestern distributorship puts internal and external promotion candidates through four separate interviews. Managers from various departments and divisions are selected to build the interview panel. Each panelist is well briefed on the candidate’s background to save valuable time. Each interviewer uses a different set of behavioral type questions to learn how the individual has handled specific situations that relate to the new job. The key decision maker (hiring authority) pieces together the results of all four interviews, which provides an excellent profile of who is best suited for a specific role.
  • One dealer in the Northeast and two large international equipment manufacturers make effective use of industrial psychologists who are extremely well versed with the culture of their respective companies. Often, this psychologist’s report is provided to the candidate to identify career development goals. This feedback makes a great deal of sense, as hardly anyone likes to be tested or assessed without learning the results. One very senior executive feels this psychologist-candidate rapport is one of the best $ 1,000 investments they make.
  • Two distributors in the South seek formal and informal feedback, on an ongoing basis, from customers, factory reps and other department managers. This helps them identify candidates for increased responsibility. One large manufacturer gathers additional information on candidates from customers and from their dealer network.
  • Career track programs have many pluses but are also time intensive. To address this, one large rental-oriented distributor in the Eastern United States uses a sophisticated career track development program especially for employees who exhibit high potential for advancement.

How Distributors Develop Managers?

  • 95% use on the job training.
  • 61% rely on one-on-one mentoring most of the time, and another 29% use it occasionally.
  • 36% make strong use of in-house management training, and another 31% employ this some of the time.
  • 30% report using outside seminars on a “very often” basis, and 65% use these occasionally.
  • 16% frequently use continuing education courses, while 73% use these selectively.
  • 11% are strong users of formal training geared to our industry, and 34% make some use of this tool.

The most important survey question asked industry leaders what methods they were using to effectively develop potential supervisors and managers to help them overcome several of the common weaknesses identified in the first question. The above percentages provide part of the answer. However, “for the rest of the story” we gratefully share several excellent write-in suggestions, as over half of our panel of execs took the time to share some of their more successful solutions.

  • A Great Lakes distributor has invested in a huge CD-video library, which provides self-training modules on over 400 topics ranging from sales to customer service and management skills to personal health. Employees are encouraged to partake of this self-development program and progress is reviewed as part of the annual performance evaluation process.
  • A large international distributor (heavily geared toward rentals) recently created a training/development initiative that includes development of an in-house training program geared especially to front-line staff. They have appointed a multi-state team of managers to develop and implement this brand new program in 1999.
  • One Northeastern dealer assigns middle managers to special project team leadership roles as a way of developing, nurturing and assessing upper management potential.
  • One large multi-state dealer utilizes a well defined, in-house series of training modules that incorporate company values, leadership and problem solving intoa closed loop system based on stated core values. This training is required of all present and future leaders. The goal is to gain consistency and excellence.
  • Considerable time, talent and money is regularly committed to this process, and the bottom-line results prove that the investment is well founded.
  • A large number of panelists offer tuition reimbursement for career related courses and seminars. Several also provide special PC training.

Jordan-Sitter has observed that a number of companies offer excellent training opportunities, including the use of costly outside training programs and tuition reimbursement plans. The key to effective use of these programs is to connect their use to career track plans and to include progress in the annual review process.

SENIOR MANAGEMENT DEVELOPMENT

Leaders want to know (1.) how they are doing, (2.) what their boss would like them to change, and (3.) how they can gain the skills and experience to progress. They truly desire this feedback on a regular basis. These senior managers want to be included in career track growth programs.

In addition, a short-sighted company should not hold back on the cost of special management development programs, focused mini-courses, advanced degree assistance and trips to explore other distributors’ best practices. The motivation might be to save money in the fear that others will hire away these growing leaders and the investment could be lost. Fortunately, progressive distributors and manufacturers in this industry accept responsibility to develop the God-given talents of their employees. They also recognize that to not grow these future leaders may stifle their growth, which could lead them to migrate to an employer with a more modem view of career development.

WE MUST DEVELOP 21St CENTURY LEADERS!

The technician shortage is critical in our industry. It is finally getting some of the attention it definitely deserves. However, this industry is simultaneously faced with a severe challenge in the area of developing leaders, at every level.

We applaud the progressive equipment industry executives who are striving to train up supervisors and middle managers, for these individuals will most definitely provide the talent needed to drive this industry in the next millennium.