It's been obvious in my consulting for nearly a dozen years, but it didn't make it to the Harvard Business Review until March of this year. And on Monday, this week, it got to the Wall Street Journal and the front page of the New York Times. What am I talking about? Here's the new news: The technical or functional expertise of the business person, the architect, the lawyer and today, the physician, just ain't enough. In short, what used to make you successful won't work today. It's just plain inadequate. Along with more business fundamentals, you're going to have to have a sophisticated set of interpersonal skills.
Example number one. Monday's New York Times put it on the front page, revealing the new requirement for getting into medical school: the people skills test. At Virginia Tech's new medical school administrators decided against relying on grades, test scores and hour long interviews to decide who gets in. Instead the admissions office set up a form of speed-dating, forcing each candidate to go through nine interpersonal settings with mock patients and team members dealing with ethical conundrums. Each conundrum is different and every "interviewer" grades the candidate on interpersonal skills. This same process is now part of admissions at the medical schools of Stanford, UCLA, Cincinnatti--and 13 Canadian schools. In addition, many medical schools make communication theory and practice a fundamental part of the curriculum. There's no longer room for insufferable, know-it-all jerks. The result? Today, a trip for me to UMN's Fairview University Hospital and Clinic is an absolute delight. You'll be communicated with every few minutes so you know what's going on, what to expect, told why, and asked about any questions you may have.
Example number two. The road to the top of corporate America is also shifting and the changes lying ahead are drastic. Boris Groysberg and colleagues' HBR article on The New Path To the C-Suite reports on hundreds of executive profiles from Heidrick & Struggles, and interviews numerous top managers about the requirements for senior leaders. They conclude that C-Level jobs are evolving--significantly. There's one consistent finding. A person's technical and functional expertise matters far less than a grasp of business fundamentals and leadership skills. Indeed, the last page of the article puts the issue in bold print at the top of the page, quoting from an executive recruiter: The critical functions for today's CEO are to listen, listen, listen . . . and communicate, communicate, communicate.
Example number three. Although law firms continue their obsession with prestige, law schools are beginning to recognize that the practical skills can make or break a lawyer. The Wall Street Journal article says that Indiana University's law school along with Harvard, NYU and others are adding practical classes to the curriculum. Indeed, some are using case-based business teaching, much like the Harvard business model, emphasizing the practical. That's tough for law firms, with individuals running their practice like fiefdoms, unwilling to talk to each other about practical needs such as networking, soliciting clients, working with staff or building a business plan(most don't have one). My consulting in the field says that too is just a matter of time. Instead, lawyers inside America's corporations and IT people within law firms tell me that corporate expectations are forcing the issue. No billable hours. Project fee demanded, please. You have new global competition for your practice.
Example number four. My consulting experience shows that in addition to basic functional experience (IT, marketing, operations, etc.), corporate America wants people who are flexible and adaptable, speedy learners, can work in fast-paced environments, and have exceptional and sophisticated communication expertise. They're looking for communication skills for collaborating, negotiating, selling ideas, networking, disagreeing, managing conflicts, getting things done through people, and working with dislodging dysfunctional, aged mental models for long-term change.
Client A, a finance exec, walked out of her finance firm into an IT position at a law firm. Hired especially to make cultural change. With success under her belt, she went on to a huge East Coast firm, working in the same area. She admitted that she couldn't program her way through a paragraph, but she understood IT. She knew that she had to really, really upgrade and sophisticate her communication skills, and she did it.
Client B, with merely four years of career under his belt, and not the slightest business background, has consistently succeeded. Why? He can learn fast, problem solve and communicate at a level rare for his experience. He has an unrelenting, ruthless focus on constantly improving those three heavily people-oriented skills. And, he says, the IT and business fundamentals are far easier to learn and manage than the people and wise talk side of his career.
A warning: When people tell me that they or someone else is a "natural communicator" or a "good communicator," from my vantage point I view it as pure, unadulterated bullshit. What they're actually saying is that they or their colleague are able to communicate without embarrassing, threatening or offending anyone. Sorry, but that won't work. So I roll my eyes and check it off for ignorance. If it's really important, I'll undress the statement for them. I have yet to met a "natural" or "good" communicator with a set of competencies adequate for the demands of the 21st century. Those skills are too new, too complex, too demanding of personal change, requiring a great deal of commitment to learn. In some settings, their complexity is comparable to changing IT architecture from Honeywell to SAP, or, as one of my architect friends put, like developing a 40 story skyscraper instead of a three bedroom home. But once you begin to display them, your career is made.
The HBR article summarizes the qualifications all businesses and professions are dreaming about and looking for: "The C-level person today needs to be more team-oriented, capable of multitasking continuously and leading without rank, and able to resist stress and make sure that his subordinates do not burn out. And he needs to do all of this with a big smile in an open plan office. In other words, we're looking at a whole new breed of executive." Competencies in communication skills are the subtext for all that.