Thursday, May 19, 2011

Torre, Francona and the Importance of Soft Skills

An executive asked me the following question the other day: "How do I persuade the skeptics who continue to denigrate the importance of "soft skills" in management?  Can you give me a concrete example that I can use to help influence their thinking?"   He posed a tough question, because we all know that persuading these skeptics can be a very challenging endeavor.  I offered an  example for him to use that I think might be helpful. Consider the managers of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox for much of the last decade - Joe Torre and Terry Francona.  Fans in baseball love to dissect a manager's game decisions.  Should he have issued an intentional walk in the 7th inning?  When should he have pulled his starting pitcher?  Should the manager have pinch hit for the weak-hitting catcher in the 8th inning? 

Often times, I believe fans over-estimate the importance of these "hard skills" for managers.  What do they under-estimate?  The soft skills.  Fans often do not understand how critical the manager's skills are with regard to managing the clubhouse, dealing with different personalities, enforcing team rules, managing conflict, etc.   Torre and Francona, I believe, excelled at these "soft skills" - even though they, at times, frustrated fans with their actual game management decisions.  Were they superb in those "hard skill" areas?  Perhaps.   However, they surely excelled on the soft skills.  A recent example this week reinforced my view on Torre and Francona.  The New York Yankees' current manager, Joe Girardi, did not handle an issue with aging catcher and designated hitter, Jorge Posada, very well at all, and as a result, we had a controversy that stretched for days. 

For business executives, we can take a lesson from this baseball example.  Do we attribute success to the wrong set of skills at times?  Do we fixate on the small technical miscues, while missing the fact that some leaders have tremendous people management skills that actually overwhelm any small technical deficiencies?  What really matters most for organizational performance?  That's what every executive should ask themselves.

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