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November - 2007 - issue > People Manager
Competence and Character Two facets of the trusted manager
C. Mahalingam
Thursday, November 1, 2007
I was facilitating a workshop on leadership for a group of 30 plus managers from different organizations. It was intense and insightful. I threw a question at the audience and asked them to list qualities they admired most in their managers. Not surprisingly, many admirable qualities were mentioned ranging from charisma, energy, intelligence, grasp, simplicity, honesty, knowledge, empathy, listening, decisiveness, open-mindedness, fairness, sense of humor, can-do attitude, forgiveness, vision, far-sightedness, clarity of thinking, level-headedness to caring for others, helping nature, self-confidence, affability, and being a role model and the like filled out the white board and flip charts.

Then I moved on to the next question and asked the participants to think through and mention just two attributes that would make their managers a very trusted manager and colleague. We found that it was not an easy exercise. Participants had to consider two factors in responding: (a) only two attributes to describe and (b) these attributes will qualify the manager as a very trusted one.

Two sides of the same coin called ‘trust’
Guess what happened? After a bit of writing, rewriting, and overwriting the attributes, the entire class room reached a consensus of sorts and the two attributes that finally made the grade were ‘competence’ and ‘character.’ This was not surprising since most of us implicitly know what we look for in our managers before we trust them and are willing to follow them. Leadership in organizations is exercised by everyone, and more importantly by those that have people management responsibilities. And their success at this directly depends on building both their competence and character.

Organizations provide many structured and unstructured opportunities for building skills and competence. Even otherwise, career-resilient individuals spend considerable time and effort learning and updating on knowledge and skills appropriate for the time and their roles. Learning on the job also significantly adds to building competence.

Character building takes a backseat
Sadly enough, many organizations do precious little to focus on and build the even more critical component of a trusted leader, that is character. Emphasizing a set of organizational values and a code of conduct and behavior (some call this a citizenship behavior in organizations) is often deemed good enough to focus on this dimension. Communication skill programs are a regular feature in most organizations. Unfortunately, many tend to forget the fact that when it comes to interpersonal communication whether with friends or family or with clients or team members, communication is more about sincerity than about skills! In his The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People habits Guru Stephen Covey wrote, “You cannot talk yourself out of situations you have behaved yourself into.” It is very profound and is worth remembering once every morning by everyone keen on building character.

Trust is like fine China clay: Handle with care
The foundation for character is trust. The entire social system operates on the basis of trust. Institutions like marriage, relationships between superiors and subordinates, children and parents, supplier and customers, lasting business contacts across borders, and many such things revolve around trust. As with many fine things in life, it takes a long time to build trust, but it can be broken almost effortlessly. Rebuilding trust is even more difficult and time consuming. Trust is like fine china clay and must be handled with care.

Earning Trust: Everyday job for a manager
People in organizations often trust their managers even without waiting for them to prove their trust-worthiness. This is often the human nature. This requires the managers to live up to the trust all the time, through both words and deeds. In working relationships, trust is not about indulgence, not even about being overly friendly; it is about being forthright in sharing your thoughts and expectations. It is being upfront about what you think about your team member’s performance and what he or she should do to improve it. It is about readily appreciating your team member when he or she did something that contributed to the success of the project or strengthened a weak link in the chain. It is about feeling good to apologize and laugh at yourself when you discovered you made a mistake or goofed something up. It is about saying what you mean and meaning what you say. And it is also about admitting ignorance and exhibiting a child-like curiosity to learn from your team.

An experiment at symphony
Let me share with you an experiment we have initiated in our company. We have what we call as the four-tiered leadership development programs that focus on competence building, depending on the responsibility levels managers hold in the organization. From Personal Leadership (individual contributors) to Institutional Leadership (for senior managers holding strategic positions), we have chalked out learning experiences that will enhance the quality of contributions our employees make and through which they grow as the company grows. More importantly, we have embarked upon a journey we call as ‘Symphony 150’ whereby 150 leaders across various levels in the organization are brought together to focus on the significant leadership characteristic of ‘character’. This is a journey and not a program. This involves managers at all levels learning to become role models and contribute significantly to the mentoring of younger employees. Role modeling and mentoring are not easy and almost impossible without building and shaping one’s own character. A heavy dose of Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf constitutes an important part of the curriculum in this learning journey focused on building character.

Building corporations to last
Institutions and corporations last longer only when they are founded on ‘character’. If leadership curriculums and competencies of organizations acknowledged this and focused on building both competence and character, we will have much better places created for the younger generation to come and work. Employeeship and citizenship behaviors at work and outside cannot be demanded or mandated. They can be brought about only by men of character which managers must show they are.

The Author is Senior VP and Chief People officer with Symphony Services Corporations. He can be reached at mahalingam.c@symphonysv.com
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