04 August 2022 13:13:05 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

Leadership lies in the intersection of skills

One of my favourite cartoon strips is Dilbert. Scott Adams packs a combination of crack-up humour and gut-level insights. In a blog post in 2007, he conveyed a gem of not just career advice but leadership advice: “Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25 per cent with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average stand-up comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people.”

“The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.”

Rare is the leader who can be the absolute best at one thing but as Adams recommends could we shoot for developing two or three skills at the intersection of which there are few others or nobody else? It helps us stand out in our careers and allows us to add a certain value that others in our teams may not be able to. 

Hard and soft

Look for a combination of hard and soft skills. I remember a crisis meeting when a team from the head office had come over to try to bridge the gap that had grown between our client and ourselves. I played some role in fixing the relationship and I remember one of the senior executives telling me that my combination of skills is what made me effective — I was able to be rigorous operationally but also able to bring in the relationship and communication skills that were needed to fix the ‘soft’ parts while resolving the ‘hard’ parts. 

On the flip side, I’m not as good at networking. I have not been able to fight the feeling of ‘fakeness’ when I try to build a connection or conversation with the agenda of making use of the person at a future time. It isn’t wrong, it’s maybe my perception that is. I’ve seen one of my former bosses excel at networking. He had top-notch business smarts, but I doubt he could have grown his businesses and his impact without his ‘intersection’ skill of networking. 

It’s a good idea to build expertise in skills that straddle both hard and soft. For example, let’s say you choose to develop expertise in the metaverse — that’s a great hard skill to have. But let’s say you added public speaking and presentation skills to that. While there may be quite a few metaverse experts and quite a few presentation maestros in your peer group, you will most likely find yourself alone at the intersection of the two skills That not just increases the opportunities you will be given in your career but multiplies the impact you can have. 

On the flip side, not having this second or third skill could make leadership situations more challenging, and a crisis more difficult to resolve. I remember another colleague giving his opening speech to a new team — his IQ was so obvious but so was the extremely poor EQ he demonstrated. Instead of having the impact he hoped for, he left the team feeling cold and detached because he could not or refused to emotionally connect with them and address their ‘soft’ concerns. 

As Dennis Thatcher (Margaret Thatcher’s husband) would colourfully proclaim, “I felt like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party.” That’s the kind of feeling some of us could have if we miss those intersection skills. 

Beyond comfort zone

Our instinctive tendency is to stay in our comfort zones. As American psychologist Abraham Maslow put it, “He who is good with a hammer thinks everything is a nail.” We have to deliberately explore areas where we will be beginners, where we may even fail. But if it helps us build a new skill that can intersect well with an existing strength, we should go for it.

We should pick up challenges that lie outside our ‘sweet zone’ so we get the chance to experiment and try out some new but beginner-level skills. A willingness to embrace failure is crucial to developing this suite of intersection skills. To paraphrase Rachel Simmons, the leadership development specialist at Smith’s college who drove the “Failing Well” campaign, we have to understand that failure is a feature, not a bug in our leadership success software. 

As we keep trying, we will be able to zero in on the set of skills most useful to develop. This should also be a deliberate part of our learning agenda. Ever since I finished school, I’ve deliberately stayed off fiction reading believing that non-fiction is what would help me develop my knowledge and grow my skills. I would feel extremely guilty when I read a single fiction book, I usually allowed myself usually during the Christmas break. But as a close friend and I were discussing last week — fiction triggers different sets of neurons.

A fiction book is often a co-created experience between author and reader whereas a non-fiction book can be more unidirectional. Non-fiction may help us build knowledge, but fiction could help trigger our imagination. And as Einstein would tell us “Imagination is greater than knowledge.” And so now I’ve started including a (still) modest dose of fiction into my reading schedule. And I do find the difference. It certainly is a path to building the secondary or tertiary skills and attitudes we need. 

Transfer the attitude

Once we start becoming better ambidextrous leaders with intersection skills, we should encourage our teams to do the same and gradually we’ll find that even our organisation becomes ambidextrous and develops an intersectional set of capabilities that helps it leapfrog in the marketplace.

Salesforce, for example, has built great software but in combination with a ‘family culture’ it has helped create and nurture (that has seen it regularly ranked in the top ten Great Place to Work lists) it is able to have a differently motivated force that is able to compete and win better in the market.

Apple’s design strengths coupled with a rare ability to focus that has helped them vault to the most valuable company in the world slot. Barack Obama’s campaign team in his first run had several disadvantages against Hillary’s well-oiled machine but they managed to combine grassroots outreach strengths with Obama’s own skill at communication to win the election. So, encourage the confluence of skills culture, allow people to build depth, yes, but also width. 

You could run your leadership journey trying to excel at just one skill, but could you force-multiply by building two or three? Look for clues in your hobbies, for the things you do that don’t feel like work, for the times when you’re at peak flow, and harvest a skill to develop.  You could drill an ‘inch-wide mile deep’ or choose to go for ‘two or three inches wide and half a mile deep’ and end up finding a lot more oil.