More than likely, you are familiar with the phrase, “Like a square peg in a round hole.”
Generally, this phrase is used to refer to someone or something that doesn’t fit in at all with its environment – like a fish out of water. If something is a square peg in a round hole, by its very nature, it doesn’t belong there.
Now, of course, no one would ever knowingly try to place a square peg in a round hole… but what if we don’t know that’s what we’re doing?
Meet Sarah, a coding engineer at a high-performing tech company. She has risen to the top of her profession. With natural talent honed by years of dedicated study, she is a master of the coding craft. She is always the first one to step up and solve complex coding challenges. Her practical talent and naturally excellent work ethic have driven her to become a standout on her team, and her success does not go unnoticed by her leaders.
In fact, one day, they decide to reward Sarah with a promotion.
But to her leaders’ surprise, Sarah’s team flounders under her leadership. Her team’s morale plummets, and so does their performance. Deadlines are missed, projects stall, and the environment becomes so unpleasant, people begin to search for work elsewhere.
Because as a coder, Sarah has been reading and writing Python and C++ for as long as she can remember. Her technical prowess is virtually unmatched. But now that she is no longer managing code, but people, she must speak their language – the language of soft skills like empathy, emotional intelligence, and effective communication. This is a language she has not devoted her life to, and that will cost her leadership dearly not to be able to speak.
So now, Sarah is feeling very much like a square peg in a round hole.
But the big difference between Sarah and a square peg is that she is not stuck in her current shape. No one is. At any time we can – and as leaders, we should – strive to gain the skills necessary to fulfill the role. No matter how “square” we might be, we can, and must, develop well-rounded soft skills.
How can we do this? Try these five strategies:
- Leverage assessments for greater self-awareness. Better understanding leads to better adjustment. The more we know ourselves, the more effectively we can map our development. Assessments like the Emotional Intelligence Appraisal or the 360-degree feedback process can help improve your self-awareness.
- Develop active listening skills. As you lead, prioritize listening over speaking and understanding over directing. Leaders who develop active listening skills are able to solve organizational problems, improve results, and keep morale high.
- Seek out communication training. The vast majority of what others communicate to us – and what we communicate to others – is being communicated nonverbally. Communication training can help leaders ensure they’re saying what they want to say and perceiving what their team members are actually saying.
- Host regular “empathy circles.” Schedule regular meetings where team members can share updates, but also voice challenges and concerns. What you prioritize will show up on your calendar and in your budget. When your team sees that you have set aside time to hear their input, they will know you prioritize them.
- Invest in mentorship and coaching. Leadership expert Dr. John Maxwell says that leaders are learners. A soft skills mentor or coach can help illuminate areas that potential leaders – especially in the tech industry – may have trouble seeing themselves.
I’ll leave you with two challenges…
- Which soft skills do you believe you’ve developed well, and which do you think could be limiting your team’s success? Write down one main area where you could improve, and create a 30-day action plan to develop that skill.
- What metrics do you use to measure the “people” side of your leadership (morale, engagement, etc.), and are there any you could introduce to get a better idea of how your team is doing?
Feel free to reach out as you think through these challenges – as a leader with experience in tech, I would be fascinated by your answers!
That’s all for now. 🙂
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