Leaders need to understand people. Some of you leaders get it. Some of you don't. The typical external advisors to leaders come from one of three classes of professionals; lawyers, accountants, or business consultants. But if they need or want to understand people . . . lawyers and accountants . . . really?
I'm not trying to disparage these fine professionals, in fact a few are very good with people and "people issues," but many of these professionals know this is not their area of expertise and tell me themselves that this is not what they have been trained to do, not what their interest is, or what they feel competent to do. Those who accept that they need someone with expertise in this area refer. The rest, well, they often help perpetuate, or escalate, the crisis that gets me, or someone like me, hired.
So how about the business consultants? Surely, they are better. It depends. Here, we have a much broader range of experience, education, and skills. Some are former business leaders themselves. They may know a lot, from the "school of hard knocks," or they may know very little about people, focusing primarily or only on the business aspects of advising. Some have had a history of "people problems" themselves as a leader--which can be good or bad--coloring their views and advice.
The bottom line is . . . most leaders are "flying by the seat of their pants" when it comes to managing people and most of their advisors are too! The steadying hand of someone who understands and knows how to navigate the shoals of human systems is, unfortunately, the "exception not the rule" in business circles.
"But wait a minute!" you say. "How about organizational/industrial psychologists?" Once again, in my experience, this group of professionals vary widely in their ability to understand and intervene in human systems. "Wait . . . what? But they are people-people!" True, and yes, many of them have a good understanding of people. A smaller number also understand human systems well. (I want to be clear that there are many competent professionals in this group.) However some, once again, are focused on the business objectives and not really the people. Others are more comfortable with a distant detached engagement performing the quantitative analysis of humans . . . numbers about people not engaging with the people themselves.
The bottom line is, there is no one single professional group in which a leader can find a "sure thing" if they are looking for help with their human business system. You often have to assess each individual's background, skill set, interest, education etc. Not an easy thing to do. If it is a large firm then you may have to make sure to vet each consultant assigned to work with the organization.
Finding the right consultant to help with people issues then is often a search to find the specific consultant with the skills and expertise you need. Do they have training in human systems work? Do they have deep experience in working in complex, and often emotionally charged, human systems? Do they have real world business experience?
A friend and a very successful business man told me how a former long-term employee will no longer speak to him, and how that employee's family members avoid him as well. He cannot even tell me what happened or what caused the problems. Prior to her leaving his firm, his consulting experts warned him that there was a problem. They recommended the leader do something to "fix it". . . then, having done their duty to warn him, left him to figure out what to do without providing the leader with any tools to remedy the people problem. The fixes, probably ineffective because he as a leader was already part of the system that caused the problem only got worse. Unfortunately this is all too common.
Leaders often do not recognize, or know how to respond, to early signs of withdrawal, defensiveness, or repressed anger in employees or work teams and, left un-checked, are caught "off guard" when a situation "suddenly" becomes acutely corrosive or explosive. When it breaks down completely or erupts into conflict they don't know how to act or what will help resolve the issues.
So yes, leaders need someone who really understands people and groups of people in their corner; and no, it doesn't have to really be a "shrink." Competent experienced counselors, of all stripes, can be very effective and helpful.
A senior executive once asked me, "Do you know what the hardest thing I've ever done as a leader is?" Fire someone." He went on to tell me about the burden of having to take an action he did not want to take, the worry about that employee's future and the effect on their family's well being. In my experience executives bear the burden of these decisions and often experience the fear and weight of the effects of their decisions on others.
Most, in my experience, of truly do care about their employees. Most agonize over hiring decisions if there is some risk in being able to sustain the position. They worry about a lack of sales or changes in the market and fear the pain that occurs if market forces force down-sizing. They express hopes for expanded opportunities or higher compensation for their valued employees. They are concerned about the impact of team conflict.
Most are also happy to expend resources to improve their employee's situation . . . if they believe the expenditure will really help. However most are ill=prepared to know what to do to help their employees . . . especially if the situation has become problematic. Often they cannot fix the situation because they cannot step outside of their role as "boss" and employees react differently to their efforts to implement change.
Leaders need someone who will help them find the path to effectively create a healthy and productive system and to help them "stay the course" to making their leadership both effective and "people-friendly." They need savvy "people-people," experts who can help them navigate their course. Experts who are willing to take their skills "beyond the couch" out of health care and into the market place to support and help these groups of people. The employees are, after all, the means to their success and, as they themselves tell us, their greatest asset.
We need more "mental health type"s who are willing to step up, exceed their "health care" mind-set, and help these leaders.