How can you reduce employee churn in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) organizations that costs billions of dollars? Consider leadership finesse. In my last article, I alluded to leadership finesse and how it helps create motivating work environments where STEM-skilled employees thrive and want to stay. In this follow-up article, I expand on STEM organizations and finesse.
A Profile of STEM Organizations
At their core, STEM organizations are more data-driven and technical in what they do compared to other organizations. They exist at the enterprise level across STEM-related industries. Medical device, software, aerospace and insurance companies are examples. STEM organizations also exist at the functional level within companies. If you have collaborated with the finance or information technology department, you encountered this type of STEM organization.
At the enterprise and functional levels, these organizations are an integral part of a STEM continuum that spans school curricula, jobs/occupations and STEM-related economies. A lot of attention has focused on school curricula because it is critical for developing STEM skills. These skills and the continuum cannot flourish without STEM organizations, because they directly affect STEM jobs, occupations for people with STEM skills, and STEM-related economies.
The Foundation for Finesse
Over the last couple of decades, I have worked with a variety of STEM organizations across 20 industries, and I noticed a recurring pattern. Organizations performed well from a technical standpoint by analyzing data and using the resulting information to provide products and services. In producing these outcomes, however, many members of the organizations routinely mishandled interactions, such as getting others on board with objectives (or at least doing so without forcing it upon them) or preventing a difference in perspective from turning into a contentious test of wills.
To clarify this pattern, I analyzed the work I performed over the last 10 years in STEM organizations. This included assessments I conducted with leaders related to intrapersonal skills, interpersonal skills, personality attributes and risk factors that derail managerial success. As I reviewed the results of the analysis, the pattern became more evident. I found that countless professionals in these companies consistently failed to handle difficult circumstances with tactfulness, emotional intelligence and forethought regarding impact. In other words, they lacked what I call finesse. The finesse I am describing addresses how people carry themselves as well as understand, process and deftly perform in tricky situations (e.g., interpersonal conflict and office politics) without making them worse. Action underlies finesse because it deals with how people “show up” and respond in real time and points down the road.
While finesse is important for any member of an organization, it is especially critical for leaders due to the part they play in organizational performance. In my work with STEM organizations, I discovered key finesse essentials for leaders. These essentials built upon one another and had a noticeable effect. As the leaders increased their proficiency in the essentials, they were more productive in their work and created a positive, energizing environment. Leaders did not merely achieve results — the essentials enabled them to get results in the right way. Three essentials serve as the foundation for finesse.
Leverage self-awareness. This essential is the starting point for building finesse because you need to know your effect on others. With this essential, you know how your strengths and limitations affect your words and actions. For example, do you use your driven nature in the right amount or do you overuse it to the point of steamrolling people?
Some cynics argue you cannot increase self-awareness. On the contrary, I can say with certainty that self-awareness can be improved. I have seen it happen with my clients. You increase self-awareness by obtaining feedback. While gathering feedback is important, you will not get the full benefit unless you do something with this information. Specifically, draw on it to regulate your strengths and limitations (including the overuse of strengths).
Read the situation and the stakeholders. Proficiency in this essential involves more than a superficial awareness of what is going on around you. If you want to successfully connect and interact with peers, direct reports, bosses, board members, clients/customers and other business associates, a firm handshake and the willingness to express a point of view is not enough. You must set aside your viewpoint to recognize what others are saying and not saying so that you can understand their perspectives and the emotions associated with them. When you do this, you tune in to what their concerns are, what sets them off, what their likes/dislikes are and what gets them to engage.
In circumstances with multiple participants, you pay attention to group dynamics. You understand the power bases that different stakeholders possess and political behavior they demonstrate in the collective. You also have a feel for the climate and culture of the organization. With this knowledge, you can formulate potent strategies for what you face.
Anticipate the impact. This essential enables you to consistently motivate direct reports, persuade VIPs and hold others accountable. When you are proficient in this capability, you estimate the effect of your words and actions before putting them in play. For example, how likely are you to get buy-in from the CEO with your influence strategy? How much will employees feel energized versus micromanaged by the way you plan to engage them? By applying this essential, you ensure you use the best approach to obtain the desired outcome. The first two essentials help you efficiently anticipate impact.
Leadership finesse can decrease churn and make STEM organizations a more robust part of the STEM continuum. The three preceding essentials serve as the cornerstone.
Note: This is an updated version of the article that originally appeared in Forbes.
Ryan Lahti is the managing principal of OrgLeader and author of The Finesse Factor: How to Build Exceptional Leaders in STEM Organizations being published in early 2019. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM organization tweets here: @ryanlahti
(Photo: Communication, Pixabay)