Brand leaders are voicing a common frustration: that the junior executives (usually Millennials) show a lack of versatility in their communication styles.
Here are some examples (names have been changed from the real ones of course):
Meet Mary, a graduate from a top MBA program and a mid-level manager on a global brand team. She is presenting a project update to the marketing SVP and CMO.
Prior to this meeting, Mary spent most of her preparation time on the written presentation. She did not analyze her audience or articulate in a simple way her desired outcome for the meeting.
As Mary presents she comes across as scripted, too detailed and lacking personal warmth. Her audience is disengaged. After the meeting the SVP and CMO do not discuss the content of Mary’s presentation but rather her formality and rigid style.
Meet Brad, a mid-level manager on a local brand team who has repeatedly asked his boss for more visibility. Brad now has his chance to shine and is attending a research debrief with the senior execs.
Brad listens attentively to the research agency as they present. At the conclusion of the debrief the senior executives seem satisfied with the conclusions and recommendations.
Surprisingly, Brad begins to pepper the agency with questions on insignificant details of the research. It’s clear that he is trying to find holes in the methodology. His boss rolls his eyes but Brad doesn’t notice. The boss finally interrupts Brad, thanks the agency and closes the meeting.
What Went Wrong
While Mary and Brad are Millennials, this is not the problem. Both lack coaching on how to calibrate their behavior and communication styles for different audiences. While both Millennials have been told to adopt different communication styles, they do not know how to change or what to change to.
Versatility in professional settings is not an innate skill for most people. Bosses today are often too busy traveling, putting out fires, or meeting demands to give sufficient time to developing the next generation of brand executives.
It is unlikely that these middle managers will find the tools for change through a Google search or a book on Amazon. Most leadership theory speaks to the very top levels of the corporate hierarchy. There is a lack of best practice and thought leadership on developing middle managers into executive material.
Suggestions for Change
Two solutions come to mind:
- mandatory soft-skills training in business school, and
- executive coaching for mid-level managers on the job.
Soft Skills MBA
MBA students can believe that learning soft-skills is not as valuable as studying hard skills like finance or statistics. I certainly thought this until I took a mandatory organizational management course. Then I knew that what I needed to succeed at work were the soft skills.
In my nearly 20 years of working, I have never seen a middle manager get promoted because he knew how to do a conjoint analysis or calculate net present value. Astute social skills often make the difference between who gets what they want out of their career and who does not.
Coaching is often provided by organizations to employees as part of a development plan or as a reward for being high potential.
The only time in my career that I was presented with executive coaching was when I was being considered for a promotion. I saw the coaching in black or white terms – it was either a punishment for not getting the position right away or a reward for being considered for it. Then the coaching never materialized and I was really confused. It was difficult for me to take seriously that leadership development was important to that management team.
If organizations frame executive coaching as a regular component of corporate training, available to all, and free from value judgments of good or bad, it opens up the possibility of truly helping middle managers rid themselves of behaviors that hold them back.
Just telling someone to change is not going to do the job. They need help to know how to change.