Contributed Column

The Manager’s Corner

by Emily Morrow

Beyond technical competency:
What you don’t know can hurt you

Consider the following: an extremely skilled accountant who is shy, hesitant, and uncomfortable with clients; the owner of a successful business who, despite wanting to have a business succession plan, does not implement one; a Harvard-educated lawyer who fails to get job offers after face-to-face interviews; two doctors with a lucrative practice who, because they can’t resolve a personal conflict, threaten the very existence of the practice they have spent decades building.

What do these have in common? Each involves individuals who are highly skilled professionally and technically, but who — for reasons unrelated to their professional and/or technical skills — are not functioning optimally in the workplace. Despite their formidable “tangible” skills, they under-perform and suffer financially, professionally, and personally. In fact, the more highly trained a person is, the more likely it is that these “intangible skills” will be the differentiator between success and failure.

These intangible skills are sometimes collectively referred to as emotional intelligence or social graces. They include the ability to communicate effectively, quickly inspire confidence in others, be an active listener, function well in a team or as a leader, be empathetic and intuitive, read situations accurately, delegate effectively, use body language as well as speech, and influence others.

Assuming technical competency alone will not ensure success, what else can you do? First, these intangible skills, just like technical and/or professional skills, can be learned. To do so requires commitment, patience, focus, and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone.

Second, I find it’s not effective to tell someone else what you perceive their deficiencies to be. Instead, try asking yourself the following questions.

  1. What are my intangible skill deficiencies (blind spots)? These are the things we don’t know about ourselves, but everyone else knows about us and doesn’t tell us. Identify a chronic problem you encounter at work; assume the problem has something to do with the way you’re managing yourself; then think about what you might do differently.
  2. Having identified a blind spot, what are my goals in terms of changing my behavior to address it?
  3. What are the realities in which I operate at work?
  4. Despite these realities, what are the opportunities for growth/change that nevertheless exist for me?
  5. What immediate steps could I commit to undertake that will move me toward achieving the goals I’ve identified? It’s best to start with simple, easily achieved goals and then keep moving the bar a bit higher. You’ll know when you’ve been successful: the feeling of accomplishment will be palpable.

Let me give you an example. Bob, the very bright Harvard-educated lawyer, spoke loudly and continuously when he met with me after failed efforts to get a job. After trying to get a word in edgewise, I asked him (as he stopped to take a breath), “How important are excellent listening skills if you want to have a successful interview?”

Following a stunned moment of silence he said, “Oh, very, very important.”

I then asked, “How would you rate your listening skills?”

Very quietly, he replied, “Not good, not good at all.”

Bob thereafter became very aware of how he managed himself in conversations and began to break a lifetime of bad communication habits. He was recently offered an excellent job in Washington.

So, if you find that, despite having well-developed technical/professional skills, you are not functioning optimally, consider these intangible skills. Indeed, what you don’t know could be hurting you. •

Emily Morrow of Shelburne provides tailored consulting services to business owners, executives, and HR professionals in a wide variety of industry sectors. She can be reached at or

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