Recently, I delivered a keynote address to a large group of senior government acquisition and procurement executives at a summit focused on taking their workforce to the next level. I started by defining acumen as the ability to think, decide and act effectively, and I detailed four types of acumen that are critical to success: Personal, Interpersonal, Organizational, and Motivational. Research shows that when you hold education and IQ constant, people who master these four types of acumen tend to become superstars, and those who don’t tend to derail. I challenged these leaders to take a look at how their workforce measures up in these areas.
Interestingly, organizational acumen generated a great deal of discussion, and I spent time describing how people with organizational mastery are total systems thinkers. They exhibit an understanding of how their organization works and how things influence one another. People with organizational acumen talk matter-of-factly about the value chain: people, processes, inputs, suppliers, outputs, customers, and outcomes as well as how their daily actions contribute to the larger mission. Motivational acumen, which is the ability to engage, elevate, and energize others while inspiring everyone connected to the enterprise towards a common vision, also spurred a great deal of interest as a “next step to advance to the leading edge”.
In the discussion that followed, these leaders acknowledged that the development of organizational and motivational acumen is beyond the normal technical training their workforce receives and acknowledged that they needed to take more positive steps to develop their people. As leaders responsible for buying our military’s state-of-the-art weapons systems, they recognized that having a culture that supports the innovation process and risk taking is incredibly important and they spend a lot of time on procedures and tools that encompass the majority of their focus. However, they agreed that giving people the opportunity to develop organizational and motivational mastery could be an enhancing factor for the workforce. The consensus was that there must also be good development opportunities for people to not only gain this experience but also to bring it into their work groups. Equally important to them was that leadership should acknowledge the successes and failures of people’s efforts in a positive manner in order to promote and develop greater levels of innovation and effectiveness throughout the enterprise.
The conversation then turned to how to develop organizational and motivational acumen in their everyday work environment, and I related some exercises using a basketball analogy to help them. I asked, “When practicing basketball, how much of practice time is spent doing basic drills – dribbling, lay-ups, and free-throws – compared to scrimmaging?” In my experience, it’s nearly 50-50 or greater weighted toward the basic drills. Nearly every coach will tell you that this is the case. And, every player will tell you that they would rather just scrimmage and forget the drills. But, this is the case in point!
Like a sports team, government executives are the coaches responsible for the wins and losses of their teams. Allowing teams to only scrimmage often results in less than winning performance. Practicing drills, which gets everyone out of their comfort zones to hone new behaviors (like organizational and motivational acumen), is part of the magic of a winning team. Practicing these drills is where mistakes happen, but it is also where levels of effectiveness increase. This group of executives discussed how the majority of their focus with respect to workforce development is on technical issues with less time spent on leadership skills. Yet, most of them were challenged by integrated product team, working group, or individual employee dynamics, not the technical content. The balance between technical and non-technical skill development is out-of-kilter for some members of the federal workforce. In these cases, balance needs to be restored. As on many sports teams, it’s often a player who gets promoted to coach who has limited acumen with respect to the coaching and leadership skills that are needed to win the game. This also happens in government settings, where technical prowess and program accomplishments headline resumes for promotion while leadership skills such as personal, interpersonal, organizational, and motivational mastery are considered less important when it comes time to expand people’s domain of responsibility and put them in leadership positions.
Success emerges, time and again, for organizations whose leaders institutionalize a culture of continuous learning, growth, and development. And leading edge organizations rely not only on technical excellence in career fields but also on personal, interpersonal, organizational, and motivational acumen. Balancing people’s development in all of these areas can help ensure a future workforce of highly specialized, world class, mentally agile, motivated professionals who consistently make smart business decisions and deliver timely and affordable capabilities that result in total mission success.