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Beyond Functional Expertise: A Business Imperative for Today’s Leaders


“People begin to become leaders at that moment when they decide for themselves how to be.” –Warren Bennis

Functional expertise is the price of entry for executives in today’s world. Creating the environment, however, where talented, engaged employees have passion, drive, and the ability to proactively shape a company’s success goes far beyond functional expertise. In this day and age, to excel in a leadership role and display real value to an organization, executives must become adept at mobilizing human energy, shaping culture, and leading change. The individuals who master these skills, who are capable of tapping into employees’ discretionary effort to drive productivity levels and bottom-line results, will distinguish themselves as top-tier leaders.

While building these skills is not as straightforward as building functional knowledge, they can be both learned and sharpened. Indeed, the development of these skills should not be left to chance; though they have historically been characterized as “soft skills” that are “nice to do,” they have become a cornerstone of what is needed to achieve business success in today's marketplace. This white paper explores these skills in more depth and provides ideas for strengthening them in the competency portfolio of line executives.

The Case for Change

Unfortunately, the term “soft skills” seems to have been attributed to those elements of human and organizational dynamics that move organizations. I say unfortunately, because the term implies a judgment on both the value of the skills and on the ease of their use. The word “soft” is often associated with weakness, as in a person “going soft” as opposed to being “hard nosed”; or with a lack of discipline: being “soft in the middle” as opposed to “hard bodied” or fit. Reducing these skills to such insignificance ignores a growing body of evidence which suggests that purposeful management of human dynamics has a very real impact on the bottom line.

For example, in 1999, KPMG conducted a global study exploring what made successful merger/acquisition ventures possible1 (success being defined as “comparative share performance one year after deal completion”). They found that 83% of mergers and acquisitions do not realize the shareholder value promised in the original letter of intent. Given the stakes involved in these transactions, that failure rate is staggering. However, the study also found that organizations which prioritized “hard” business elements like integration planning and due diligence equally with “soft” business elements like people and cultural issues delivered the strongest value, and had the greatest rate of success.

The word “equally” in that last sentence cannot be stressed enough. None of this is to suggest that functional skills and traditional business competencies are not important. However, a compelling question for leaders to ask of themselves is whether they are giving equal importance to the interpersonal and change leadership dimensions of their role. Given that the number one reason employees choose to stay with their current employer—above compensation, above benefits, above perks—is their relationship with their manager2, it is important to ask if your organization is considering interpersonal effectiveness equally with functional expertise when considering promotions and succession plans. Additionally, given that, “an energized, creative and productive workforce is one of the key elements of a high-performing business,”3 it is important to ask if your company is doing enough to ensure that executives are well equipped to engage the workforce and inspire performance. In the face of such evidence, and more, executives can no longer afford to let their development in these areas happen by chance.

>>Click here to download the full PDF.<<


  1. KPMG. (1999). Unlocking Shareholder Value: The Keys to Success. 

  2. Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First Break All the Rules. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. 

  3. Accenture. (2003) The Accenture High-Performance Workforce Study 2002-2003. 

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