My recent interview with a highly successful, technology CEO who I will call “Annie” was filled with wisdom from a leader with grit. Here are some excerpts of what she says she has learned about leadership:

"I used to not pay attention to clients when one said to me on the phone: 'Hey, can we have a sidebar about this?'"

She used to wonder what was up. Was this going to be time-consuming? A flirtation? Was it something inappropriate and behind the scenes?

 "They wanted to communicate something off the record, something personal or confidential that was not transactional. Maybe they wanted to see how I thought about something. I didn’t used to understand that I had to spend time developing relationships, letting clients get comfortable with who I am, what I’m about. That is what they come back to – a person they know and trust, not just a product or a good idea. You can’t jump immediately into transactions, or offer critical assessments of situations and offer solutions. You have to spend time getting to know people, developing relationships and then you can do business together."

Clearly Annie is very capable of self-reflection and has an openness to change. Over time, she realized the importance of mutual respect, trust, and relationships, not just brains.

"In business school, I never liked courses in organizational behavior because they were the “soft stuff." Rather, I wanted to be clear, evidence-based, and solution oriented. We were taught to be transactional, which is also important, most definitely.  In fact, I would really encourage young people to build their technical skills, coding skills, math skills, etc. However, in addition, as you take on leadership roles over time, the subtle, soft skills and relationship-based skills are what you need to refine and you need to learn to engage those skills at the right time. Success requires different perspectives and behaviors as you move up and they can be challenging to learn if they don’t come naturally."

"The soft stuff," as Annie calls it, has been called by many different names. Consider emotional intelligence, social intelligence, practical intelligence, interpersonal skills, perceptiveness, bedside manner, and more. Academics argue whether emotional intelligence is simply “personality plus intelligence” or something different, and whether or not it can be readily changed. So, did Annie change?

"I got feedback from my direct reports that I was too tough, too task-oriented and did not care to get to know about them and how they were doing personally. It was hard to hear that about myself but it was true. So I learned to go around and talk to people to find out about their lives and what could be better for them and how they felt about their work. It was very important to them and I had overlooked it."

Annie started out with a somewhat rigid posture, almost abrasive, in her thinking about and relating to others. After listening to critical feedback she began appreciating the "soft" side of business and relationships. She did what a lot of people do: Get feedback, mull it over, figure out what to do and how to do it, and put it into practice. But, let’s get back to considering whether this soft stuff can be learned and carried off with effectiveness in everyone. My answer might surprise you. It’s yes and no; it depends. Now, I've seen countless executives increase their power and success learning to understand, respect, and relate to others in a more effective way. On some occasions, however, this type of change does not occur. Why not?

First, some people firmly believe with all sincerity that the problem is with other people, not themselves. Or, they are so overwrought by the problem with other people that they do not see why changing themselves would even be beneficial. Second, some people are given mixed messages. They are told they should change something but then no one really requires that they do so. And, it is much easier to simply avoid change. Third, some people’s gifts are so great (e.g., CEOs who have a fantastic relationship with investors and are very charming, surgeons with unique talents who save lives, and sales people who can sell anything to anyone) that powerful others are unwilling to force requirements upon them for fear of losing these irreplaceable gifts. Fourth, the person actually gets feedback; but, it is not offered in a way that’s useful or actionable (e.g., “You are a jerk.”) Fifth, those with significant power in the organization are simply not in agreement with one another as to how bad the behavior is, how much it interferes with performance, and whether offering an ultimatum is really a good idea. Sixth, the person has some power over their boss that neither of them would want to reveal to anyone. Seventh, someone high up in the chain of command says, “Hey, do we really want to put so much emphasis on this soft stuff?" Dealing with the many reasons why people don’t change the soft stuff requires more than just good coaching skills; it requires a consultant who is willing to take risks with their client organization to point out to those in power what is behind the failed change.

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