Skill vs Will
The answer a leader must know when dealing with struggling employees
By Nathan Jamail
So often leaders say they have a person who is not performing to their ability or to an acceptable level. The first question I ask the leaders is, “Is it a lack of will or lack of skill?”. This is a very important question when trying to figure out how to address that struggling employee (sometimes this may even be an employee that at one time was at the top of their game). So what does the question mean? When an employee is struggling, with almost any situation, the leader is seeing either a lack of will issue or a lack of skill issue and the differentiation is key.
I once had an employee named Mike (for this stories’ sake). Mike was a guy that appeared to be pretty talented and seemed to have all of the right answers, but he was constantly lacking in his results and he always seemed to have a good excuse as to why he was lacking; though none of his excuses where his fault. That was (or should have been) my first clue. Now Mike had the knowledge and the experience but unfortunately he lacked the will. In discussions he would have his plan (a good one too) and he had good intentions, but at the end of the day he was unwilling to do the activities to execute his plan. Mike is a perfect example of a person that has the skill but lacks the will. I sat down with Mike and I told him exactly that, “The reason you are failing is not your lack of ability but it is your lack of willingness to fight; your lack of will”. I could not change Mike’s will, only he could do that, but my job as the leader was to take the option out of the equation. I told Mike, “I can help you with skill but your will is your decision and you must know that your decision has consequences”. I reminded him of what he would have to be willing to do and believe in to be a part of this team and that he cannot fake it, he must believe it. I encouraged Mike to find a place (if it wasn’t on my team) where he can work and find that will; where the reward is worth the effort and then he would find his will. I also educated him of an alternative; to find an organization that a person’s will did not matter, (although I do not think this environment will give him much motivation, it is just an environment he could survive in and I let him know that).
Our will is based on what we are willing to do to achieve our goals or to do our jobs as required and, really, above what is required. As leaders we can teach a person the skill if they have the will to learn and do what it takes.
What about a lack of skill- can we teach everyone? My answer is no. Not everybody can be great at everything. A person must have the talents and the attributes that fit the skill sets of their job. For example you can try to teach me everything about being an accountant, but regardless of your teachings I will most likely fail. Why? Because it is not what I am good at, in fact I would be terrible. I heard Steve Harvey say once. “Don’t follow your passion unless it is your gift” He said, “Find your gift and have passion for your gift.” The key as a leader is to find those with talent, maybe raw talent and a will to do what it takes to be successful and teach them. Yes you can have your cake and eat it too.
Remember Mike? After our conversation he reluctantly decided to find a new organization to work for and at the time he felt I was the biggest jerk in the world. I saw Mike a few years later and he said, “I wanted to thank you for what you did for me. Although I hated you for it at the time, I learned that I do have a will to be great and I found a job that gives me that fuel”. I don’t think Mike will ever send me a Christmas Card, but I am grateful that I was able to help Mike-help himself- be successful in his career.
As leaders we have to make sure that our people are not just working because they need a paycheck or more importantly that they are staying at a job because they need a paycheck or don’t think they can do anything else. Be that leader that helps them learn that working without will or passion is a bad decision based on their fear. Like we tell our kids, own your future- never let fear determine your future, rather use that fear as the fuel to make your future more incredible than imagined.