We’re living in an age of flatter hierarchies! And that’s often something to be celebrated, especially when it comes to the ways we lead and learn. We’re no longer told what to do and how to develop by a select few at the top of the tree…
But that poses a new challenge: We all need to hone our leadership skills so we can lead the things we need to lead well.
Let’s say you’re heading up part of a project or you’re the subject matter expert for a certain topic. There are leadership traits you’ll absolutely need. Strong communication, empathy, listening skills, project management – these are all key to winning people over and moving towards a shared goal.
These are the traits we expect from our formal, official leaders, so we have to set the same expectations of ourselves when we’re leading the way in our flatter hierarchy.
Remember, we’re not asking everyone to become a manager
Something that often trips people up is presuming developing leadership skills means a pathway to becoming a manager. Not everyone wants to become a manager. And you don’t need everyone to be.
When someone’s responsible for progressing us towards a goal, demonstrating good leadership skills will help. In the moments where they need to lead, we want to equip them with the tools to do it effectively.
The big question is how do we do it.
Mentoring programs and stretch assignments seem to be the common cop-out answers, and they’re useful tools, but building leadership skills comes through regular daily behaviours.
Being mentored for four weeks doesn’t make you a good leader for the next four years at your company. And a stretch assignment followed by a four-month break before leading the next project makes you rusty.
Leadership skills are a muscle that atrophies, so you need to start asking yourself how you can set your people up for the managerial reps and sets that mean they’re always at fighting weight…
We’ve put together a few ideas for building leadership skills in your employees, and hopefully, they’ll give you a flat hierarchy with t-shirt stretching leadership guns.
Encourage internal mobility and leverage internal experts
Leaders aren’t good leaders because they know everything, they’re often good at knowing people’s skills and asking the right questions.
And we should give our employees the same freedom in building leadership skills. If they’re responsible for a goal or part of a project, encourage them to leverage the experts around them.
Maybe that means working with project managers to build a strategy framework that wins people over from the get-go. It could be tapping into the design or marketing teams to amp up the messaging. Collaborating and using subject matter experts are things we should be doing all the time, whether we’re leaders or not.
Build independent review and evaluation questions
Everyday behaviours don’t always come with or factor into our formal reviews. Today, you led a call, and nobody asked how it went or prompted you to think about it in detail.
So, if you’re going to develop leadership skills, you have to become accustomed to doing that yourself. Even if a manager review in two weeks asks for your thoughts, the moment has passed, and you’re lacking the context of the moment.
Questions you can ask to collect internal feedback are things like: Did I set expectations? Did I give others time to speak? Were the next steps clear?
With nobody asking you that critically, it can be hard to be critical of yourself. But if you’re a people leader or working in an L&D team, you can provide the guidance and resources that get people doing this themselves.
And if it becomes a habit in a culture that’s open to giving feedback to leaders, others might organically give people advice and constructive criticism following those calls.
Provide psychological safety for people to make mistakes
If we fail fast, we learn fast. But if the culture doesn’t nurture that mindset or behaviour, we fail once and never try again.
Given that leadership isn’t an exact science and is so often influenced by context outside our direct control, we have to be okay with every idea not being a roaring success.
You tried a round robin for a kick-off call, and it was just too chaotic – lesson learnt. Let’s do something more structured next time. The important thing is to understand why it didn’t work and whether it was a good fit for your leadership style.
Leadership’s also not a ‘throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks’ approach.
When we’re offering people the chance to act as leaders, we have to encourage them to understand the problem and be able to communicate the why. Not just for our sakes but everyone involved in the project.
Essentially we’re building better problem solvers and people who are comfortable failing if it means they can learn fast and improve next time.
Try small scale approaches and scale them if they work
Now, there’s psychological safety and saying ‘roll this half-formed idea out to everyone at the next company all hands’.
People need structure and guidance to test things on a small scale when they’re building leadership skills. It lowers the pressure and perceived consequences if it doesn’t go as expected.
So, maybe you give them a small group of five to work through an idea with. They pitch their solution to a problem, roll it out on a small scale, and collect critical feedback.
If it worked, refine it and roll it out on a larger scale. If it didn’t, you’ve not invested a huge amount of time and resources into something destined to fail.
And you’ve also not broken the spirit of someone who was super enthusiastic about their idea only for it to miss the mark in front of a huge audience.
Send people off to experience new leaders
We’re often asked the question of how we build leadership skills in OUR workplace or OUR organisation, and it’s easy to get trapped in an insular mindset.
Of course, context is great – we want people to learn leadership skills that are relevant to our business and the problems we face. But even the most detached industries can teach us new ways of approaching things.
The boxer who trained in ballet. The golfer who used taekwondo to improve his game. The billionaire who built a rocket rather than buying one after being inspired by the commodities market. These are all real-life examples of how seemingly left-field pursuits elevated others to a new level.
We’re asking people to become problem solvers, communicators, strategists, and so much more. And exposure to new ways of doing that can only benefit them and your company (if you test them on a small scale, of course.)
Focus on the goal and become agile to achieve it
Effective leaders are not only great at plotting a course but adjusting the route when the situation around them changes.
The goal and plan were built around launching a new product, but suddenly we have to focus on developing the features of our current offering before a new customer launches. We not only have to communicate that switch effectively, we have to convince others to drop what they’re doing and ensure they see the value in doing so.
And it’s a leadership skill we can all develop by asking a few simple questions: What’s needed to reach our current goal right now? What can I do to add value right now?
Read What Your Leadership Development Strategy Needs! A Guide For The Modern World Of Work
Check out our other leadership development resources
- What Your Leadership Development Strategy Needs! A Guide For The Modern World Of Work
- 11 tips for building great leadership courses, which you can apply today!
- How to use mentoring and coaching to drive your employee development
- Collaborative leadership: Could a learning platform be your secret weapon for shared success?
- The mentor and mentee relationship should be a two-way street
- How to develop leadership skills in style! 6 traits you need and a template to get there
- Creating a leadership development plan that takes you to the top
- Why leadership development training is the making of your managers (at all levels)
- Four leadership trends successful managers must follow in 2022
- Modern workplaces are different! So mentoring’s role, purpose and benefits must be too
- Five winning employee mentoring approaches and how to find the best type for your team
- Want to lead with impact and intent? Start with your awareness gap!
- How to build leadership skills in new managers: 7 ideas you’ll actually use