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How to develop leadership skills in style! 6 traits you need and a template to get there

Are some people just born to lead? Perhaps. But is that to say that if you haven’t made it as a manager yet, you never will? Absolutely not.

Leadership skills are those essential traits and competencies that all successful leaders share — and they are well within your reach. Because when you boil it down, how to develop leadership skills is all about being open to learning. And if you’re here reading this blog, then you’re halfway there already.

Why leadership development matters: 9 statistics you should know

Leadership just isn’t in the development crosshairs for a lot of companies, the numbers below tell us that! But those companies are missing a trick, because leadership really matters when it comes to employee engagement, retention and business performance – here are nine statistics that help you understand why:

  • “Fewer than half of leaders feel they are effective in leadership skills that will be most critical for future success. Even worse, they aren’t getting development in the skills they need most urgently.” (Global Leadership Forecast 2021).
  • How leaders want to learn: External coaching (48%), developmental assignments (48%), assessments to diagnose leadership strengths (42%), formal in-person training (39%).  (Global Leadership Forecast 2021).
  • Only 10% of CEOs believe their company’s leadership development initiatives have a clear business impact. (Source).
  • 63% of Millennials said their leadership skills were not being fully developed. (Source).
  • 83% of organisations say it’s important to develop leaders at all levels. (Source).
  • And only 19% of organisations say they’re “very effective” at developing leaders. (Source).
  • 58% of managers say they didn’t receive any management training. (MDA Training).
  • Managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units. (Gallup State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders).
  • 81% of employees reporting to recently trained managers said they were more engaged in their jobs. (Source).

6 leadership skills you’ll need to step up as a manager

Everyone has their own approach, style and unique management skills that they develop over time. That said, there are a number of soft skills you’ll need to master throughout your leadership development journey. Those are:

Communication

Sometimes you need to close down Slack and talk face-to-face. Great leaders excel in all forms of communication — written and verbal, formal and informal. Colleagues will take on board how you do it and look to you as a role model, whether that’s managing client communication or in how you talk to your teams.

Strong communication skills are essential to develop as a soon-to-be manager as they underpin all of the other leadership traits covered in this list.

Dependability

Speaking of leadership role modelling, everything you do as a manager will help shape the culture and expectations within your team (no pressure!). 

Is it important to you that everyone shows up by 9am? Then you’d better be there on the dot (if not before!). Want to foster a culture of psychological safety and transparency? Then speak up yourself; show your knowledge gaps and how you’re planning to fill them.

Reliability and trustworthiness are key to getting, and keeping, your colleagues on-side — which leads us on to…

Motivation

Leadership requires a balance between supporting your teams and creating commercial success. So you’ll need to hone your motivational skills sooner rather than later.

You’ll have both intrinsic and extrinsic levers at your disposal (or put simply motivation that comes either from within and externally) and one may come more naturally to you than the other. Extrinsic motivation can be achieved in the form of financial bonuses and status symbols, like better job titles and promotions. Intrinsic motivators, on the other hand, will help connect employees to their deeper passions, interests and values.

Being empathetic to a colleague’s personal motivators will set you in good stead to triumph as a manager.

Conflict and crisis management

It’s easy to lead a team when everything’s going smoothly but what happens when you hit choppy waters? Your leadership skills are really put to the test when a crisis or conflict arises!

Some disagreements are relatively minor – like not seeing eye-to-eye on the tagline for a new marketing campaign. Others have the potential to derail a team’s progress entirely. As a good leader, you’ll need to recognise the signs of brewing tension and contempt, and then work hard to resolve them before the whole thing blows up.

Critical thinking

You might not need to step in as a mediator if you’re spotting trends, evolving situations and potential problems within your teams. Critical thinking encourages that proactive mindset, where you’re also spotting opportunities earlier and while it’s still beneficial for everyone to jump on them. By anticipating change, you can help the team manage and prepare for it – so that people are happier and more productive as their roles and responsibilities evolve.

Listening and following

If your door’s always open but you’re not hearing anything people say as they stroll through it, you might as well close it. Good leaders recognise that there’s just as much they can learn from their employees, whether that’s about a subject they’re an expert in, brainwaves they’ve had and want to share or an experience they want to discuss with you.

Listening and following their suggestions and ideas is a great way to recognise that they’re taking the initiative, keeping them engaged and enthusiastic. It’s also crucial in creating an open culture, driving learning, creating a rapport and building your relationship as a leader. 

How to develop leadership skills at every stage of your career

Improving leadership skills isn’t a ‘one and done’ process. Great managers are committed to continuous improvement and ongoing self-development. As Darwin E. Smith, who was CEO of personal care juggernaut Kimberly-Clark for 20 years, once said: “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.”

But how do you take your first steps?

Assess your current strengths and weaknesses

Firstly, you need to ascertain which leadership skills you already possess and which you need to work on. Spoiler alert: even the skills you think you’ve perfected today would benefit from further development, we’re never the finished article.

This doesn’t have to be a fancy exercise. Simply mapping it out with pen and paper will do the trick. Or if you are looking to get fancy, you could use HowNow to build a 360-degree skill profile based on peer and self-review? We even benchmark live job roles to help you benchmark your skills against those in demand and work out how to close that leadership skill gap. Here’s a bit more about our skills engine.

Look for leadership opportunities everywhere

Now that you know what you need to develop, next you need to work out where and when.

There’s never a shortage of leadership development opportunities, but you may need to take the initiative and seize those chances for yourself. Can you lead on a new internal initiative, for example? Or could you act as a mentor for someone more junior in the organisation?

You could flip that completely upside down and seek out mentors within your organisation. That’s tapping into the power of social learning, leveraging the wisdom of other effective leaders and subject matter experts within your bank of colleagues. In those cases, you’re learning from their tacit knowledge and experiences relating directly to your product or company.

Ask for feedback

Excellent leaders appreciate the value of frequent feedback. Gather insights from those you work with — upward, downward and peer-to-peer intel included! Only then will you know how well you’re performing as a developing leader. 

This feedback may even help highlight skills you didn’t know you had.

A leadership development template for your business (and what to do at each stage)

The above advice is more about what individuals can do to become great leaders. But if you’re the CEO or a director in a company, how are you going to find potential leaders, ensure they’re developing the right skills and do it in a structured or measurable way? This template should help you out!

How To Develop Leaders And Their Skills - A TemplateWork out where you need leaders and the traits they require

Start by asking yourself three fairly straightforward questions:

  • What are our company goals? 
  • How are we planning to get there? 
  • And what roles will leaders need to play in helping us do it?

It’s a lot like planning a great road trip! You remind yourself of the exciting end point, but you need to plan the route and the right people to get you along it as smoothly as possible. 

The thing is, road trips are rarely this straightforward. You need to work out who’s your best map reader, when you’ll stop for fuel and, most importantly, who’s in charge of the snacks and playlist!

So, it’s worth applying the same mindset to each department to work out where their needs differ. You also need to consider the company culture and how that influences the way leaders act, as well as whether or not there’s an existing leadership style within the business. If so, where does it work and where does it fall down?

Ask, listen and reflect 

You do all of the above and presume you’ve worked out where you’ll need leaders and the skills it’s crucial they possess. But do the people they’ll be leading and working with agree? They’re on the frontline each day, working towards those goals and really feeling the hurdles that make accomplishing them more difficult.

And that’s why it’s crucial you add in a step to collect their thoughts. Otherwise, you might mould somebody into a leader who just doesn’t click with the team. Present your ideas, ask for their input and then take the time to reflect. If you need to adjust your leadership development goals, this is the time to do it. Plus, you’ll help employees feel more involved and like their opinions are valued. 

Address experience gaps

Think about any elite sports player, their success doesn’t just come down to skill. Mindset matters, so does temperament and a lot of the time it’s about experience too. 

When you’re working out what your leaders need, it’s important to recognise that having skills and applying them are two different things. For example, somebody might have studied mediation from cover to cover, but how much experience have they got putting that into practice?

Look out for future leaders

By this point, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you need from a leader. So, it’s worth working out who in the team is showing the right traits and potential to step into that role. 

It’s no secret that upskilling people and promoting talent from within is far cheaper than recruiting a new employee. But that also shows a commitment to employee development and helps drive that famous duo of engagement and retention. 

At the same time, it’s worth analysing your current leadership team – where are they right now? Is there further room for them to develop? Can anyone be held up as a beacon of why stepping into leadership shoes is more memory foam sole than blisters on the heels?

Build your list of leadership and development skills

It’s time to formalise everything above into concrete goals and objectives! Whether that’s on a general, departmental or individual level – a lot of that will depend on how many leaders you need to build to reach your overall objectives.

Of course, they need to be specific and measurable BUT you also need to establish how you’ll measure them and the metrics that indicate success. It’s important that you’re transparent about them, to encourage people to buy-in, and that you shout about the progress and successes as they happen.

Determine which methods promise the best outcomes

Naturally, this links back to everything you’ve established about your goals and budding leaders, so you’ve got to work out which method aligns best. 

  • Mentoring and coaching: Pairing potential leaders with a mentor who boasts relevant skills and experience.
  • In-person/formal training: Sending employees off for courses that promise to provide training in the relevant skills.
  • Learning groups and workshops: Bringing like-minded people, those looking to build similar skills or share their experiences, together to work on activities that help them develop the required traits and talents.
  • Self-directed learning: Providing people with access to resources that enable them to learn independently. Of course, this requires you to build in reviews and assessments to the process at some point.
  • Job shadowing: Especially useful in situations of succession planning, but also helpful when someone needs to build on the job experiences and see how the leadership role works in practice.
  • Professional certifications and accreditations: Particularly helpful when credibility and the weight of an industry body might help a leader’s influence.
  • Volunteering and community-based experiences: It might help some people if they’re given leadership scenarios outside of work pressure, especially if they’re keen to be involved in charitable causes or the local community. For example, a local school or youth centre may be looking for mentors – which could be a great way for your potential leader to apply what they’re working towards in a safer environment.

Measuring leadership development

And not just at the end of the process! It’s so important that you’re measuring progress along the way, in order to make any corrections when it looks like you’re not heading for the desired outcome. This is also incredibly useful when the company goals shift or changes happen in the organisation itself.

When you do approach the end of the process, however, it’s important to assess whether the person has built the necessary skills but also if they’re ready for that leadership role. Assignments along the way might indicate the desired progress has been made in theory, but is the individual demonstrating those traits in practice? A 360-degree review can help work this out, by asking key stakeholders to provide honest feedback alongside your thoughts and those of the learner.