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The Skills Leaders at Every Level Need

leaders at every level logoDon’t wait until it’s too late! It’s never too early to get started with building the skills leaders at every level need. Reasons you don’t want to wait too long include: 

  • It takes time to introduce, build and practice leadership behaviors.
  • You need strong leaders who are “ready now” when key positions open.
  • Bad habits form and settle deep if better alternatives aren’t offered. Then you’ve got build in additional time, coaching, and self-awareness for unlearning old skills before building new ones.
  • People who value leadership development will go elsewhere in pursuit of it. 

 But, wait, that’s not all! When senior executives have not acquired leadership skills, they don’t lead effectively. They fail to set the vision and inspire others. Ultimately, this seriously limits the potential of all people in the organization and may also inhibit innovation and growth of the organization. 

The Reasons You Aren’t Already Developing Leaders at Every Level 

Graphic Showing Icons of Listen Learn and LoveIf you, personally, believe it takes natural-born characteristics to be a leader, then you won’t easily warm up to the idea of developing leadership in all employees. That would seem wasteful and foolish. Research, however, tells a different story. 

Sure, some natural characteristics lend themselves to showing up as a leader. But real, sustainable, effective leadership is a result of behaviors (not charisma, being a “people person,” or any other characteristic). What’s more, every person has some characteristics that make some of these desirable leadership behaviors accessible to them. 

It’s just that we have stereotypes, perceptions, and misunderstandings about what it takes to lead. Learning about the research and evidence-based framework for leadership will help you see how everyone leads, at certain times and in certain ways. When you offer leadership development, you’re helping people identify and liberate the leader within. 

Another reason organizations fail to develop leaders at every level is fear that those same people will leave. The fear is that employees who are trained to lead will become impatient for promotions and take their newfound leadership abilities elsewhere. 

That may be true, in some cases. Here are your alternatives: 

  1. Don’t develop leadership skills. Then you’ve got two problems: people leave because they weren’t feeling supported by development opportunities AND you’ve got to recruit from outside your organization for both the roles requiring leadership skills and the ones you have to fill due to unnecessarily high turnover. 
  1. Promote everyone you develop as a leader. This is the flawed premise behind 9-box models that attempt to categorize people by performance and potential. It may seem logical to handpick who you’ll develop, but this is inherently limiting and excludes people who might respond better and may be more dedicated to the organization. It also sets up disappointments. If you explicitly or implicitly link future opportunities to leadership development, you’re triggering the impatience for promotions that will accelerate departures. 

Neither alternative makes sense for long-term business success. 

Or maybe you’re withholding leadership development because you have one, some or all of these concerns (reported by a Forbes 2020 article): 

  • Not everyone has the skill to lead.
  • Some people don’t want to lead.
  • If everyone thinks they’re a leader, too many people will be directing others and not enough people will be dong the actual work.
  • Having too many leaders creates confusion (“too many cooks in the kitchen spoils the broth”).
  • Developing leaders is resource-intensive and isn’t a good investment except for those who have already proven themselves worthy. 

The misperceptions come from defining leadership too narrowly. There’s a big difference between leadership and management! When you expand your definition, you’ll be thinking in terms of self-leadership, peer leadership, project leadership, and leadership among colleagues, customers, and other constituent groups throughout the organization. 

In our experience and work with organizations that are reluctant to offer leadership development experiences, the biggest obstacle is often a feeling of being overwhelmed. It’s not easy to get consensus or clarity about where to begin, who to include, what to cover, how to measure results, and how to position these efforts. Add in the challenges related to getting executive sponsorship, funding, and time needed for program delivery… It’s daunting! 

That’s why we’re offering this CONNECT2Lead series, Leaders at Every Level. In each of these 13 articles, we’re breaking down the real and perceived obstacles to developing the skills leaders at every level need. We’re covering all the bases of why and how to prioritize this in organizations of all sizes. 

7 Starter Skills Leaders at Every Level Need 

Leadership isn’t about charm, charisma or any special personality make-up. Leaders are effective when they demonstrate certain behaviors. The research of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner validates this and offers an evidence-based framework for leadership.

An HBR article written by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman reported on their own research with 332,860 professionals. They asked which skills have the greatest impact on a manager’s success. These are the top seven skills selected, listed in order of how often they were selected (top to bottom): 

  • Inspires and motivates others
  • Displays high integrity and honesty
  • Solves problems and analyzes issues
  • Drives for results
  • Communicates powerfully and prolifically
  • Collaborates and promotes teamwork
  • Builds relationships 

These two bodies of research focus on behaviors and demonstrated skills. It’s what leaders DO that determines how effective they will be. 

Note that the Zenger/Folkman research was related to manager skills. So why extend this to leaders at every level? Two reasons: First, why wait until people are in management roles to give them management skills? Second, before getting management titles, many people in organizations manage projects, change, relationships, and themselves. These are vital skills that boost organizational effectiveness when displayed by managers AND when others are also capable of these same skills. 

It's worth noting that all seven of these rank higher than the next skill on the Zenger/Folkman list: displays technical or professional expertise. Sadly, that one gets far more attention and priority than it should (relative to the first seven). 

Also noteworthy – all seven of these skills are soft, transferable skills. They aren’t the skills taught in degree programs or traditional onboarding. Inside organizations, there are few learning experiences dedicated to these critical skills. They don’t appear often enough in job interviews, job descriptions or performance appraisals. 

Instead, they’re lumped under inaccurate descriptors like “personality” or “potential.” They’re not viewed by organizations as teachable or as the responsibility of organizations to teach. 

As a result, if someone lacks these skills, too bad. They won’t be seen as promotable. Or, worse yet, they’ll be promoted but will hit a roadblock because they’re “not a people person” or some other unfair label that’s nearly impossible to shake. 

All seven of those skills are teachable, learnable and acquirable. But awareness of their importance and encouragement to pursue development of skills leaders at level need comes first. 

How to Build Soft Skills and Transferable Skills 

Resources abound for building soft and transferable skills. For example, People First Leadership Academy offers 40+ free and affordable courses. They come in a variety of formats to meet the learning needs of various learners – self-paced eLearning, instructor-led workshops, 1:1 coaching, and immersion experiences are all available here! 

For most adults, there’s a reluctance to acknowledge a gap in soft skills. Having invested in education and career experience to develop the hard skills for a chosen profession, it’s often surprising to learn that it’s not enough. Being well-rounded, though, is the best way to enhance any career. 

Before launching large-group training sessions for soft skills, it’s best to offer assessment that identifies areas of need and interest. Since there may already be some reluctance, you’ll want to build buy-in and demonstrate the need for your soft skills offerings. 

Small groups are individual learning are often better choices than generic, large-group sharing. Introducing concepts and building in skills practice will accelerate adoption of new habits that become stronger soft skills.

 Additionally, you’ll want to offer a menu of options. Someone who needs to develop emotional intelligence may not benefit from a course on critical thinking (and vice-versa). Keep in mind that most people are prone to selecting what’s interesting to them (vs. needed). A fear of exposure may also keep people from self-selecting the courses they need most. Here’s where the assessment will really help! 

As with any learning, it’s also important to build in safety. As people step outside their comfort zones, they’ll feel a bit vulnerable. This is doubly important to consider with soft skills development. It’s one thing to be exposed for not knowing a high-level technical skill. It’s entirely different to feel exposed for not being a good communicator or to be seen as someone who lacks interpersonal skills. 

When there’s an opportunity and expectation for everyone in the organization to identify gaps and strengthen soft skills, you’ll get more momentum and buy-in. Most are strongly motivated by reskilling for the creation of leadership at every level, so this commitment will become a springboard for heightening interest in soft skills development work (which is also leadership development work!). 

Looking for a shortcut to being introducing the idea of leadership at every level in your organization? Check out Self Empowered™, a course designed specifically for leaders at every level.