My role involves a lot of personal development planning with a variety of senior leaders. This often includes a personality assessment to help them understand their natural tendencies. I also gather feedback from the people they work with. Usually their boss, their direct reports and a selection of peers. The results are almost always the same. Many leaders start the process without a formal development plan and learn they have things to work on.
Most development resources are invested in improving hard skills. These are the technical skills required in the role. For leaders, this could be strategic planning, risk analysis, visioning, amongst many others. In the work I describe above, I can’t remember a single leader getting feedback they need to work on their hard, technical skills. The feedback always centers on their soft skills. And the leaders with well developed soft skills get the most positive feedback.
Soft skills are the most challenging to learn
When I say soft, I am not simply talking about being nice to people. Soft skills are the ones that are often the most challenging to learn. Some of the most common ones I see leaders work on include:
- Increasing the amount of positive conflict in their group. Positive conflict involves confronting people in a direct and respectful conversation. Some leaders avoid conflict. Others have no problem with it but leave the other person bruised.
- Influencing peers over whom they have no positional authority. This often involves building stronger relationships to understand what is important to them. From there we can start to close the gap and align on a common viewpoint.
- Staying calm under pressure. One thing we know for certain, things will turn out differently than we expected. How leaders respond in these times is critical. The organization can learn and grow. Alternatively, the organization can retreat in fear of being blamed.
- Increasing the number of networking conversations. Collaboration is becoming more and more important. The breadth and strength of your network is key for any leader. This can generate more support or provide a sounding board to challenge their thinking.
Getting to the next level
Coming back to the title of this post, your soft skills are what will get you to the next level. This is what shapes how others see you and leadership is all about enrolling others to follow you. This involves building strong relationships where you can have the difficult conversations.
What soft skills are you working on? The best leaders never stop developing them and it shows.