The scenario is familiar: a stellar performer is promoted into management… only to crash and burn. So, why does this happen again and again? And what can businesses do to prevent it?
Recognizing the Value of Soft Skills
It is true that not everyone is born with the exact set of skills to be a great leader. In fact, hardly anyone is. As the axiom says, great leaders are not born, they are made.
Developing exceptional technical skills in a chosen career field is certainly one way to build toward a leadership position, but companies are realizing this type of direct experience is not the end-all of qualifications. In fact, in some cases it can be one of the least important factors.
Decades of organizational research shows “soft skills” are just as important as hard skills, if not more so. Soft skills are, by definition, someone’s interpersonal skills. They are the skills that you can’t infer from reading through a resume, for example, but that are abundantly clear during a job interview or any other face-to-face meeting.
In a 2016 Deloitte survey, more than 90% of respondents rated soft skills as a “critical priority”. Soft skills can improve the reputation and effectiveness of leadership, increase levels of employee retention, and foster an engaging and dynamic company culture. And it follows to reason that the lack of soft skills by a company’s leadership will negatively impact those same areas.
Communication: The Foundational Soft Skill
It is helpful to think of communication as the foundational soft skill, the one that all others are built upon. If an individual cannot express themselves, their ideas, or their vision, they are ill-equipped to lead a team.
When most of us hear the phase ‘communication skills’, the default assumption is that the person is talking is referencing verbal skills. After all, verbal communication is the most immediately obvious of all communication skills and the one that is often assumed to propel someone into leadership. Everyone knows that leaders must be articulate and persuasive.
But there the category of communication skills is a broad one that includes both verbal and nonverbal communication. So, what do these skills look like in action?
Effective Communication – Leadership Edition
Clearly, it is the job of leadership to communicate the mission, vision, and goals of the company to workforce they lead and the outside world. But this essential communication is actually built upon the foundation of smaller, more intimate, communication skills and behaviors:
- Set and communicate clear goals. SMART goals are proven work best, but even the best goals fall flat if they aren’t properly communicated and understood by your team, and if their missteps are not addressed.
- Control meeting length. There may be no easier way to build appreciation among your staff than to eliminate needless meetings and keep the essential ones to a minimum. If you are leading the meeting, control the message, and keep the conversation on point and relevant. If you’re not in the lead, still do your best to support those goals and demonstrate to all that you value their time.
- Stop talking. Believe it or not, sometimes exceptional verbal communication skills are actually detrimental to leadership. Do you have a reputation as someone who likes the sound of their own voice? Remember that communication isn’t all about what emanates from and out of you. Listening to others is a full 50% of the communication process.
- Tailor your message. This is also referred to as knowing your audience. The best leaders can sense when their intended message isn’t getting through – usually by reading the non-verbal communication cues in the room – and change tactics midstream.
- Build rapport. Demonstrate empathy and communicate on a personal level with your team. This non-business communication doesn’t have to be excessive, but it must come from a genuine place.
- Be a trusted voice. Set an example of honesty. If you’re not an expert on a given topic, don’t present yourself as one. An honest communicator can say, “I don’t know, but I can get back to you,” or “That’s a great question, let’s bring in Marie, who is a subject matter expert.”
- Communicating praise and appreciation. In the example above, did Marie help you close a deal or keep a current customer happy? Thank her publicly and, ideally, in writing so it can be passed around. Good leaders praise and share accolades with their team.
For business leaders, effective communication is multi-faceted skill that may take time to develop, but one that can yield rewards to those who commit to it.
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