How to improve your soft skills as a leader

How to improve your soft skills as a leader

Traditional leadership is dead; no longer can a manager bark ‘jump’ and expect their staff member to subserviently ask, ‘How high?’ Books on how to toughen-up and ace the top-down leadership approach are being replaced by a wave of titles around authenticity, empowerment and empathy. So, if you have taken stock that your churn is high, it’s probably time to invest in your soft skills – or as FBI agent turned leadership coach, Dr. Tina Carroll Garrison calls it, WD40. “It simply makes us all rub along together without causing friction, bringing out the best in each other”, she explains.

Are you lacking in soft skills?

Unlike technical skills, soft skills determine how you interact with your team; emotional intelligence, effective communication and being able to influence and motivate are all a part of the repertoire. Unfortunately, they’re also abilities not taught in your average MBA class so it requires a certain level of self-awareness to know whether or not you’re lacking in this area. However, as self-awareness is itself a soft skill, it’s like trying to sell a product to people who don’t know they need it.

A basic way of holding a mirror up to your leadership is by looking at the objective statistics around you. “Take an empirical approach and ask what’s happening in your team versus what’s happening in the team next door,” Garrison says. Another port of call is feedback. Feedback from peers, employee surveys, exit interviews and, if you have one, your coach. Hearing where you’re weak is hard but, ultimately, the bottom line may be suffering.

“No matter what your intention is, without the soft skills of being aware of your own behaviour, and understanding the behaviours of others, leaders are missing opportunities to build trust and rapport with their team,” Garrison warns. “Without trust and rapport, employees are less willing to step up, give more of themselves and share risky ideas – so everybody just stays in their little narrow lane.”

What you can do

Get a second opinion

“The great sadnesses of leadership is that you run out of people to tell you that you’re being a jerk,” Garrison points out. One global CEO of a FTSE 100 firm recently told me that she hires a new coach every time she steps into a new role. It’s easy to be complacent and take leadership as a one-size-fits-all approach but every role is different, so it’s important to tailor your toolbox accordingly. A coach can provide a safe place for you to reflect on what you lack, while offering an outside perspective on where you could fine-tune your behaviour.

Catch yourself

We all know that self-awareness and awareness of your impact on others are vital. The problem is that, while on autopilot and grinding through the to-do list, we seldom stop to ask ourselves, “How did what I just said land?” When you’re speaking, try to catch yourself and read the room. Garrison suggests looking out for your team’s non-verbal cues and body language.

If that’s too hard, evaluate how you performed after your team meetings or one-to-ones have concluded. Note down, for example, where you could have listened more. The more you practice, the more mindful you can become of whether your intentions align with your impact.

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery

Think back to a boss with great interpersonal skills who positively influenced your career – copy them. “Emulating positive behaviour in other people helps us to accelerate our soft skill learning journey,” Garrison says.

If you have never had exposure to anyone with superb soft skills (that would explain a lot), then reflect on an admired or famous leader. Garrison suggests looking up to Richard Branson because, although you may not agree with his strategy or appearance, his employees enjoy working for him. Virgin has glowing Glassdoor reviews and has been lauded as one of the best places to work for its people-first culture.

It might not be in your nature to behave as boldly as Branson, so start by picking one of his positive attributes and emulating it. “Take it for a test drive and see if it works for you,” she suggests.

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