The dominant trend in hiring practices across most industries has shifted in the last ten years or so. Where it used to be enough to possess the technical knowledge and skills for a particular position, now employers are looking for much more.
Employers want to hire people who have strong leadership skills to go right along with technical skills. In some industries, employers are even giving priority to leadership skills when making hiring decisions, with the idea that they can provide training to develop technical skills.
This article explores five ways you can develop your leadership skills to make yourself more promotable as an existing employee and/or more attractive as a prospective employee.
It is important to note that leadership development is a multi-faceted process that involves multiple aspects of your work and life, so you should consider all these tips as part of your overall strategy.
1. Identify strengths and weaknesses
The first step in developing leadership skills is to assess your current abilities. This is the only way to identify which areas should be the focus of your development efforts.
The key is to honestly and accurately identify your strengths and weaknesses – even if the identification process is difficult or uncomfortable for you. Many employers offer access to extensive feedback mechanisms, such as 360° surveys, so take advantage of what your employer offers if possible.
If your employer does not offer access to assessments, start by doing a self-assessment of your leadership skills. Although the definition of “leadership skills” may vary some from expert to expert, most resources list the following categories as key leadership skills:
- Communication – Clear, understandable communication of ideas with an excellent ability to listen and consider the opinions of others.
- Teamwork – Working in group situations to ensure that everyone contributes, nobody dominates the conversation, and the ability to lead a group through problem solving and decision making.
- Integrity – Are you trustworthy? Honest? Reliable? Approachable? Do you honor confidentiality? Follow through on your commitments?
- Conflict Resolution – Leaders are inevitably called upon to deal with conflict. The best leaders understand that conflict is to be expected and that it can, when properly resolved, help a group become more effective.
- Share Recognition – The very best leaders set aside their own egos and share recognition with others. They ensure that everyone who participates in an achievement feels valued and appreciated.
Using these five leadership categories, make a list of your strengths and weaknesses in each category. Be very honest with yourself, even if it is painful.
Now turn to the people around you. Ask them to give you feedback on how you perform in each category, both positive and negative. Be sure to solicit feedback from your peers, your employees, and your management.
Give each person some time to put together his or her feedback, and then set aside some time to discuss it together. The idea is to collect information without becoming defensive or argumentative.
2. Seek development opportunities
With feedback in hand, you will likely begin to see patterns emerge. Whatever your feedback tells you, those are the areas where you should actively seek leadership development opportunities.
Here are some ideas for development opportunities in each leadership category:
- Communication – Take a class on interpersonal communications; look for opportunities to work with good communicators; practice communicating one on one and in small groups.
- Teamwork – Volunteer to co-chair a committee with someone who is a good group facilitator; read books and/or take a class.
- Integrity – Become more approachable; be 100% reliable; do not commit to things you cannot complete as promised; pay attention to maintaining confidentiality and private information.
- Conflict Resolution – Take a class in conflict resolution; look for instructional DVDs so you can see good conflict resolution in action; work with someone else who is skilled in this area.
- Share Recognition – The next time recognition comes along, make a conscious effort to turn the spotlight on others; focus on the accomplishments of others rather than your own.
3. Work with a mentor
One of the very best ways to develop leadership skills is to find and work with a mentor. If your employer has a formal mentoring program (which many do) then get involved in it. If your employer does not have a formal program, look around for someone who will help you.
Look for someone who demonstrates excellent leadership skills, especially those that are areas of weakness for you. Approach that person respectfully and ask if he or she would be available to provide some mentoring to you. Most people find it very flattering to be asked and will most likely say yes.
Establish regular mentoring opportunities, such as monthly lunch meetings, or observing the mentor in action during a group meeting. Come to each mentoring session prepared with questions and specific things you would like to address.
You might have a situation that you are not sure how to handle, so ask your mentor to offer suggestions. Or, if you have watched your mentor “in action” and noticed a particularly strong skill, talk with him or her about how you can develop that skill as well.
4. Put your leadership skills into action
Leadership skills, as with most other skills, only become stronger when you use them regularly. Look for opportunities to practice your skills in a variety of situations.
Examples might include:
- Coordinate a staff luncheon
- Coordinate a volunteer group at church
- Chair a fund raising activity at a local school
- Take the lead on researching a new piece of equipment and present findings to your work group
- Get involved in your homeowner’s association
- Plan a community clean up day
You can practice leadership skills in big and small ways, in your work environment as well as your home or personal life. Make a point of finding opportunities to practice whenever and wherever you can.
5. Remember that leadership is a full-time job
This is an important concept to understand and accept, and one that many people find difficult to enact. Leadership, they think, is about how they run a meeting or how they lead a project team – in other words, discrete tasks that have a beginning and an end.
The reality is that leadership is a full time job. Good leaders never stop using their skills or being good leaders, they simply make those skills part of their daily habits so they become an integral part of who they are.
Look around at the people you see as good leaders, and watch how they use their skills. Do they turn them “on” and “off” or incorporate those skills into everyday work and life habits?
A true leader incorporates the skills of leadership into their everyday work and life habits. It is effectively a full time job, or a way of life. These are the true leaders because they do not just practice good leadership when others are watching or when there is a high profile project on the line. Rather, their leadership skills are with them everyday, in every way, regardless of whether others are watching or not.
Think about it. What would it take for you to become that kind of leader? And why not start working on it today?