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How to become a better leader

Enhance your leadership skills with Fiona Buckley’s eight simple steps.

Every element in business is subject to continuous change and leadership skills are not immune to this. We need to continually evolve our leadership style and approach. If you are in a leadership role for a long time, it may be time to review and adapt your style. Equally, you don’t have to be in a formal leadership role to be considered a leader and to start building your leadership repertoire. You can start honing these skills at any time, in any role. Even if you’re not in a visible leadership role, you are still leading with ideas, thought leadership, creativity and being a strong team player. Leaders exist at all levels in an organisation.

Leadership trends

Organisational redesigns are placing far more emphasis on the need for different leadership skills. These re-designs can involve flatter organisational structures, broader spans of control, decentralised authority, reduced layers of management, intergenerational workforces and remote and flexible working arrangements. A new type of team-focused leader is now required to support these new ways of working. Such teamwork-driven organisations cannot function with leaders who solely focus on their own organisational area; they need a collaborative leader with cross-functional thinking and knowledge. This whole concept of “collective leadership” is a newer form of leadership that matches the requirements posed by new working environments, where challenges need to be tackled by groups as opposed to individuals.

There is a major generational transformation about to take place in the leadership sector with the arrival of millennials on the global leadership scene. Many millennials are in management roles already, but feel there is a lack of career development surrounding the skills they need to succeed as leaders. Millennials need proactive leadership development as part of their career and development plans. Acceleration of their professional development is key as they are our future leaders. Oversights now will hurt organisations later with insufficient succession planning. Once millennials secure executive leadership positions, the aforementioned collective leadership style will flourish. Millennials are high achievers by nature and technological innovation is their natural habitat. All this can be expected to impact their leadership styles.

CEOs still perceive leadership skills as the number one skill gap and are worried that leaders aren’t ready to lead their organisations toward growth (Mercer Global Talent Trends, 2017). The lack of leadership skills is often considered to be one of the largest career inhibitors. One’s career largely depends on the ability to communicate effectively, influence, persuade, present and negotiate. These are skills that transcend all roles, organisations and sectors, and are skills that are in large demand. When presentation skills are mentioned, people imagine a person standing at the top of the room with a PowerPoint slide deck. However, you are presenting every day: in meetings, in a one-to-one conversation with your direct manager, etc. In work, you are always on and this is leadership. Sadly, these types of skills are still often referred to as “soft skills” when in reality they can be exceptionally hard skills to master. These soft skills can often be given a secondary focus in career terms with the priority placed on technical skills, but this skillset needs to become a key focus for leaders looking to progress and become better leaders.

These eight essential and practical tips outline how you can start to become a better leader in your organisation:

  1. The first step is self-awareness and analysis of strengths and weaknesses, as only then can you truly assess your development gaps. Seek feedback from those who work with you. What you think your style is and what it actually is may be fundamentally different. Take a leadership style questionnaire and/or personality assessment to review your style in an objective way. This will aid you in identifying blind spots that may be holding you back. You often may not be aware of these, but they are the largest career inhibitors. Once you know what they are, only then can you begin to address them;
  2. Take control of your own career and push for the change you want. There is a dual responsibly here and you cannot expect the organisation you work for to solely push your career path. Allow yourself to go out of your comfort zone from time to time and take on stretch projects, roles and responsibilities to allow your leadership capability to shine. Taking control by yourself is exceptionally important if your own leader does not support your development. Some organisations have a great focus on leadership development but unfortunately, other organisations still have a long way to go in this area;
  3. Seek out a mentor in your organisation. Ensure this mentor has leadership skills and a style that you admire and can learn from. Many organisations still do not have a formal mentoring programme in place, but this shouldn’t stop you from seeking out someone informally. If your organisation does have a formal mentoring programme, ensure you are placed on this programme. Equally, seek out a sponsor or someone who can champion you in your organisation and is in a more senior role to you;
  4. Avail of coaching and work on clear achievable short-term and long-term goals. If we stay in the same space, we end up in the same place. Achieving personal leadership goals are key for sense of purpose and for enhancing your potential. Again, even if your organisation does not offer coaching, seek this out personally. Coaching can keep you on track and moving towards where you see yourself as a leader. It will encourage you to ask yourself the awkward questions and help you identify these blind spots mentioned;
  5. Focus on your personal brand in the organisation. What do you want to be known for? What leadership legacy do you want to leave behind? What are your leadership values? The answers to these questions will feed into your leadership style. Remember, you can re-invent yourself as a leader at any stage;
  6. Become more of a team player. This is ultimately where leadership is heading, to embody the collective leadership style mentioned above.  As a leader, it’s time to look beyond your own function and department, and focus on the organisation holistically;
  7. Listen more. One of the biggest areas of feedback in organisations is that people feel they are not listened to. Anyone can listen more, we just need to remind ourselves to do this and learn how to actively listen better. Many leaders fall into the trap of being dictators. Your followership in organisations should substantially change if you start listening more; and
  8. Seek out a leadership development programme. Learn from others in other organisations, network and share your stories. This is how we learn best.

Enhancing leadership skills is part of a journey to becoming a better leader. We will never reach the destination as we never stop learning.

Fiona Buckley is a corporate trainer and coach.

This article was originally published in the April issue of Accountancy Ireland.