From new technology and the globalization of business to the rise of the gig economy and shifts in generational composition, many factors have shaped the management needs of today’s workforce. Unless you’re aware of and understand those needs, you cannot provide the kind of leadership your workers desire—and your business (and bottom line) is likely to suffer as a result.
In fact, one survey by DDI, a global leadership consulting firm, found that 57 percent of workers have left a job because of a manager. The 2019 Retention Report published by Work Institute, a workforce intelligence company, conservatively estimates the cost of losing a U.S. employee to be $15,000. This means voluntary turnover due to outdated or lackluster leadership could be costing U.S. employers an astounding $617 billion each year.
Fortunately, excellent leaders are not born but made. Whether you’ve been managing teams for decades or have just taken on your first leadership role, it’s always possible to further develop your proficiency. We spoke to three experts in the executive development and HR space to learn more about the leadership skills and traits that are essential for managing today’s workforce as well as get their tips for improving your leadership capabilities.
10 Essential Leadership Skills and Traits
1. Leaders must be comfortable with technology. “Technology has really changed how businesses do business,” says Carol Lempert, learning designer, master facilitator, and leadership development coach. While she notes that there are many companies that have gone out of business because their leaders didn’t understand the potential impact of technology on the delivery of products and services, a willingness to use new technology oneself is also important in the management of teams. This may be as simple as communicating by text or messenger app instead of email or incorporating collaborative or interactive tools into your team’s workflow.
Embracing technology is particularly important for leaders who are managing teams of Millennials—the largest generation in today’s U.S. labor force. According to Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American think tank, 35 percent of today’s workforce participants are Millennials. Generation Xers account for only 33 percent, while Baby Boomers represent 25 percent.
2. Leaders must be able to manage remotely. The use of remote workers is growing. In fact, a survey of U.S. employers by Upwork, a freelancing website, found that 63 percent of today’s companies engage remote workers. More than half (55 percent) say that remote work has become more commonplace in the last five years, and in the next 10 years, these hiring managers predict that 38 percent of their full-time, permanent employees will work remotely.
Those figures don’t even take into account freelancers. According to Freelancers Union, an organization that represents independent workers, 57 million U.S. professionals freelanced in 2019. That’s a 17 percent increase over 2014 and accounts for 35 percent of the nation’s workforce. Lempert says that companies that hire freelancers and other remote workers need leaders who “understand how to influence without having direct authority over the people they’re responsible for.”
3. Leaders must have the right mindset. Lempert says this means believing that the most important aspect of your job is to develop the next generation of leaders. “You need to understand how to mentor and coach the people in your team,” she continues. “You must also learn how to delegate. This gives your team the opportunity to learn and grow as well as a sense of purpose. Employees today are looking for leaders who will invest time and resources into helping them develop their potential.”
A survey of more than 5,000 employees by The Predictive Index, a talent optimization company, found that 55 percent of ‘bad’ managers don’t show concern for their employees’ career or personal development. Almost half (48 percent) put their needs before those of their workers.
4. Leaders must have empathy. While it’s typically described as a ‘soft skill,’ Lempert says that empathy isn’t about being soft. “It’s really just the ability to take someone else’s perspective,” she continues. “Leaders need to be able to take their customer’s perspective and the perspective of their colleagues. They also need to be able to take the perspective of their employees. This includes asking yourself, ‘If I were one of them, what would I need from my boss?’”
5. Leaders must be good communicators. Lempert says it’s important to recognize that good communication is just as much about listening and understanding as it is about talking and writing. “Can you listen to your team and incorporate their feedback into your own thoughts and ideas?” she asks. “Can you paraphrase someone else’s thoughts and point of view?”
Matthew Burr, human resources consultant at Burr Consulting, LLC and associate professor of business administration at Elmira College, agrees. “You must be able to proactively listen to people and understand, from an emotional standpoint, what they’re actually trying to say,” he adds. “That’s a critical skill if you want to engage your workers and drive your culture forward.”
According to The Predictive Index survey, 50 percent of ‘bad’ managers don’t listen to their employees. Nearly 60 percent don’t communicate clear expectations.
6. Leaders must have integrity. “Do you say what you mean and keep your promises?” asks Beth Strathman, executive coach at Firebrand Consulting LLC. “This is important because it provides predictability for your employees. They want to be able to count on whatever their leader says and also know that their leader will have their back. Otherwise, they’re going to lose faith.”
A survey by Robert Half, a global human resource consulting firm, found that 75 percent of workers cite integrity as the top attribute they desire in a leader. In The Predictive Index survey, 54 percent of ‘bad’ managers badmouthed people behind their backs. More than half (51 percent), betrayed an employee’s trust.
7. Leaders must make decisions with confidence. “Some managers are fearful of making decisions because they’re afraid it’s going to impact their job,” Burr says. “But strong leaders have the fortitude to make decisions and empower their teams to make decisions as well.”
Strathman agrees. “This means leaders need to understand the work and the context in which the work is done well enough to make that final call when necessary,” she explains. “They need enough experience and logic to be able to explore all the relevant angles of an issue fully. They can discuss the situation with their team, of course, but they cannot hesitate to make the final call and move forward.”
Among the employees surveyed by The Predictive Index, confidence and decision making figured heavily into the ratings they gave their managers. Nearly 80 percent of managers rated ‘great’ were seen as confident and able to make good decisions. Three-quarters (or 75 percent), are ‘highly knowledgeable in the area he/she manages’ and ‘has a good grasp of the entire business.’
8. Leaders must not be self-centered. “You need a healthy ego,” says Strathman, “but you cannot be centered on yourself. I often talk to my clients about taking the spotlight off themselves and putting it on their team. When you have a healthy ego, you don’t need to be the center of attention. You don’t need to dominate the conversation or control others. You want to create conditions that enable others to shine. And you’re giving credit to your team for what goes right while taking responsibility when things go wrong.”
A study by TINYpulse, an employment engagement company, found that frequent recognition, even if informal in nature, can help leaders retain their best workers. In fact, TINYpulse says that employees who haven’t received recent recognition are twice as likely to be job hunting as those who have. And employees who do not feel valued by their leaders are 34 percent more likely to leave.
9. Leaders must practice good self-care. Lempert says that true leaders don’t pride themselves on working 18- or 20-hour days. “They don’t skip meals,” Lempert explains. “They get a good night’s sleep and do things outside of work that refuel them and give them a way to keep their brain creative. Managing your energy in this way is essential because the only thing you can’t outsource is your own ability to concentrate, focus, and be present.”
Leaders who take care of themselves are more positive and passionate—both traits that employees admire. In fact, The Predictive Index survey found that 79 percent of ‘great’ managers have a positive attitude and 75 percent are passionate about their job.
10. Leaders must learn to manage their reactivity. “I think this is often the biggest challenge for people,” Strathman says. “I sometimes refer to it as self-control. It means that you’re mature and have an awareness of your own limitations, vulnerabilities, and triggers. In other words, you know that you are fallible. When you learn to manage your reactions, you’re more likely to maintain a healthy state of mind. And because leaders have such a big emotional impact on their teams, avoiding reactivity will also keep your team in a good state of mind.”
Are Your Leadership Skills Lacking?
How do you feel your capabilities stack up against the list of essentials above? According to the experts we interviewed, assessing your current proficiencies is the first step to becoming a better leader.
“Go on a journey of self-exploration,” Strathman suggests. “If your workplace offers personality profiling, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or DiSC profile, you might want to start there. If they don’t, you can simply start monitoring your actions and the reactions you’re getting from others. Then choose one thing that you want to work on that you think will make the biggest difference in your ability to lead your team more effectively.”
After you’ve identified your strengths and weaknesses, you may want to find a mentor. “A mentor can help you develop self-awareness and navigate other tricky workplace issues like the politics of your organization,” Strathman says. Burr agrees. “Look for people you have respect for and who are doing it right,” he adds. “I personally tend to fall back on people I’ve known for years such as professors from my undergrad and graduate school, attorneys I’ve worked with in the past, and people I respect in the HR profession.”
You can also ask trusted colleagues and team members for feedback. Strathman suggests asking them what they think you can improve on and comparing their response to your own analysis. “These are people who should be open to having crucial conversations with you,” Burr adds. “Things like, ‘You could have done better in this area.’ Feedback isn’t just about what you do well but about learning from your mistakes.”
If your technical leadership skills are lacking, Burr suggests taking some continuing education classes or studying for certifications. Lempert says even classes outside your field of study can be helpful. “Maybe you take a class in writing, improvisation, or theatre,” she suggests. “Any of these things can help you become a better communicator and expand your skillset.”
Finally, Lempert urges leaders to take time every day for reflection. “That might mean keeping a journal or just setting aside some quiet thinking time,” she explains. “Ask yourself, ‘What went well today?’ and “What can I learn from what didn’t go well?’ Look for things you can do better tomorrow and set goals for the next day. You should also think about what you’re grateful for and who has helped you. Get yourself in the space of being able to manage your own stress from a place of gratitude and service. That can be very helpful in the creation of powerful leaders.”