Leadership Advice

4 must-have skills for today’s managers

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

In 2020, managers had to lead instant change, driven by the pandemic. For some it was a smoother process than others because of their talent for helping people navigate new skills and survive new stresses. For those less adept, their teams paid the price in terms of quality, productivity, and morale.

Now change is upon us again — but with a bit more time to plan how to do it right. We’re returning to our “new normal.” It’s a status that the best leaders are defining in conversation with their teams, including how to build professional excellence and job satisfaction into the workplace design.

What skills are most important for leaders at this moment? I’d emphasize these four.

Strategic/Systems thinking

Top leaders need to focus on both big-picture issues (trends, future growth, societal influences, industry challenges) as well as the need to assess and upgrade every existing system in their organization. Once you see your workplace in terms of its systems instead of just its tasks, roles, and products, you can identify opportunities to improve. If you keep your head down, focused consistently on “what we’re working on today,” I guarantee you will be overtaken by competitors and colleagues who outthink you.

DEI acumen

I use the term “acumen” intentionally because when it is paired with a word (“business acumen,” “surgical acumen”) it means you have subject matter expertise AND you know how to put it to work. It’s not enough to claim you understand and support diversity, equity, and inclusion without pairing that with the ability to sustain a diverse workplace culture where people feel they truly belong. To do that, you need the other three skills on this list, too. 

Emotional intelligence

People with EQ aren’t just nice folks. In fact, one of the leading voices in emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman, says that’s a fallacy. They may be nicer to work with than many others, but they aren’t pushovers. Managers with EQ are self-aware and self-managing. They make it a point to understand how other people view them, their strengths, and weaknesses. Then they build on the good stuff and work to tamp down their own flaws. They are socially aware, seeing situations through the eyes of others. They are empathetic, but at the same time not afraid to tackle conflict. They know how to read people. They genuinely care about building relationships across the organization and do so — for the benefit of all.

Customized communication

When managers express themselves (or fail to), people see and hear it through many filters: their past experiences, their BS meters, their hopes, dreams, and fears. Top leaders communicate with clarity and authenticity. They understand the strengths and shortcomings of various communication channels. They are adept at sharing organizational info in one-to-one or one-to-many formats, and know when each is best. They know instinctively when face-to-face conversation is a necessity. They think about how their messages might be misunderstood and aren’t reluctant to reframe, rephrase, or even apologize. Their default setting is “share.”

Are those the only skills you need? Nah. There are plenty more — and you’ll never be a perfect boss. That person has yet to be invented. But for this time, focus on these skills. They will help you to help others succeed.

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Bill Prasad
Bill Prasad
2 months ago

May I add: An ability to place value in direct reports and an ability to build trust (Part of EQ).

Jill Geisler
Jill Geisler
1 month ago
Reply to  Bill Prasad

Amen, Bill!

Denise Rolark Barnes
Denise Rolark Barnes
1 month ago

Jill…helpful information, but I have a question. I, like so many other publishers I know, operate very small news rooms – 6-10 people. When it comes to systems vs. tasks, etc. it is extremely difficult to step back and take time to review and execute. The day-to-day consumes me. Can you offer more insight with us in mind? And, can you offer any resources that may be helpful? Thanks!

Jill Geisler
Jill Geisler
1 month ago

Hi Denise. I can only imagine how hard it is for you to step back from the day to day, when you are needed in the mix. This is going to sound very simplistic, but I sometimes have to remind managers that just as they need to take a sick day when they are ill so they don’t harm others (and slow down their own recovery), we need to take a “well day” and remove ourselves from the mix. The work gets done when you are sick and it will get done when you are planning or strategizing. Among the… Read more »