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.
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.
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.
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.
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.