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The Guide to Becoming a Better Business Leader

Quartz Network Editorial Team

Quartz Network Editorial Team

The Guide to Becoming a Better Business Leader

Learn Leadership Skills Needed for Today’s Workplace 

Executive leadership skills can give you an edge in your career, but if you lack training, confidence, the right mindset, a modern approach, or development tools, you may miss out on bigger opportunities. The key to success is identifying the right goals, tools, and steps to improve.  

While there is no clear-cut formula to becoming a better leader—and ideas about leadership have changed over time—there is a consensus among trainers and organizations about many of the skills of great leaders. Experts have long recognized that skills like communication and strategic thinking are leadership qualities. But ideas about other traits—like empathy—have evolved over time.  

Even if we know the characteristics of a good leader, some executives still seem to struggle. Often that’s because great leaders not only have to hone their management skills, but they also have to work on better prioritization and adjusting their attitude.  

If you want to be a better leader, this guide will help you learn how.   

7 Essential Leadership Skills 

Business meeting and presentation in conference room

There isn’t a single trait or skill that determines a great leader. Effective leadership comes from a combination of skills. But acquiring the right combination of skills is often difficult. 

In Closing the Leadership Skill Gap – Medieval Style!, JC Ayers, VP of Human Resources at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, said companies are having trouble finding leaders with the skills they need, calling it a “global leadership crisis.” However, Ayers believes there are effective ways to close those gaps. The first step to closing gaps is to identify where skills are lacking.   

“Companies are having trouble finding leaders with the skills they need, calling it a global leadership crisis.”

Learning missing skills is essential because leadership performance will affect the business and its workforce as a whole. According to Gallup research, managers hold 70% of the influence over team engagement. Unfortunately, many managers and executives in leadership positions don’t have the skills to engage and motivate employees.   

And, because business and organizations are always evolving, it’s important to always be improving. Following are the top skills today’s leaders need.

The 7 Top Leadership Traits 

These are some of the most important leadership traits, according to business executives and others in the workplace.  

1. Adaptability

Adaptable leadership is your ability to change—and help others change—as needed to overcome business challenges.

Harvard Business School researchers surveyed 1,500 executives in 90 countries, and 71% of them said adaptability is currently the most important quality in a leader.

Adaptability manifests in the workplace as: 

> Flexibility: The ability to adapt to unexpected situations like the pandemic or supply chain shortages.

> Setting an example: Demonstrating how you want work done in new or challenging circumstances.

> Seeking personal development: Learning new skills to be able to adapt to a changing environment.

2. Time Management

Time management for leaders means controlling how you spend your time to accomplish your most important work. 

Time management is especially important for executives because the more power and responsibility they have, the more tasks and people calling for their attention. Peter Fritsche, VP of Global Operations and Service at ACIST Medical, explains that leaders will have a lot of ideas on how to improve work, but they’ll need focus on those that will have the most impact.  

In his presentation, A Dash of Leadership and a Pinch of Management is the Best Recipe, Fritsche said, “Can you do everything? Unfortunately not. So we need to focus. What does focus mean? Focus means prioritizing.”  

There are several methods of prioritizing your time, but it’s important to find one that suits you. There are also a number of time management methods and tools that you can use, depending on your preferences and style of working.  

Time management encompasses: 

> Organizing: The ability to structure your work and responsibilities in a logical way.

> Prioritizing: Putting the most important and impactful tasks first.

> Setting goals and boundaries: Determining what you’re trying to accomplish and what tasks should be disregarded.

> Delegating and automating tasks: Knowing how to take busy or unnecessary work off your plate.

3. Communication  

Communication for leaders is ensuring that everyone gets the information they need through the most effective means and that all parties feel heard.  

In his presentation, Leading Teams for Significance, John Mory, Director of Logistics and Team Development at Farm Fresh To You, said connecting with your workforce is one of the most important things a leader can do. “I have this opportunity to invest in their life and help better their life’s outcome and to add value to them,” Mory said.   

Communication in the workplace includes:   

> Listening: Actively trying to understand your team members.

> Negotiating: Working with others to reach a consensus or solution.

> Building relationships: Making a connection and having real conversations with employees in all areas of the organization.

> Inspiring and motivating: Taking the reins to help team members get excited about a project.

> Mentoring: Advising or helping less experienced members of your organization learn new skills.

4. Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking means you’re able to plan in ways that help you predict potential obstacles and determine ways to overcome them to achieve business goals.  

FMI Management Consulting’s strategic thinking model consists of mental flexibility, intellectual curiosity, creativity, intuition, analysis, systems thinking, information gathering, and decision making. All of these focus around the leader’s vision. The key to strategic thinking is always keeping your goals in mind.   

Strategic thinking includes: 

> Goal setting: Knowing how to choose objectives that are ambitious but realistic.

> Analysis: Being able to examine something—from industry changes to departmental budgets—and process the details for better understanding.

> Decision-making: The ability to make a confident, informed judgment or choice.

> Problem-solving: Finding solutions to problems like team member conflicts or projected revenue shortfalls.

5. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand others’ feelings and positions, and in business it gives leaders insight into the motivations and actions of others. 

Mory explained that leaders should create an “environment of appreciation” where employees feel valued. “If we can invest in people and let people know that they matter, what else is there?” he added.

Leading with empathy in the workplace encompasses:

> Compassion: Showing concern for and helping colleagues, whether taking on work for someone struggling with their mental health or listening to a team member upset about their performance.

> Listening: Paying attention with the intent to understand your colleagues and team members.

> Helpfulness: Making time to take on responsibilities of team members.

> Support: Offering to back up team members who may need help.

6. Integrity

Integrity in business is acting honestly and honorably and doing what’s “right,” even if it’s difficult or at the expense of profit.

Gallup research shows that 2/3 of U.S. employees believe corruption is pervasive in American business. Gallup says it’s up to leaders to make integrity a priority in the workplace.

Integrity includes:

> Ethical practices: Adhering to a set of moral standards, which may include taking responsibility for a mistake or not taking credit for someone else’s idea.

> Dependability: Following through on what you’ve committed to do, doing your work on time, and being available for your team.

> Compliance: Making sure you’re adhering to the laws and regulations of your company, industry, and government.

> Truthfulness: Being honest in your work and dealings with your coworkers, customers, and partners.

> Trustworthiness: The ability to inspire confidence in those you work with.

7. Innovation

Innovation in leadership means seeking and embracing new ideas and new ways of working.

Kanyatta Walker, Vice President of Digital Transformation Portfolio Management at ADP, presented The Technologist’s Guide to Building Innovative Teams and explained that innovative leaders are responsible for: choosing the right people, cultivating talent, and creating and redefining success.

Innovation includes: 

> Creativity: Imagining new products or different solutions for the workplace.

> Vision: Seeing or imagining what’s possible for you, your teams, and the organization.

> Curiosity: Seeking information and wanting to learn more about your customers, industry, and how to improve your skills.

> Tech-savviness: Being among the first to learn your organization’s tools and staying ahead of technology trends.

McKinsey found that top-performing organizations are seven times more likely than the bottom 10% of performers to report having seven or more tech-savvy leaders.

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How to Become a Better Leader

Businessmen shaking hands in an office

The most successful leaders don’t happen by accident—they are the result of conscious decision-making and self-improvement. Some ways to improve your skills to become a better leader are:

Keep learning: Continuously seek knowledge. Pay attention to new trends and research in your industry. This can include subscribing to leadership content, taking courses, reading books, and listening to podcasts.

Be active in your community: Become active in your work and larger communities to gain a greater understanding of your teams. Participate in your industry’s communities where you can join discussions about problems you’re experiencing and, more importantly, the ones you haven’t thought of yet.

Cultivate relationships: Get a mentor and be a mentor. Network inside and outside of your organization. Prioritize people over profit and processes. Learn more about the individuals in your organization and networks. Take colleagues for coffee or just ask them what’s on their mind.

Study leaders you admire: You don’t want to become someone else, but picking up tips from successful leaders can help you hone your own style of leadership. Consume thought leadership content. Watch talks and presentations. Watching great leaders not only lets you see leadership in action, but it allows you to see and relate to their human side.

Act like a leader: Offer guidance. Write or record—then share—your own thought leadership content. Sharing your own original thoughts and ideas will help you become an influential leader. Acting like a leader also means taking action and playing a hands-on role in the success of your teams and individuals.

Seek feedback: Who better to give leadership feedback than those you are leading? Through interviews, surveys, or anonymous suggestions, you can learn more about your teams as well as yourself to improve your leadership abilities.  

“The most successful leaders don’t happen by accident, they are the result of conscious decision-making and self-improvement.”

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Resources for Improving Leadership Skills

Typing on laptop computer with subscribe on screen

The business world has long been focused on uncovering the secrets of strong leadership, so there are many resources available to help leaders and aspiring leaders improve their skills. These include:  

> Content: Consume articles, presentations, and other content on leadership development and best practices as well as department-specific initiatives.

> Courses: Enroll in leadership classes through your organization, local university, LinkedIn Learning, or online leadership groups.

> Events: Attend community and networking events.

> Coaching: Take advantage of internal programs, ask executives about implementing a program, or find a leadership coach on your own.

> Mentoring: Mentorships can be informal relationships within your organization or network, or you can work with a business organization.

> Executive matching: Once you have researched and learned enough to decide on a course of action for your business or leadership challenge, you then have to find the tools to solve it. Quartz Network’s executive matching program provides companies with a shortlist of vetted solutions and service providers. This saves businesses time and effort when facing common challenges.

KimLoan Tran, Chief Learning Officer at TIBCO, explained that leadership development accelerates employee engagement and performance. In her presentation, Focus on Leadership Development to Accelerate Employee Engagement and Performance, Tran also explained there are four steps organizations can take to develop their own leadership programs. There are different ways to achieve these, but here are some of her ideas:

1. Conduct training needs analysis: Find the gaps in what employees know and what they need to learn to achieve the goals of their jobs. You can use surveys, interviews, observations, and company data to find the gaps.

2. Define leadership competencies: Outline the skills needed for each role so you can find the best ways to train employees.

3. Tie to business strategy: Link each business goal to the required jobs, then deconstruct the jobs into tasks, then tasks into skills.

4. Gain buy-in and drive adoption: Allow employees to participate in the creation, ask for feedback, and explain the benefits.

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Priorities of Effective Leaders

Woman leading meeting in conference room

Leadership isn’t just about skills. It’s also about mindset. Successful leaders share some tendencies that can be useful to others trying to grow their leadership skills.  

Effective leaders actively try to become better leaders: This can be reading books, seeking coaches and mentors, or joining professional communities. Good leaders are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and seek ways to do better. 

Effective leaders pursue goals for themselves, their teams, and their organization: Effective leaders set clear objectives. This way team members know precisely what their roles are and what steps they need to take. 

Effective leaders are interested in finding new solutions: Good leaders aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They look for new ways of working—including tools, processes, and collaboration.

Effective leaders look for a competitive edge: Leaders know why it’s important to stand out as a team member and as a company.

Effective leaders try to connect with others: Good leaders prioritize the people in their organization. They are confident while making sure to treat everyone with respect.

Among workplace learners, 82% said they’re disappointed in lack of recognition, inadequate direction, and “managers who don’t enable learning,” according to Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning.  A good leader counters these frustrations by making sure their team not only has clear objectives, but the right recognition, training and support to achieve those objectives.

“82% of workplace learners said they’re disappointed in lack of recognition, inadequate direction, and managers who don’t enable learning.”

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Trends in Leadership

Businesswoman leading team discussion in office

Leaders often are forward-thinking and want to stay on top of trends. Here are some of the top trends in leadership and how they can help those looking for ways to evolve and improve their skills:

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is a method of leading that helps teams use change to their benefit. With technology and global interconnectivity, change comes faster than ever, so this style is becoming more important and relies on shared responsibility and empowered teams to act quickly.  

Adopting an adaptive leadership style allows your organization to change with the times. Adaptive leaders need to be open-minded, seek innovation, and be willing to receive and act on feedback. Introduced by Drs. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, adaptable leadership encompasses these four skills:  

> Character

> Development

> Emotional intelligence

> Organizational justice

Peer Leadership

This approach lets colleagues guide and help each other in a non-hierarchical manner that also allows everyone to share their strengths.  

Peer leadership techniques can make learning less intimidating and improve the confidence of less experienced employees. Skills include: 

> Listening

> Relatability

> Confidence

> Role-modeling

Agile Leadership

Agile leadership applies agile methodologies and empowers teams to act on their own.  

Agile leadership benefits a workforce going through changes, and today’s companies are going through a lot of changes. Hybrid and remote work demand a more flexible style of guidance. Agile leadership requires:  

> Flexibility

> Collaboration

> Humility

> Focus

Empathy in Leadership

Empathy is an important trend in business right now. Those who lead with empathy show respect, caring, and understanding to their employees. This style of leadership can improve engagement and retention.  

Empathy in the workplace and among leaders can improve the employee experience, which benefits the entire company. Skills that help you be an empathetic leader:  

> Listening

> Support 

> Compassion

> Understanding

Not everyone can be a leader. Adopting the right mindset and learning all the required skills can be challenging and time-consuming. Leadership requires dedication and determination, but choosing the right support and resources will get you on the path to success.  

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