Soft is in. Corporate leaders these days are expected to be compassionate, emotionally aware co-ordinators and coaches, empowering and enabling others while still achieving results. But given how novel that approach is from even a generation ago, it can be a struggle to find the right tone, outlook and behaviours.
“For starters, the terms ‘soft skills’ and ‘people skills’ are used to refer to a wide range of competencies and capabilities, leaving many executives confused about what exactly they entail,” Herminia Ibarra, a professor at London Business School, and Spencer Stuart consultants Claudius Hildebrand and Sabine Vinck write in Harvard Business Review.
It also takes time to accumulate those skills and even individuals at the top of the ladder, vying for or in the CEO’s office, haven’t mastered a people-centric style. Studying 75 CEO successions, involving 235 candidates in large companies in the United States and Europe, they found a three-stage journey – a Leadership Odyssey – that these CEOs-to-be went through and by extension all managers must traverse.
The first stage is the departure, during which the leader recognizes the need for a change from the harder-edged, more top-down approach they have cultivated and deliberately starts to leave behind familiar ways of working. Usually this happens only after multiple experiences and conversations make them realize their behaviour is impeding their success.
The second stage is the voyage, a time of transition during which the leader encounters obstacles and trials that teach important lessons and open the path to transformation. A key step can be putting yourself in situations where you have no direct authority and are thus compelled to develop a more indirect, empowering style. “Leaders often have a hard time experimenting with a new style while working with teams that are familiar with their old one. By taking on roles or projects outside their own areas – roles in which they have no history and must adopt a collaborative manner – leaders can develop people skills to use later with their own teams,” the three researchers note. Also crucial is enlisting helpers who hold you accountable, providing honest feedback, and, naturally, persisting through setbacks and learning from them.
Finally, like Odysseus on his fabled voyage, there’s the return, during which leaders arrive at a new understanding of what kind of leader they want to be and start transferring what they’ve learned to others. “Leaders at last internalize a more empowering leadership style, see it as a genuine reflection of their new selves, and can employ it across the board in their professional lives. Their learning is far from finished at this point, but it has become self-sustaining,” they write.
On the voyage, it will help to develop your emotional intelligence (EI), becoming aware of your emotions and those of others. “Leading with EI is the magnetic attraction that captures everyone’s attention and moves teams forward,” Carolyn Stern, a Vancouver-based leadership development coach writes in The Emotionally Strong Leader. “Professionals with high EI have exceptional self-awareness, better control of their actions, and more empathy for others. An increased level of EI can also help individuals manage stress better, build healthier relationships, and be more successful in work and life.”
She says as a leader you need to be aware of how your emotions influence your people. You hold a lot of power to produce fabulous outcomes in terms of productivity, engagement and profits, but you can also do a lot of damage. You need to constantly look both inwardly at your emotions and outwardly at your actions and the impact on others.
Self-perception is the first of five components contributing to your emotional intelligence. She suggests asking yourself: Are you confident and self-assured, are you fulfilled in your life and are you aware of how you are feeling in every moment and the triggers that provoke an emotional reaction?
Self-expression is about how you show and express yourself to others. Good questions to probe this facet are do you express how you are feeling appropriately and constructively, do you stand up for yourself (and if not, why), and do you care too much about what others think?
The interpersonal component is about how you interact with others, of which empathy can be an important aspect. Ask: Do you have a difficult time making connections and if so why (or if connections come easily, why?), are you able to put yourself in other people’s shoes and do you like to give back and be helpful to the greater community?
The fourth aspect of emotional intelligence is how you use the information emotions provide to make decisions. Explore this by asking: Are you aware of your emotional state when making decisions, do you let your emotions cloud your judgment and objectivity and are you able to control your impulses during these times?
Finally, stress management – how you cope with the unfamiliar and daily challenges. Ask: Do you adapt well to change or uncertainty, do you cope with stress and are you resilient in trying times, and are you able to remain hopeful about the future?
Understanding your emotions is a crucial part of leadership in today’s world and Ms. Stern’s framework can help on your voyage of discovery and growth.
- Beware leaders: The transformation deficit – the gap between the need for change and the willingness of employees to change – is growing. That willingness plummeted from 74 per cent in 2016 to 43 per cent in 2022, according to Gartner surveys.
- Consultant Stephen Lynch recommends walking one-on-one meetings with subordinates – not just for the fresh air and exercise. Walking side-by-side and sharing views reduces eye contact and can allow for more gentle guidance. He will often move from an in-office dialogue to the outdoors to take advantage of that less-direct exchange. He will also conduct performance feedback sessions in the car, returning from an event, for the same side-by-side, low-eye contact dynamic.
- Hiring’s hidden problem, according to recruiting specialist John Sullivan, is that the first step is to quickly scan each individual resume, looking exclusively for flaws, missteps, omissions and weaknesses, with just one pitfall leading to candidates being quickly knocked out from the potential interview list. Pay more attention to strengths.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.