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The Rough Notes Company Inc.



September 22
09:52 2017


A practical look at five key skills that are vital to leading in today’s business environment

Are you getting the results you want—not just from your top people, but from all your people and your organization as a whole?

Leading to achieve the results you want has never been more challenging. The demands on today’s leaders are intense, and they’re constantly changing. Being effective requires a new and broader repertoire of skills.

Going forward, the best leaders will be those who don’t take their leadership for granted. In a time where the half-life of any skill is about five years, leaders bear a responsibility to keep refreshing their skills and perspective to ensure that they and their organizations remain relevant.

If you’re not fully satisfied with results, this is a good time to assess how your skills measure up against today’s needs.

Although this is not a definitive list, we’ve identified five leadership skills that are vital to leading people in today’s business environment:

Being adept at using multiple styles of leadership—Whether it’s commanding, democratic, energizing, coaching, or something else, all leaders use multiple styles to some degree. But the reality is that most leaders have an overreliance on one. This dominant style tends to be their default response, whether or not it’s the most effective way to get the job done.

The days of simple command-and-control leadership are long gone. Today the leaders who are best at engaging and motivating their teams—those who get higher performance as a result—draw on a range of different leadership styles. They have the emotional intelligence and self-discipline to quickly adapt their style to each person and situation. For example, at an employee meeting announcing a new initiative, the leader is authoritative, mobilizing people in a new direction. In a weekly meeting with the senior leadership team, they are democratic. In a one-on-one conversation with a direct report about performance improvement, they use coaching.

Using multiple styles doesn’t mean changing your personality or behaving in a way that is inauthentic. It means understanding the different styles, knowing what works best with whom and when, and being conscious of how you lead. Many assessment tools are available to help you do this.

Collaboration—Bringing a product or service to market is now a more complex process than ever. It requires multiple areas of expertise and seamless coordination across a range of functions.

In the era of social media, the customer experience is under more scrutiny than ever. A weak link in any aspect of a company’s delivery can shed a harsh light on the entire organization.

Collaboration is critical to success. But it is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to people who were raised in an individualistic culture like that in the United States. Our education system is largely focused on individual efforts, and teamwork is not actively taught in the classroom, even at the graduate level. How students and teachers at the K-12 level are incentivized tends to focus on clear goals met through individual knowledge and expertise, neither of which is realistic for the contemporary workplace.

Successful collaboration requires carefully navigating complex social undercurrents to accomplish tasks. According to a University of Michigan study, college students moving into the workforce are poorly prepared for positive collaborative experiences. Collaboration requires empathy: being able to look at a problem from other people’s perspectives. The research found that college students today rate 40% lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.

Collaboration is more than just a series of meetings where everyone weighs in on everything and little happens as a result. True collaboration—people actively working together to create or produce a desired result—doesn’t just happen by itself. Even with the best of intentions, collaboration is not easy, given how time-pressed managers are and how reluctant they sometimes are to cede control over projects and relationships.

Leaders must lay the groundwork by ensuring that the business structure, culture, and incentives support the collaborative process.

We find that collaboration works best when people know and trust each other. Leaders need to consciously and actively help people get to know each other as well as possible before they are put together on projects. Ideally, they have met in person, know a bit about each other personally and professionally, and have a sense of each other’s communication and work styles and their individual strengths, weaknesses, and points of view.

Building resilience—Our highly demanding, constantly connected, always-on workplaces are producing stress and burnout at record rates. ­­­Eighty-three percent of workers say they’re stressed about their jobs. A quarter of all employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pace and pressure of work are unlikely to change, so resilience becomes increasingly important.

Resilience is a valuable psychological skill that allows people to handle stress and anxiety. It’s a trait that lets employees keep calm even when the world around them is a bit shaky. Resilient employees can draw on their mental toughness to thrive in difficult situations and bounce back quickly. In addition to enjoying quick recovery, resilient employees also tend to be ready and willing to learn new skills and take on new roles. They can maintain an attitude of flexibility and openness to corporate changes and improvements.

Recent statistics suggest that 76% of employees don’t have enough resilience—and a third of those people have almost no resilience whatsoever.

For college graduates who will be entering the workforce over the next five years, the challenge of low resilience will grow. Numerous university studies report declining levels of resilience among students.

At one major university, emergency calls to counseling centers had more than doubled over the previous five years. Students were increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Faculty commented that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. Some said they had become afraid to give low grades for poor performance because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices.

Learning to deliver feedback to an increasingly fragile workforce will require new skill sets for leaders.

The good news is that resilience is a skill that can be learned. When a leader models resilience, employees are more likely to reflect that same behavior. For example, if a leader can openly admit to having made a mistake and be responsive to suggestions for improvement, employees learn that they too can admit mistakes without fear of reprisal. As a result, employees will be far more willing to get back up and try again.

Creating challenging experiences and opportunities for growth—According to the 2017 U.S. Insurance Labor Market Outlook Study conducted by The Jacobson Group and Ward Group, growing staffing demands, low unemployment, and a tightening labor pool have created the most challenging talent recruitment market in recent history. Attracting and keeping high-quality employees will continue to be a key priority for all leaders.

What does it take to recruit and retain talent these days? With five generations in the workforce (more than ever before), much has been written about what these different generations expect of work and leadership. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a Hay Group study titled “Managing a Multi-Generational Workforce” reveals that all generations cite the same factor as the primary reason for staying with a company: “exciting and challenging work.” The second most important factor that keeps people in an organization is “opportunities to advance.”

Leaders can keep employees challenged by maximizing variety in jobs, having people participate in projects outside their comfort zone, and engaging them in devising innovative ways to improve the work they’re doing. Look for avenues to provide growth opportunities in terms of advancement, and encourage professional and personal learning.

Recognize that different challenges and growth opportunities motivate different people. The best leaders use empathy and insight into the unique attributes of each person to create an environment that gets the best from everyone.

Balancing consistency and agility—Effective leaders must be able to pivot and move quickly and skillfully in embracing change. But too much agility can rapidly become lack of focus when it’s not tempered by consistency.

At the other end of the spectrum, leaders who are merely consistent risk rigidity. In changing environments, they may struggle to adapt and may cling to old habits and practices until those practices become counterproductive.

It’s in the combination of consistency and agility that leaders can become strategic, pursuing an organization’s purpose with excellence and changing course when the situation dictates.

Going forward, the best leaders will be those who don’t take their leadership for granted. In a time where the half-life of any skill is about five years, leaders bear a responsibility to keep refreshing their skills and perspective to ensure that they and their organizations remain relevant. Relevance in the 21st century depends on our ability to adjust our way of thinking, learning, doing, and being. Leaders must get comfortable living in a state of continual growth.

The author

Kimberly Paterson, CEC and Certified Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (, a marketing and consulting firm that works with property/casualty agencies and brokerages and company clients. She is a regular Rough Notes magazine contributor; her column, Management by Coaching, addresses a wide range of skills needed by professionals who manage in today’s insurance agencies. ­­­This leadership article is running instead of her column this month. Paterson can be reached at

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