Which skills do leaders need?

Determining which leadership qualities to promote and nurture among future leaders is an area all businesses will need to address at some point.
One of the most important questions companies and senior managers will need to address is how to identify and promote individuals who have the right skill sets. After all, there are many qualities that leaders need in order to be effective – adding another layer of complexity when individuals approach further leadership development.

One recent study from McKinsey & Company has attempted to identify the skills leaders need, especially when they are working in management positions on the frontline of a business.

The research compiled 20 key traits that leaders need and then asked a variety of respondents to rank how important each quality was for their daily work. Those who took part in the survey revealed four qualities that leaders need to possess, and these accounted for 86 per cent of the difference between effective and ineffective managers.

The four qualities were:

  • Being supportive
  • Seeking different perspectives
  • Solving problems effectively
  • Operating with a strong results orientation

Each of these categories contained a range of different aspects. For example, seeking different perspectives involves encouraging input from staff members, as well as understanding the issues that are currently affecting a company and incorporating this insight into a leadership style.

While these four categories accounted for a large share of the difference between effective and ineffective leaders, McKinsey stressed that this doesn’t mean there is one perfect leadership style. Instead, they suggested that different situations will call for a specialised skill set, with these qualities treated as a core skill set that can then be augmented for individual positions within a business.

Do different levels of leadership require unique skill sets?

Modern businesses hinge on specialisation – as individuals will often make the greatest contribution to an organisation when they are operating in a niche area where they have specific skills.

A 2014 study from the Harvard Business Review tested whether this same approach was true of managers – whether different levels of management should focus on skill sets that match their levels, rather than developing a broader skill set.

In particular, the research aimed to test whether or not specific management functions are best carried out by specialised levels. For example, should middle managers focus more on execution, while CEOs and other senior executives focus on developing effective strategies?

The research found that the skills that make a good manager remain remarkably consistent over time, regardless of the level. When asked to rank the skills that managers needed, the results were steady across different levels.

Top of the list of skills that managers need, regardless of level, was the ability to inspire and motivate others, which 38 per cent of respondents felt was a crucial component of all management positions. Other high-ranking areas included displaying integrity and honesty, problem solving abilities (both 37 per cent), being results driven (36 per cent) and communicating effectively (35 per cent).

Although there are some variations based on the level of leadership – middle managers ranked problem solving higher than all other categories – the top seven skills were consistent across all levels.

At the same time, there were some skills that didn’t perform well. Among the lowest-scoring skill sets were issues like establishing stretch goals (12 per cent), connecting to the outside environment (12 per cent) and championing change (16 per cent).

Finally, the report suggested that even if a job doesn’t necessarily require a certain skill set, developing it can still be useful for demonstrating leadership potential. Although a middle management position may not require developing a strategic perspective, individuals who ignore this skill set will find themselves struggling when they move into higher-level management positions.

For senior executives, honing these skills and developing them if they are lacking is an important area for companies to address. However, among the first challenges companies need to face is determining exactly which skills the employee is lacking and then making moves to address these weaknesses.

Are you identifying your own skill gaps?

When CEOs look at their own skill sets, it is just as important for them to consider any potential gaps in their own abilities.

The problem is that these leadership gaps can be hard to identify oneself, which is one of the main reasons individuals pursue leadership coaching.

However, research from the Center for Creative Leadership suggests that CEOs are actually over-investing in some skills, while failing to invest on other, more important areas. The research compared the skills CEOs were prioritising against those they ranked as being points of weakness.

The research revealed that some skills, like building and maintaining relationships, were actually being over-invested in by CEOs, with the level of attention given to these skill sets actually outpacing their value for a company.

On the other hand, skills like change management and strategic planning are areas where leaders are aware of their own weaknesses, but are also finding it difficult to implement further training.

Finally, some skill sets fell in the middle, with skills like resourcefulness deemed to be areas where the amount of training CEOs were undertaking was suitable for the level of responsibility that comes with the positions.

For business leaders, managing their own skills, identifying areas where they can improve and having the right foundation of competencies is going to be a crucial part of ongoing development. By prioritising these areas, CEOs will be well placed to drive future growth across their businesses.