10 key skills today’s leaders need to succeed in 2013

What sets the most successful managers apart from others? You might be an expert in your field, even the smartest person in the room — but that’s no guarantee of success. You need an array of skills that are particularly well-suited to times of change and challenge. Here are 10 I recommend.

1. Strategic Thinking
Don’t just immerse yourself in today’s tasks. Think big picture. Step back from the dance floor from time to time and take the balcony view (Hat tip for that great metaphor to the book, Leadership on the Line.”) Review systems. Set priorities aligned with major goals. Learn new and scary things. Encourage innovation by backing good people who take smart risks.

2. Collaboration
Overcome the four barriers to collaboration I’ve written about before.

  • Distance: Stay on the radar with people you don’t see regularly.
  • Dominance: Change assumptions about the importance/subservience of certain roles in your organization.
  • Discomfort: Educate yourself and your staff about the work of others.
  • Dissonance: Check your demands and systems to make certain they aren’t undercutting collaboration.

Be a role model for effectively networking by showing the value of spanning old boundaries and busting old silos.

3. Emotional Intelligence
Your IQ alone can’t fuel the group’s success. Emotional intelligence is critical. Build your self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Recognize that as a leader, you are contagious. Be a source of energy, empathy and earned trust, proving optimism and realism can co-exist. Understand that resilience is key to leadership, especially in stressful times. One of my favorites reads of the past year, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain,” lays out the neuroscience of resilience and underscores that we can consciously build our capacity.

4. Critical Thinking
Critical thinkers question conventional wisdom. They are vigilant about identifying and challenging assumptions that underlie actions or inaction. They are automatically wary of generalizations, inferences and unproven theories. Among their favorite questions is: “How do we know that?” They strive to independent thinkers, careful to check how their own biases might color their decisions. They do this automatically to speed up good decision-making, not to cause “paralysis by analysis.”

5. Communication
This one seems so simple, yet it comes up continually in my seminars as a deficit in organizations — and it’s managers who point out the problem! Bosses who don’t communicate effectively get in the way of their team’s effectiveness. Make it your goal to master every form of interpersonal communication and make it powerful: one-to-one, small group, full staff, email, social media, and of course, listening.

Become an expert on framing, storytelling and finding the master narrative in a situation. If you don’t, others will — and the others may be your internal critics or your external competitors.

6. Motivation
Telling people “You are lucky to have a job” in no way qualifies as motivation. Nor does fear, unless it is fear of letting a great boss down. Nor, interestingly, does throwing money at people. Pay them fairly, of course, but don’t stop there. Understand the key intrinsic motivators: competence, autonomy, purpose and growth. Determine the prescription for each of your employees.

7. Feedback
Commit to wearing what I call “feedback glasses” — new lenses through which you look at people and their work. Through these lenses, you are always on the alert for opportunities to deliver specific, helpful information to people about their performance and their value to the organization. Upgrade the quality of all of your interactions by using them as opportunities for customized, effective feedback. In my new book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I devote a chapter to feedback as the key to performance management, with a complete tool kit of options.

8. Tough Conversations
Don’t avoid tough talks. Learn to do them deftly, avoiding the many pitfalls they can present. Become an expert at addressing challenges and problems early and often. Don’t let problems fester or bullies prevail. Build trust as a leader so people recognize your good intentions even in the midst or wake of challenging conversations.

9. Coaching
Are you among the legions of managers who habitually fix the work of others? Are you the non-stop answer machine for people who are overly reliant on you for decisions? And at the end of the day, do you wonder why you’re frustrated and exhausted and employees aren’t getting better on your watch? You need to learn to coach their growth.

Coaching is an entirely different skill from fixing. It helps people learn to improve their work and make decisions for themselves. Don’t just take my word for it; a 2012 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research says the most important tasks of effective managers are teaching skills that endure and fueling the motivation of employees.

10. Making Values Visible and Viral
Let people know what you stand for. Make those conversations a part of your daily work. Lose your fear of coming off as corny or holier than thou. Tap into the great reservoir of commitment and care that people bring to their work lives, but often fail to talk about unless they’re at some professional seminar (like ours), where it pours out. Why?  Because we make it safe to talk about values like integrity, diversity, community, and service. All we have to do is start those conversations, and they always take off organically. It should happen in the workplace, too. If you don’t inspire, who will?

Each of these is a skill you can learn. I know, because I teach them! And there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing careers improve as people grow from being okay managers to being great bosses who understand the key skills of leadership.

For an elaboration of this column, listen to this companion podcast:
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The 4 D’s that can derail a difficult conversation

It ranks among the least appealing but most important management duties: conducting tough talks with employees. Bosses are required to hold people accountable, let them know what’s expected of them, and keep them informed — even when the news isn’t good.

Many managers tell me they wish they were better at handling difficult conversations. Their reasons for avoiding or bungling them can range from “I hate conflict and come on too soft” to “I have a short fuse and talk myself into trouble.”

Few managers get specialized training in this area, other than perhaps an HR primer on company policies and protocols. But a real, practical immersion in what works best in a variety of situations — that’s a rarity. Managers usually learn by trial and error. And error.

That’s why we focus on tough talks in our management programs, why I devote a full chapter to difficult conversations in my new book “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” and why we had a NewsU webinar this month that brought the book’s lessons to life.

It’s important to understand how easily a challenging conversation can be derailed — if a manager lets it happen (or even causes it to happen!) Here are the four “D’s” that can derail your conversation:

  • Denial: The other person rejects the information you’re putting forward, claims it is untrue, or completely shuts down.
  • Deflection: The other person changes the subject. “I can’t believe you’re telling me this. I can name three other people who are doing far worse things. And we have crummy computers. And no one every told me this before.”
  • Disruption: The other person shouts, swears, sobs, storms out — or all of the above.
  • Dumping on the boss: The other person declares it is your fault and tries to steer the conversation into criticism of you or the organization.

Are you prepared to deal with each of these derailments-in-waiting? Can you, in the moment, have the presence of mind to craft an appropriate response? Here are some tips to keep your talk on track:

  • To deal with denial: Preparation and specificity are key. Your goal isn’t to get the other person to cry “uncle,” it’s to get the facts you’ve confirmed on the table, along with a clear message about the next steps.
  • To deal with deflection: Don’t take the bait. Stay focused on the issue that brought you to this conversation. If you’re a debater, stifle your burning desire to respond to every off-topic utterance you hear.
  • To deal with disruption: Stay calm. Don’t be tempted to match the other person’s volume or vituperation. Stay rational in the face of irrationality or you will regret it later. Keep tissues (and compassion) handy for people who cry.
  • To deal with dumping on the boss: It isn’t about you. Let me repeat that: It isn’t about you. Take a cue from some recent research that says when we’re insulted or criticized, the best way to keep from getting aggressive ourselves is to “self-distance.” That means instead of digging in and focusing on the fightin’ words you just heard, you step back, almost like you’re watching from a balcony and witnessing some misguided person talking smack to a manager. With your angry impulses reduced, you can focus on moving the conversation back to your original goal.

I often suggest that managers role play a tough talk in advance with a trusted fellow manager, especially if there’s a high level of tension about that pending meeting and its potential for derailment.

That kind of case study, role play practice is something we do in our leadership programs. People often say it’s among the most enlightening sessions of any workshop. It’s exactly what I demonstrated in the NewsU webinar. After all, isn’t it better to learn from positive, practical examples than from our painful mistakes? See you in class!

In this companion podcast, I’ll add a few more insights into those dangerous 4 “D”s that derail a difficult talk.

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Great Bosses avoid bad email breath: 3 tips to instantly improve your communication

Communication is like breathing. We do it all the time, so we can easily take it for granted. But managers who want to become great bosses understand that communication isn’t a function — it’s a skill, one you can develop. And just as bad breath can put distance between you and others, so can stinky communication skills.

So today, let me offer three quick tips to instantly improve your communication competence:

1. Review your email strategy.

Note that I’m assuming you HAVE a strategy, which may be a stretch. If not, develop one right now. Start with your own email mission statement, one that understands your organization and your role. Your statement should also take into account the dangers and traps that email presents. Check this past column of mine for the list.

Here’s my email mission statement: “I believe email is an effective tool for exchanging information but inferior to face-to-face  interaction. I will use it for positive purposes like transferring knowledge, updating, connecting and celebrating. I won’t spam people, send incomplete messages that require more correspondence to clear them up, and will not use email as a letter bomb.”

You shouldn’t keep your strategy a secret. If you tell others about it, they will understand the intentions behind your actions. Let’s say your mission statement is “In the interest of time management and efficiency for sender and receivers, my emails will be brief, clear and friendly.” If you share that with colleagues, they will be less apt to perceive your short emails as terse. Sharing it also may encourage your team to develop a similar — or better — strategy for the group.

2. Disengage from digital distractions.

The best communicators aren’t just facile speakers and writers, they’re also known as excellent listeners. I’ve written before that extroverts, who actually think by talking, need to train themselves to put their mouths on “pause” to let others finish their statements. Introverts are at an advantage, because they enjoy taking in information and processing it before discussing it.

But when it comes to being a lousy listener, extroverts and introverts alike can fall prey to one big, bad habit: being lured away by the communications technology that competes with the humans in their presence. And I think we are getting worse at this, rather than better.

I’ve coached countless bosses to take their eyes off their computers screens and keep them on the employee who is there to talk. Whatever headway we’ve made there seems to be undone by our mobile devices. David Carr, of The New York Times, recently wrote a column “Keep Your Thumbs Still When I’m Talking to You” — and documented the increasing level of interpersonal disengagement he witnessed at a recent convention. He nailed it. Our always-on connections to texts, smart phones or tablets is making us rude.

I leave it to you, your family and friends to negotiate your tolerance levels for digital distraction, but your employees and colleagues deserve your undivided attention — nothing less. If you are expecting an important call, email or text, let others know that, to your regret, you may have to disconnect from them to attend to it. But these should really be exceptional cases. At work, your full focus on others telegraphs (isn’t that a quaint tech word?) your old-fashioned respect.

3. Communicate. Rinse. Repeat.

I wish I knew who coined the axiom: “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em. Tell ‘em. Tell ‘em what you told them.” I’ve always thought it was good advice, suggesting that while communicators should be creative and engaging, they must be crystal clear.

Now comes new research that says the power of that mantra may actually lie in the sheer act of repetition. A recent Harvard Business School article “It’s Not Nagging, Why Persistent, Redundant Communication Works,” highlights research by Harvard and Northwestern professors who found that: “Managers who are deliberately redundant as communicators move their projects forward more quickly and smoothly than those who are not.”

They discovered that while clarity may be nice, redundancy — repeat communications, often delivered in a variety of ways, gets better results. They also found that the multiple-message method was most likely to be used successfully by project managers who lacked formal power to order people to do things. Those folks recognized that it was up to them to use communication to foster collaboration.

In a world of information overload, it makes sense. Messages from our immediate bosses tend to get our attention and action first. Messages from team leaders on a cooperative project may go unread for longer amounts of time. So, if you have responsibility without authority, as many people in cross-team projects often do, one of your best techniques is to communicate-rinse-repeat.

It’s not hyperbole when I say these three tips can instantly improve your communication skills, because each of these involves behaviors you can work on right now. They’re not the only tips that can do that, I’m sure. So invite my smart readers out there to add their tips in our comments section. Feel free to be redundant. It’s now chic.

And in today’s podcast, I’ll offer a bonus tip that powers up the three I’ve shared: The communication risk you should dare to take.

You can download the complete series of the What Great Bosses Know podcasts free on iTunes U and watch these related video tutorials. Read more


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