Why soft leadership skills are crucial to becoming a leader
While professional skills can be acquired through formal education, soft skills such collaboration and communication are more difficult to teach.
A study by the Workforce Institute reveals that Generation Z often feels ill-prepared for common workplace activities, such as negotiation and public speaking. Meanwhile, a third of them fear they will fail in leadership roles. This poses a significant challenge to the industry's future and the prosperity of individual organisations. In a few years, we could be facing a shortage of influential, accountable leaders capable of expanding businesses and nurturing customer relationships.
Unfortunately, soft leadership skills don’t magically manifest once we reach a certain job level. Holding a senior position doesn't inherently make us an effective leader and our formal education often leaves us woefully underprepared in these skill areas. Soft leadership skills must be actively pursued, developed, and nurtured. From my experience, one critical first step in this journey is taking the initiative to find mentors who can provide guidance, mentors whom you can ask questions, obtain feedback from, and listen to the advice you are given.
Embracing mentorship and coaching
I consider myself fortunate to have had people throughout my career who have been willing to provide guidance, both formal mentors and coaches and people providing informal advice. This guidance helped me navigate my career path and the intricacies that come with it. Recognising that more experienced individuals, whether professional coaches or more senior people within an organisation (and it doesn’t need to always be your own), can teach you the language of business and help you develop the gravitas needed to be heard, is a valuable skill in itself.
Mentorship can take various forms and doesn't necessarily require a single designated mentor or structured, paid-for monthly sessions. While some organisations offer mentoring or coaching as a benefit, many don’t. In such cases, my view is it's essential to be proactive. You can perhaps request a mentor or external coach from your employer or alternatively tap into your personal network to identify individuals who can offer assistance, or do both. As we progress in our professional lives, we encounter people from diverse backgrounds with vastly different career journeys. Each of them possesses a unique perspective and valuable advice that can reshape our thinking and behaviour in current or future leadership roles.
It takes a bit of confidence to ask someone for half an hour of their time, or to seek answers to specific questions at industry events or interactive webinars. It also requires a dash of resilience because not everyone will agree to help, and some may not even respond to your emails. Nevertheless, summoning the courage to ask questions or seek assistance is well worth it.
Even seasoned leaders continue learning
It's important to realise that even C-suite executives don't have all the answers and often seek guidance themselves, maybe even more so in the fast-paced tech industry. Continuous learning is a necessity and failing to ask questions risks you falling behind. There are lots of formal executive level training programmes, networking events and in some organisations formal board reviews that are carried out to guide board members on changes that need to be made.
Soft skills can change throughout your career
Advice on understanding others' perspectives, explaining complex issues clearly, presenting in front of larger audiences, or actively listening to team members are valuable skills at every career stage.
At the same time, the soft skills you will need for entry-level positions will mature and change from those you’ll perhaps need ten, twenty, or thirty years into your career. As a junior, you may not find yourself chairing a meeting and the gravitas and presentation skills needed to do this may not be needed. You may however need to be able to present in a team meeting, so these business skills will be honed over time. Attempting to master all of them simultaneously is neither practical nor effective in my view. It's good to focus on your present needs and start to identify those you may need for your next step, building as you go along.
For example, a trainee lawyer may prioritise improving problem-solving skills, while an Assistant General Counsel aspiring to become a General Counsel may consider honing negotiation and non-verbal communication skills for successful participation in board meetings. Prioritisation and skill gap identification should be embraced as part of your career journey and your skill requirements will naturally evolve over time.
Ultimately, my experience is that you shouldn’t limit yourself to seeking guidance from one or two professionals within your specific field. It can and should come from a diverse range of individuals, each of whom will offer a unique perspective. Embracing diversity of insights and being open to both giving and receiving advice is one of the hallmarks of a successful leader's journey.