Which leadership skills do you need to develop most?

leadership skill development
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Compare yourself with the research on essential leadership skills to see where you need to grow most as a leader

Being a leader means being a learner, no matter where we are on our leadership journey. Whether we are a CEO leading a multi-national business, an entrepreneur managing a start-up, or a freelancer just leading ourselves, we all have areas for development. That is why leaders need a growth mindset.

But we cannot improve everything at once so how do we identify where we need the most development as a leader? One of the easiest ways to identify areas for growth is by looking at leadership competencies; the essential skills we need as leaders and managers. 

Over the years researchers have come up with extensive lists of leadership skills. We can use these as a guide to thinking about our strengths and weaknesses. Then we can think about whether those areas need personal development (where we need to improve), people to support us, or a process to ensure that work gets done effectively.

My own leadership skill development

I initially trained as a civil engineer. This gave me the technical skills, and some credibility, in early jobs in the military and then leading other engineers and tradespeople in industry. I progressed from engineer to team leader to project manager.

I put effort into developing my human, interpersonal skills, and as I gained further responsibility, my conceptual skills developed too. Being part of a start-up for a few years really helped this area of growth. All this allowed me to take on more general management roles at increasingly senior levels. 

As I have developed as a leader and taken roles in senior management those initial technical skills have become less important. Most of my work now has very little to do with engineering as such. I now rely much more on my human and conceptual skills. For example, my work as a leadership coach relies heavily on my interpersonal skills whereas my strategy consulting work is very dependent upon my conceptual skills.

As you can see, my professional career followed quite a classic trajectory. It is a journey through different types and levels of competencies. This sort of progression, and the specific areas of skills, have been well studied and documented.

The essential types of leadership skills

One of the most well-known of these skill development frameworks comes from the research of Robert Katz. He divided leadership skills into 3 primary domains. These were: 

  • Technical
  • Human
  • Conceptual

You will notice these categories in my own story but now let’s look at each in more detail.

1. Technical skills

Technical skills relate to the competency and specialist knowledge of a worker or manager. These are primarily the trade skills you need to operate in your profession or industry. This framework recognises that professional knowledge and experience are the primary platforms for leading people at the lower levels of management.

For example, you might be a computer programmer. Over time, as you work and build competence, it is likely that you will be given responsibility for newer programmers. Even if you do not have an official management position, other less experienced programmers will seek you out for your knowledge. In both cases, you now have leadership influence based on your technical skills.

These technical skills are often considered alongside basic business and work skills. Putting these together you get the following list of foundational skills:

  • Trade/industry knowledge and experience
  • Professional qualifications
  • Reading and writing skills
  • Verbal communication skills
  • Administration
  • Budgeting
  • Computer, electronic communication, and internet skills

2. Human skills

Technical skills are foundational but if we are going to work in a team then we need to overlay these with human skills. Human skills are the interpersonal skills needed to work effectively with others. These are often referred to a people skills or soft skills.

So, going back to the computer programmer example, having programming skills is not enough to make you an effective manager. You also need to get along with others. You need to learn to understand, communicate with and motivate them. Therefore, alongside the technical skills we can add these human or interpersonal skills:

3. Conceptual skills

The third layer of leadership skills is conceptual skills. Conceptual skills are the cognitive competencies that give us the ability to develop ideas, solve problems and initiate strategies. These conceptual skills get more important as you gain responsibility and work with ever-larger teams. 

As per the former example: if you were a programmer who worked up to become the CEO of a large tech firm, your conceptual skills now become of primary importance. You would be unlikely to spend much time writing code, so your technical skills would now be of secondary or tertiary importance. This is why very senior leaders can move to key positions in industries where they have little or no technical expertise. They are being employed for their conceptual skills.

Here are examples of a leader’s conceptual skills:


Strengths and weaknesses

When I look at the lists of competencies above, I can quickly see skills that I am either stronger or weaker at. I am sure you can quickly do the same.

So how do we deal with our weaknesses? What is the most effective approach? Should we work more on our strengths or our weaknesses?

This is where we need to be self-aware but also strategic about our own development. We want to maximise our gifts but limit any downsides that could come from areas of weakness. We cannot improve everything at once, so we must prioritise our growth and yet ensure that we are still effective across the broad range of competencies.

To do this we can explore the skill sets, and how to address them, through the 3 Ps of personal growthpeople, and process.

Personal Growth

As mentioned previously, leaders need to have a growth mindset. Leadership is a journey of learning and improvement. A lot of this learning is gained through experience but we also need to be proactive about our learning and set development goals.

It would be tempting to dive straight in at this point and start to work on our biggest weakness. But this would be a mistake. We can never be good at everything and that is why we consider people and processes before we go any further.

People

Leaders are nothing without the team. This is true in a very literal sense: a leader is defined by the group they are leading or influencing.

The leader is there for the team, but the team is also there for the leader. The best teams complement each other by bringing a diversity of thought and skill. In this way, as Meredith Belbin has shown, high performing teams embody all the required component parts of a team. 

We do not need to excel at everything. This is actually great news. It ensures a leader remains humble and gives opportunities for every team member to contribute and shine.

A good leader can build, shape, and develop the team to ensure the right people are doing the right jobs and that there are strengths to balance out other people’s weaknesses (including their own).

For example, I am not motivated by finance and budgeting. I can budget and manage a cash flow, but I don’t enjoy it. So, I make sure I have people in my teams who can both help me with this and can keep me accountable. These are people with a passion for numbers and an eye for detail. I could spend more time working on this weakness, but I have found it more effective to find others who simply do it better than I ever will.

But what happens if you don’t get to choose your team or if there just aren’t enough people to cover all the bases?

Processes

This is where a process comes in. Put simply, a process is a system that helps people to do things. It is most useful when it is something they don’t do naturally.

For example, keeping things tidy is a strength of mine. Unfortunately, it is not a strength for everyone in my household and therefore we have a process (a shared rota and routine) to ensure that I am not left to fill and empty the dishwasher every time!

The same goes for a business, if there is something that people don’t do well naturally then institute a process. For example, many organisations employ particularly processes to run their meetings. The creation of agendas, actions and minutes support these structures. 

But a word of warning: don’t let the process become the driver! The principle or the need should drive any process not the other way around. Bad behaviours creep in when people doggedly keep to a process, not willing to adapt as the situation evolves or the team changes. Build processes and use them as tools but hold them lightly.

Which skill do you most want to develop?

Now that we have identified strengths and weaknesses and considered the options of personal development, people and processes we can ask ourselves the following question: of the list of skills above, which one is the one you most need to develop, and which one do you most need to compensate for? 

The first one, the skill to develop, could be a strength that you want to make your superpower or a weaker area that you just can’t ignore. The second skill, the one you need to compensate for, is probably a weakness, one that you have been able to ignore, but it is tripping you up. That is where another person or process could help.

So now set yourself two goals:

  1. Skill development: Create a plan for how you are going to develop that first skill. What book, course or coach could help you? Give yourself a score of 1-10 for that skill. What would it take for you to increase your level by 1? Make that your goal.
  • Skill Compensation. Find a person or create a process to help you with that. Who do you know who could help? Have you seen a system or tool that can help you? Try working with that person or process for a set time – maybe a week or month – then assess how you are doing.

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