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The Top 10 Leadership Skills

August 11, 2019

What employers are looking for today

As a result of digitization, automation and artificial intelligence, the business world is changing more and more rapidly. For businesses, this means that change has become ubiquitous and that they need to ensure they are organizationally fit to respond to this reality - which, in turn, requires them to have the right executives. So, what is it that businesses expect their current and future executives to bring to the job in order to be able to successfully navigate an increasingly complex environment? According to the Financial Times Skills Gap Survey, there are particularly sought-after leadership skills, some of which are especially difficult to recruit. Prof. Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, and Martina Ernst, founder of the consultancy SalaryNegotiations and formerly Head of HR at Erste Bank, take a closer look at the leadership skills and the mindset that executives should have in the future, and analyze why some skills are currently hard to find.

The silhouettes of people with the right leadership skills
These demands are made on managers today.

Almost half of the employers surveyed for the 2018 Financial Times Skills Gap Survey said they found it increasingly difficult to find executives with the right leadership skills - up from a third a year earlier.

“Times are becoming increasingly challenging, also for executives. What they absolutely need to have in this day and age is the right mix of hard and soft skills,” says Prof. Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy. Apart from a fundamental understanding of economics and business, they are not only expected to be IT literate - think, for instance, of data analysis and programming skills - but, to an increasing extent, also required to have social skills such as the ability to work in teams, inspire others and at the same time be resilient to negative, external influences.

So, what exactly are the ten most important leadership skills that top executives should bring to the job in the future, and why are some of them so difficult to recruit?

1. Being a Team Player and Open-Minded About Diversity

Those who prefer to go it alone have had their day. This also applies to executives. Nowadays, it takes team players who accept and use the knowledge of others. In this context, the important thing is to foster heterogeneity - inter alia with regard to cultural, social, technical but also competence-related aspects. “Diversity is becoming a key factor when it comes to putting together teams,” analyzes Barbara Stöttinger.

FACT: Increasingly important for employers as there is definitely no place for ego management today. Innovation and change in particular are driven by different perspectives and the ability to take into account different opinions within the team so as not to hit a dead end.

Managers with leadership skills hold their hands together
Ego-management is obsolete - teamwork is a basic requirement. Photo © CC0 Licence

2. Having Courage and a “Be Unafraid” Attitude

Change is a sine qua non, but making change happen requires courage. Hence, businesses need executives who are not afraid of taking action and doing things differently - even in the face of resistance. “Today, there is no such thing as clearly right or clearly wrong anymore. Therefore, it is all the more important for executives to be able to deal with inconsistencies and still make decisions - which inevitably involves taking entrepreneurial risks,” says HR expert Martina Ernst, founder of the consultancy SalaryNegotiations and formerly Head of HR at Erste Bank. Thinking entrepreneurially in line with the corporate strategy is thus indispensable, according to the Global Executive MBA alumna and member of the WU Executive Academy's advisory board.

FACT: Particularly important for employers as companies need executives who are capable of thinking “out of the box” and unafraid of using unconventional approaches. In this context, the onus is on employers to create environments that are conducive to “experiments”. Otherwise, it will be impossible to foster the sort of climate that helps people avoid black-and-white thinking and gives them room for dealing with inconsistencies.

3. Solving Complex Problems

The more facets there are to a problem, the more complex it becomes to find a solution. In our VUCADD world, complexity is part and parcel of everyday corporate life. Hence, executives are required to take this multidimensionality into account and need to focus on the big picture. There can no longer be simple answers; it is necessary to prepare and to develop different scenarios.

FACT: Particularly important for employers but difficult to recruit as people feel at ease in the realm of micromanagement and find it easier to deal with small manageable projects. Again, the onus of action is on employers: They need to encourage executives to both tackle complexity and leave micromanagement behind.

a woman with leadership skills is solving a problem on a chalkboard
Complexity is part of everyday business life - managers must be able to deal with it. Photo © CC0 Licence

4. Inspiring and Guiding Others

Empowering people instead of telling them what to do - that has to be the credo of good executives. “This philosophy is based on the realization that you cannot achieve targets without a motivated, well-functioning team,” says Barbara Stöttinger. Martina Ernst adds that for this reason an executive should be more of a facilitator who enables and helps employees to cope with challenges in the best possible way. “What is important in this context, apart from supporting the team, is to give people a realistic idea of what can be done.”

FACT: Difficult to recruit as this requires people with a thorough understanding of their own strengths and skills who are capable of leading themselves and tolerate feedback well. Only executives who bring these qualities to the job will be able to lead others successfully.

5. Being Highly Resilient and Full of Drive

Undoubtedly, one of the most important soft skills is the ability to work under pressure and to not be discouraged by setbacks. “As an executive one must always reckon on having to adapt the strategy as realities change. In this context, the important thing is to not let oneself be discouraged but to take new steps in a pragmatic and courageous manner so that the intended targets can be achieved,” says Martina Ernst. This resilience also involves managing conflicts professionally as well as making room - especially within the team - for both voicing criticism and reflecting on it.

FACT: Difficult to recruit as these fundamentally important qualities in particular depend on the culture of the organization in question. Employers thus need to ensure that they foster them in the best possible manner. Executives cannot be highly resilient and full of drive if their organizations hinder the development of these qualities.

6. Being Able to Set the Right Priorities

Everything supposedly has to be taken care of immediately; the demands made on executives can be daunting. Those who fail to set priorities will inevitably perish. Managing one's time efficiently - and this includes delegating tasks - is thus one of the most important skills today. “Even distinguishing between what is ‘urgent’ and what is ‘important’ can be of great help when it comes to planning one's day,” says Martina Ernst, speaking from experience. “Executives need to be able to prioritize tasks together with their team.”

FACT: Particularly important for employers as companies need executives who are clear about the targets to reach. This is the only way for them to avoid “burnout”. Experience shows that organizations themselves are often unclear about their targets, making it all the more difficult for employees to organize and structure things.

A woman with the right leadership skills is looking at her watch
Effective time management also includes prioritizing and delegating tasks. Photo © CC0 Licence

7. Networking With Others on an Equal Footing

Good networks have always been a career asset, but today the focus is more on the mutual benefit of such contacts. “Building networks beyond one's organization and industry is becoming even more important,” says Barbara Stöttinger. “Both sides should give and take on an equal footing for them to mutually benefit. Also, networks make it possible to identify and exploit trends early enough,” adds Martina Ernst. What is more: Interdisciplinary thinking is gaining in importance as the boundaries between industries are increasingly disappearing.

FACT: Particularly important for employers as the right networks generally have an abundance of positive effects. In a business context, this means that there need to be people in the organization who are aware of this, which is synonymous with, for example, creating and fostering networks, and building effective collaborations that are mutually beneficial to both sides.

8. Thinking Strategically

Identifying trends early on is also the basis for strategic thinking, which executives are more than ever required to do. “Those who focus their attention solely on the daily business, run the risk of losing sight of long-term corporate goals and visions,” says Barbara Stöttinger. It is thus necessary to analyze, from different perspectives, how things will likely develop in the future, and executives are well-advised to regularly concern themselves with fundamental questions in the context of taking their companies forward.

FACT: Difficult to recruit as only time will tell whether executives actually have this ability. Generally speaking, the crucial thing is again how the organization is structured and if there are enough opportunities for people to realize their potential or develop their skills. That is to say: It is not necessary to hire executives who already have all the required qualities. Many things can develop on the job, as it were, provided there is the right environment - and this is something that the superiors of executives, in particular, will need to take care of.

A manager with leadership skills is taking notes in a book
Concentrating on day-to-day business is not enough - it is important to keep an eye on the company's long-term goals. Photo © CC0 Licence

9. Developing an Understanding of Programming

Nowadays, all companies have to deal with information technologies and trends such as artificial intelligence, big data and the Internet of Things. Hence, executives are expected to have a basic understanding of information technologies and programming languages. “When it comes to interacting with the subject-matter experts, it is essential for executives that they are up to speed and able to ask the right questions,” says Martina Ernst.

FACT: Particularly important for employers as the world becomes more and more digitalized and technological change is the order of the day. Companies cannot change and adapt unless they deal with new topics open-mindedly and have the necessary technological know-how.

10. Being Able to Use Big Data

Data are the oil of the 21st century and can give companies a decisive competitive edge, provided they are properly analyzed and processed. Executives are thus expected to have a thorough understanding of the potential of big data. “Companies cannot capitalize on data unless the organization as a whole has the right mindset - and this starts at the executive level,” says Barbara Stöttinger.

FACT: Difficult to recruit as companies themselves are not always completely clear about their situation in terms of data and thus do not readily appreciate the benefits of having executives with an affinity for data. That said, there must be an environment that allows executives to delve into data-related topics. In this context, it is, for instance, important to foster cross-divisional collaboration and overcome the silo mentality!

You can read about additional skills that make for good leadership in our periodic tabel of leadership.

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