Essential Leadership Skills for the Workplace of Tomorrow

Industry Advice Leadership

In the past, leaders operated under a command-and-control philosophy. Communication flowed top-down, and leaders often were mere taskmasters managing the day-to-day work of their employees. That’s changing now.

As more millennials enter the workforce, many managers are adopting a leadership approach that embraces developing partnerships with employees. In this paradigm, managers and employees work together to develop and achieve goals, and managers allow employees to take a more independent approach in completing their work.

“Leaders today might check in once a week for 10 to 15 minutes with the people on their team to review priorities, what they’re working on, and how they’re feeling—whether they’re overwhelmed or engaged, for example,” says Brian Bullock, a lecturer at Northeastern University and manager of learning and development for the City of Denver. “It’s more about collecting real-time data on their team to make sure they’re focused on the right things at the right time.”


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Leadership today is at a crossroads: Around 10,000 baby boomers reach retirement age every day, which means more leadership roles are ready to be filled by new—and sometimes inexperienced—talent. Only five percent of businesses have implemented leadership development at all levels, leaving a significant gap in upcoming leadership.

“In many organizations today, leaders and managers are promoted because they’re good at a skill. When they enter the leadership position, they struggle because they haven’t studied management approaches or skills,” Bullock says. “Leadership is a skill that needs to be continuously developed and worked on.”

The leaders of today and tomorrow require a different set of skills than the leaders of yesterday. Here’s a look at the competencies they need and why they’re important, plus ways to strengthen them.

Essential Leadership Skills in the Digital Era

1. Self-development

Because businesses today operate at breakneck speed, leaders should prioritize a half hour a week to focus on themselves, whether that means learning something new or taking time to plan for the week ahead, Bullock says.

“This could be seeking out quick learning experiences, whether they’re through online videos or short, online trainings,” he says. “Maybe it’s learning about how to work with difficult people, how to have a difficult conversation, or how to motivate someone who’s difficult to motivate. Learning isn’t something that should ever end; it should be continual.”

Self-development might also mean setting aside time each week to prioritize what you want to achieve in the week ahead. This helps you become more intentional, Bullock says.

“When you step into your workspace, you’re immediately flooded with communications and fires to put out. This whirlwind hinders your intentionality because you’re only reacting,” he says. “Think about what’s most important for you and your team in the upcoming week, and set strategic actions to accomplish them.”

2. Team development

Equally as important as your own development is the development of your team members, Bullock says. As job hopping trends continue to increase, retaining talent is as important now than ever. Leaders should meet with their team members quarterly to discuss the employee’s interests, ambitions, and goals and then work together to develop a path with resources to get there.

“Many times leaders aren’t aware of all the resources that are available to them,” he says. “When people think about development, their mind goes to sitting in a classroom—but that’s not necessarily the only option. There are videos, e-learning opportunities, on-the-job trainings, and even networking events that can be useful. The leader’s job is to facilitate this process.”

3. Strategic thinking and acting

Companies today must remain nimble and responsive to change, which is why strategic thinking are among the most highly effective leaders, according to Harvard Business Review. In the report, HBR found that a strategic approach to leadership was 10 times more important to the perception of effectiveness than other behaviors it studied, including communication and hands-on tactical behaviors. Strategic thinkers take a broad, long-range approach to problem-solving and decision making that involves objective analysis, thinking ahead, and planning.

“Leaders need to think about the best route to get to the outcomes that exceed the expectations for the people they serve,” Bullock says. “There are many ways to go about that, including setting a vision and being clear about what that means, along with everyone’s role in achieving that vision.”

4. Ethical practice and civic-mindedness

Leaders set the standard for teams based on their values, Bullock says. “The things you talk about, do, and allow all become part of your team’s culture,” he says. “If you’re talking about ethics and doing the right thing, your team will pick up on that,” he says. “What you value gets valued by your team.”

Ethics and civic mindedness are often dictated by the organization through written policies and procedures that leaders should learn and periodically reference. Many leaders are aware that these policies exist, but only seek them out in times of crisis, Bullock says. Instead, leaders should familiarize themselves with the policies and procedures so they’re prepared when an ethics situation arises.

“Most leaders don’t take ethics as seriously as they should,” he says. “Mishaps happen when something drastic happens and they get caught up in the whirlwind. Leaders should have ethics front-of-mind so when a problem happens they can handle it quickly and effectively.”

5. Innovation

For businesses to keep pace in today’s competitive marketplace, innovation needs to be an organizational priority—and this type of culture starts at the top. It’s easy for leaders to get stuck in a rut performing their everyday responsibilities because people are creatures of habit, Bullock says. Innovation is a good way for leaders to change things up and try something new—which sometimes leads to great ideas and better methods.

“Leaders need to create an environment in which people feel psychologically safe to try something new, see how it goes, and even fail,” he says. “In today’s fast-paced world, people are reluctant to try new things.”

Once again, this starts by setting the example yourself. Bullock recommends that leaders make time every week to try something new, whether it’s a new process or idea.

“Leadership is synonymous with learning,” Bullock says. “The best leaders are the ones who are constantly learning and figuring out how to fill the gaps and develop skills that are the most meaningful to them.”

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