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12 essential skills to get ahead that you won't have been taught

Photo by Branko Stancevic on Unsplash

While schools might do an excellent job at teaching us how to write notes, memorise facts and formulas, or even solve technical problems, they don't teach us the skills most important to determining leadership success. That's because while these skills can be learned, they are difficult to teach.

Not being good at these skills has a cost. Often that cost will manifest in your scarce time and attention being diverted to correcting mistakes - mistakes arising from the poor application of these crucial skills. Experimenting and coaching yourself will put you on the path to mastery.

Here are 12 leadership skills you probably weren't taught but are essential for success in today's fast-moving world.

1 - Listening

In a typical business setting today, we are conditioned to listen to respond. People who speak up, often interrupting others, repeating what others have said or use "…yes, but…" have been rewarded. They are viewed as impactful or proactive even though they have not properly heard and therefore understood what is said.

How can we listen well if we're distracted because we're focused on how best to respond to what is said to us? Active listening involves being genuinely curious about someone else's story, with a desire to understand them better. Being actively listened to is often enough for people to resolve their problems in a judgement-free, trusting and supportive environment. To find out how to become a better listener, check out The most important of your five senses.

2 - Thinking

The global COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that our thinking is often flawed. We didn't predict the major event and subsequent lockdowns and restrictions on our jobs and personal freedoms. When facing uncertainty and unpredictability, we make decisions with incomplete information and an unknown number of potentially competing or reinforcing biases. We, therefore, need to get better at thinking. Thinking through options and choices that need to be made, and therefore to level up our decision-making. To do so, we need robust decision-making frameworks - enhance your thinking and decision-making.

"No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking."

- Voltaire (1694 - 1778)

3 - Negotiating

In today's business world, where there is faster decision-making, faster innovation and flatter organisations, it is more apparent than ever that to accomplish our work goals, we have to rely on hundreds of individuals over whom we exercise no direct control. We simply cannot rely on giving orders. To get what we want, we need to negotiate, especially as conflict remains a growth industry.

4 - Networking

The quality of your relationships - to a large degree - determines your success at work. Your relationships are, therefore, crucial, and hence should be approached strategically. Too often, busy people don't prioritise the task and protect the time. Instead of networking, reframe it as building relationships and view the time as an opportunity to learn from other people and find out how you can help them. Please read this article to find out how our own immunity to change gets in the way of doing so.

5 - Collaborating

It isn't always easy for busy, driven and successful business people to collaborate. Often the tendency is to think in either/or terms, as in win/lose, rather than working together to achieve win/win outcomes. Even though organisations might say they value teamwork and collaboration, often their incentive structure says something entirely different - be it the performance-related bonus or scarce promotion slots. It is the ability to work against, not with, this cultural reality through short and long term collaborations that lead to career and business success.

"If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together."

- African Proverb

6 - Develop resilience

As Maya Angelou, the American poet and civil rights activist, said, "You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them." A reality of the modern world of work is the requirement to develop our personal resilience so that we might not just survive but thrive - flexible rather than fragile resilience as explored in this article - Strengthened by Adversity.

"Resting is not a waste of time. It's an investment in well-being.
Relaxing is not a sign of laziness. It's a source of energy.
Breaks are not a distraction. They're a chance to refocus attention."

- Adam Grant

7 - Increase self-awareness

A lack of self-awareness can be risky at best and disastrous at worst. Leaders fail because of who they are and how they act in certain situations. Especially under stress, they respond with a pattern of behaviour that can sabotage their jobs and careers. The problem is, the higher up you are on the corporate food chain, the less likely you are to be told the truth by the people that surround you. Described as the meta-skill of the 21st century, self-awareness is defined as:

The ability to see ourselves clearly - understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us.

To be genuinely self-aware, we need to know how people perceive us, which we cannot do just by looking inward. This article explains what we can do to develop our self-awareness.

8 - Deep working (and avoiding distractions)

Going deep and getting to the bottom of things has become an essential skill to combat AI and automation that is driving a wave of restructuring. Deep work is activities performed without distraction, so you have the highest levels of concentration possible that push your cognitive capabilities to the max. The reward for these efforts is to

  • Create new value

  • Improve existing skills and develop new ones,

  • Work that is hard to replicate

This article explores some of the best strategies to stay ahead of the restructuring wave and reap a disproportionate amount of the benefits.

9 - Prioritising

A common problem that I help clients with is how to manage their increasingly overloaded schedules better. Schedules with not enough time for thinking, strategising or helping their teams, and more time spent running from meeting to meeting. An at times dysfunctional relationship with work can build up under the belief that a leader must always be busy. Often the intent or will to change exists, but powerful inclinations not to change that exists in all of us get in the way. To help improve in this crucial area, please read this article, The Importance of Time When We Don't Have Enough.

10 - Learn to say no

The underdisciplined pursuit of more results in us saying yes to people without really thinking. This rapidly leads to being overwhelmed and unable to pay attention to the signal in the noise, and hence the meaningful opportunities get missed. Only once you permit yourself to stop saying yes to everyone can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter. The book essentialism gives a masterclass on this topic.

11 - Challenging the status quo

In business, it is common to embrace the status quo. The gravitational pull is strong - it feels more manageable and lower risk. Often we don't like change because the status quo feels safer; it's familiar, we're used to it. Change is hard. Yet, it is only through challenging the status quo, making the difficult decisions, and confronting the brutal facts of your reality that you will tackle the biggest problems head-on and emerge stronger.

12 - Delegating

So many executives suffer from the affliction of doing their team's work for them at the cost of their own work. This is because they have struggled to delegate effectively. After all, they are trying to be helpful, but ultimately, they are taking on work that others more junior to them should be doing. Learning how to empower your team members is a crucial skill to develop. This seminal HBR article - Who's Got The Monkey is a must-read for anyone struggling to delegate.

Photo by Mariia Zakatiura on Unsplash

The most successful people understand a simple truth: we need an edge to succeed and differentiate or risk marginalisation, as our skills and knowledge steadily lose value.

Continuously learning can be expensive in terms of time and effort, but standing still and not furthering one's personal development costs a fortune.


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