If you’re reading this article, there is a strong chance that you have either found yourself in the shoes of a leader in your professional life, or you are well on your way to becoming one. For a young professional, the responsibility and complicated nature of leadership can make this opportunity exciting yet intimidating. That’s okay! Today, we are going to explore five key leadership skills that will help begin to prepare you for your future leadership roles. Let’s get started.
Note: If you haven’t already, be sure to read our article on important reading for new leaders below!
Why are Leadership Skills Important for Young Professionals?
So before we jump into the leadership skills themselves, let’s take a moment to explore just why it is so important for young professionals to start developing these competencies. I will admit, when I began my career I was so focused on learning my role itself that I found it hard to justify putting time towards preparing for a future leadership role. There were meetings to attend and spreadsheets to build. It was not long before I realized that I didn’t understand what leadership in the professional setting really was:
Leadership is the art of driving results through influencing your team – Managers, peers, employees, suppliers, and customers.
Okay, but what does this really mean? I was six months into my first role after graduating university and was trying to dig into this question myself. The answer I found was that in your professional world, you are leading every day whether you realize it or not. Holding a meeting with your peers? You are leading that meeting. Taking time out of your schedule to help an overworked peer? You are leading your peer. We could explore countless other examples, but the simple and important thing to remember is this: Young professionals are called on to be leaders today.
Skill 1: Influence Without Authority
I am choosing to begin with this skill because I honestly believe that its importance is significantly underrated by many young professionals (and formerly, by myself). Influencing without authority is just what it sounds like: Influencing your peers, managers, and other professional partners without having any organizational authority over these partners. For most of us, this is the only form of influence we will have at our fingertips early in our career!
So what aspects make this skill so critical? Why should you practice leading others before you are technically in a manager role?
Here are a few of the reasons that I experienced personally:
- Most young professionals will not enter an organizational leadership role for the first several years of their career
- Every day at work requires interaction with colleagues at your same organizational level, and the positive outcome of these interactions will lead to better results
- Each and every mentor and manager I’ve had has stressed the importance of this skill!
Now, while understanding the importance of this skill is great, it is not enough.
Here are some of the ways in which you can practice influencing without authority in your professional life:
- Don’t be afraid to set meetings with peers and colleagues on key projects and initiatives – You’ve probably worked on enough group projects in school to know that nothing really gets done unless you are sitting down in the same place
- Prepare for each and every meeting you are invited to – Without proper preparation, you will miss out on opportunities to back up your ideas with critical facts and figures
- Communicate with peers clearly – Without true authority, your only hope of truly influencing your colleagues is to compellingly explain why your topic of concern is so important to them, the department, or the business
Undoubtedly, you will find more tips than these three throughout your career. In the meantime, understanding why this leadership skill is important and how you can start to develop it will serve you well.
Skill 2: Continuous Learning
This second leadership skill is for leaders of all ages and experience levels, and everyone should seek to learn every day of their lives. That being said, I cannot overstate the importance of being a learner to young and future leaders. In your professional life, you will soon learn this to be a universal truth: Before you can influence, you must understand!
Now, the reasons for the importance of learning as a leadership skill may appear obvious on the surface.
However, a quick review of the specific benefits will help to cement them in your mind:
- Young professionals who have learned theories and ideas in school still need to master the nuances of their business or industry
- Employees often have a lifetime of experience that their young or new leaders cannot match
- “There is nothing new under the sun”, and chances are someone in your organization can help you avoid making the same mistakes as a predecessor if you learn from them
In my first leadership role, I felt that I had a good grasp of the importance of ensuring that as a leader I was learning as much as I could as quickly as I could. Yet soon, I also found that this was easier said than done when there is so much to learn.
It did take some time, but eventually I found ways to focus my learning efforts:
- Shadow employees whenever possible in a new role – If you are in an entry level role, ask to shadow your peers in their key tasks, and if you are in a leadership role, take time to shadow the key tasks of your employees
- Ask questions in place of direction – Understand why an employee took a certain course of action, and understand the ideas they have to improve future outcomes
- Build trust and communication early – Whether it means taking a sincere interest in their families or understanding the biggest problems they face at work daily, an executive once told me that “the day your employees stop bringing you their problems is the day you’ve stopped leading them”
These three tips have been absolutely critical in developing my leadership skill of learning. Make sure that you are learning every day in your career!
Skill 3: Effective Communication
The key phrase in our third lesson on leadership skills is “effective” communication. I’m sure that even in your early career, you have already begun to see the difference between an effective communicator and an ineffective communicator. Moreover, whether you’ve consciously recognized it or not, the individuals who you’ve recognized as the best leaders in your department or organization are probably extremely effective communicators. Why is this skill so important, and how can a young professional begin to develop it themselves?
Well, let’s keep things simple: Effective communication is a key to influencing and leading others!
Here are a few reasons why:
- Time is precious in the professional world – Communicating your thoughts, ideas, and expectations to colleagues and employees is essential to making sure that things are done right the first time
- Clarity in feedback makes it easier for employees to improve their work
- Effective communication inspires effective communication – When everyone is on the same page, more progress is made
The best managers and executives I have had the pleasure to work with have been exceptional communicators.
Some of the specific ways in which they applied this skill include the following:
- Follow-up conference calls and meetings with an email – If any expectations or action items were identified by the manager, repeating them on “paper” ensures that nothing slips through the cracks
- Share your thoughts clearly and briefly – The more clearly you convey your words, the more easily your peers and employees can act on them with accuracy
- Anticipate questions and prepare answers beforehand – This is especially relevant during periods of change management with your team
Take these proven lessons in leadership skills with you in our early career and become an effective communicator!
Skill 4: Constructive Feedback
In keeping with the trend of juxtaposing the good and bad examples of these leadership skills, think back honestly to any work or school experience you’ve had in which you received feedback from a manager or superior. What interactions had you leaving feeling energized by the feedback? What interactions had you leaving feeling discouraged by the conversation? The difference between these interactions almost certainly boiled down to our fourth leadership skill: The ability to provide constructive feedback to employees.
As a young or future leader, I am sure that you want to avoid putting your employees through a negative feedback experience similar to the negative interactions you’ve had yourself.
Let’s look at a few reasons why constructive feedback is so important in the workplace:
- The majority of employees have a genuine desire to do good work
- Good leaders have an opportunity to inspire their employees with feedback that they can apply to their tasks
- Constructive feedback is key to the growth of your employees, your team, your department, and your organization
Now that we’ve explored the importance of providing good, constructive feedback to your employees, it’s time to review some of the best ways to put these ideas into action. One of the secrets to constructive feedback is that it always boils down into three simple elements.
Here are the three elements of constructive feedback:
- Offer praise and honest appreciation – Begin by acknowledging the positive aspects of the employees initiative, ideas, or effort
- Call attention to mistakes (indirectly) – Do not place blame on the employee, instead place focus on what isn’t working
- Build agreement in expectations and opportunities for improvement – A constructive feedback should not end without a mutual understanding in what the next steps are
Make no mistake about it, offering constructive feedback is one of the most difficult development areas that all new leaders will face. This is one of those leadership skills that you will find yourself developing over time. However, understanding the importance of constructive feedback and its three elements will help you to develop these skills more quickly.
Skill 5: Inspiration
The fifth and final leadership skill that we will explore today is perhaps one of the most abstract and subjective. This skill is the ability to inspire. Of course, we have all known inspiring figures in our personal and professional lives. Maybe its an athlete, or a teacher, or a peer, or a manager. It is easy for us to recognize the people who inspire us, but it is much more difficult to understand what elements lead to this inspiration. Difficult as it may be, young professionals should begin learning the lessons of inspiration today.
To explain the importance of inspiration in your professional life, we do not need any extensive list. The answer is simple: When you enter your first true leadership role, the ability of your team to produce results is largely dependent on how engaged and empowered your employees feel every day. Let’s take a closer look at just what you can do to build a sense of inspiration among your team.
Here are some of the simplest steps you can take to engage and empower your team:
- Acknowledge and appreciate every improvement – Build an excitement around the idea of continuous improvement by praising every small innovation made
- Make everyone the hero of their own story – Remember that employees want to do good work and ensure that they know how instrumental they are to the team’s success
- Get in the trenches (and help dig) – There is little more inspiring to employees than seeing their leader present during the most difficult moments of the job, whether it means going out into the field or sitting in on a tough call with a customer. Be visible!
Of course, there are so many more examples and tips on how to build inspiration on your team, but these few are a great place to start. Just remember: Leading is about influencing, and you will find it hard to influence without inspiration.
Each and every one of us will look at leadership in a different light. Some will want it, and will feel motivated to begin preparing now to be the best leader they can be. Others will find themselves reluctantly pushed into a leadership role through circumstances outside of their control, and want to be ready if and when this responsibility is thrust upon them.
If you are interested in learning key leadership lessons from one of America’s greatest businessmen, be sure to read a book that has had a significant impact on my own professional life. You can find the Amazon link below:
Leadership is not easy, and it is certainly not learned overnight. However, when young professionals make a true effort to learn the leadership skills that will allow them to succeed
Did you learn anything new from the leadership skills above? Have you had great leaders in your own professional life who displayed these skills? Please share in the comments below!