Essential Soft Skills for Effective Leadership

A conversation with Barry Katz

What’s the difference between a “Manager” and a “Leader”? And how do they communicate differently? 

I sat down with Barry Katz to get his insights on some essential soft skills to impact leadership in the workplace (and, here’s a bonus: adopting these practices will also help to deepen your interpersonal relationships outside of the office). Here’s what Barry had to share:

Much has been written on the difference between managing and leading people. Here is a simple distinction: a manager has direct reports, a leader has followers. Why do people follow their leader? Simply put, because they want to.

There is necessity for both roles, and they can both be embodied in one person. Managers manage “what is”, focusing on efficiency and productivity. Leaders turn their attention to “what can be”, inspiring, and motivating new ideas, innovation, and leading change.  

To be an effective leader one needs to communicate effectively. 

To know the path is not the same as to walk the path.”

A favorite quote by Morpheus from the movie The Matrix. 

Most often, when there is a gap in skills or a need for personal development, it’s less a matter of that person being unaware of what needs to be done and more of a difficulty in doing it.

For example, when I ask “What is essential to establish and maintain a strong working relationship?” most people would easily list behaviors like trust, listening, showing an interest in others, empathy, and compassion. And yet, not many would say they successfully apply, practice, and exhibit these behaviors. 

You see? Most of us know what we need to do, and often we even know how to do it. We have done the workshop, read the book, and bought the t-shirt. But once we know the path, the real challenge is to walk that path: the ongoing application and daily practice of the principle behaviors we believe in.

Leaders don’t just tell their teams what path to take, provide the required skills, and expect them to start working. They coach and mentor their teams, encourage engagement and collaboration, and continually and consistently develop their leadership communication skills. Good leaders lead by personal example; they become role models to the behavior they want to see in others.  

Presence – Curiosity – Compassion : The PCC trifecta. 

Presence | Listening

We are so easily distracted – overrun with sensory input from sights and sounds around us, all competing for our attention. Primarily, it’s hard to resist the allure of our mobile phones. Its omnipresence during almost all of our business interactions means we are often mentally distracted and not fully present even if we are physically in the room.  

All of this competition for our attention means the quality of our communication and the productivity of our work is negatively affected. Being truly present and listening to the other has become rare, and leaders who learn to bring their full attention to who and to what is in front of them inspire others to tune-in as well.

Becoming a good listener is not just paying full attention to others but also tuning into ourselves. To learn to identify and listen to our own needs, feelings, and thoughts. When we can be more in tune with ourselves it becomes easier to “show up” and be present when connecting with others.

Curiosity | Questioning

Curiosity is something we’re born with and as time and life go on, we tend more toward taking things at face value. Cultivating intrigue and curiosity takes us back to a more natural space within us, and changes how we observe and interact with the world around us.

Good questions are rooted in genuine curiosity, and really deepen the trust and connection you have with others. I enjoy asking questions that make people stop and rethink. These are called breakthrough questions that almost literally breakthrough preconceived opinions, creating fresh thoughts that lead to new insights that influence buying decisions and new behaviors. You know you have asked a breakthrough question when they elicit responses like “I’ve never thought of that” or “no one has ever asked me that before”. And then comes the joy of moving into some beautiful, unchartered territory of exploring new ideas.

Questions are great not only for discovery, but to ask for what we want, rather than giving strong directives. Ask questions like “what if?”,“ how about?”, and “would you be open to something new?”  For example, instead of saying ‘I will show you a POC’ ask ‘are you open to seeing a POC?’ or ‘what if I could prove the benefit of our solution to you?’

Leaders who take a genuine interest in the individuals they interact with get to know them better and build stronger, happier, and more productive teams.

Compassion | Empathy

When I get impatient or annoyed it becomes more difficult to listen or keep a genuine interest in others. The same is true when I’m confronted with aggressive or disagreeable people. I can be quick to judge or criticize them for their “wrongdoing”, but then I remind myself of a quote I once heard: “Every person is fighting a battle you know nothing of.” and that reminds me to come back to compassion and empathy. This is the ability to treat others with respect and bring out the best in them. 

A leader who assumes the best intentions from others can more easily practice compassion and empathy. That annoying coworker, the unresponsive client, or that person who jumps the line in front of you? Chances are, these people don’t set out to annoy you. Many simply aren’t emotionally tuned. The ability to move past the knee-jerk reaction to become irritated or label another person is a quality of emotional intelligence.

I see empathy as the ability to recognize and connect with the feelings of others, and to articulate it back to them without judgment in a way that makes them feel understood. Understanding another person’s behavior doesn’t mean I agree or condone it. 

Leaders have the ability to cultivate the potential in others and give them a chance to shine. Good leaders want to create more good leaders, not to create more followers. 

A package deal.

There are many soft skills that could have been named here, but there’s a reason these are Barry’s trifecta when it comes to developing as a leader: they’re harmonious when applied together.

These three qualities complement each other and are interrelated. To be present you have to listen, to listen you need to be interested, interest is shown through questions. Finally, it’s the ability to understand and empathize even with people you disagree with and show compassion even to people you may not like. 

Listening, questioning, and empathizing are reliant upon one another. Integrate them into your way of working and communicating with others. Take an interest, listen intently, and empathize, and you’ll find your professional and personal relationships become richer, fuller, and healthier.
Barry and the team at Katzu pride themselves on helping leaders to fine-tune their leadership skills and make an impact in the workplace.

Bridging the Collaboration Gap Amongst Teams

Collaboration is paramount to a successful business and yet, it can often feel like one of the more challenging aspects to truly attain. Collaboration is more than just setting meetings and meeting deadlines. True collaboration is people working well together because they want to. This happens when there is a shared vision and understanding of a common goal, along with mutual trust and respect.

We’ve put together a list of things you can implement in your company, to encourage cross-team collaboration, leading to happier employees, and a more streamlined workflow.

Focus on Culture

We could start to create a list of team collaboration tools and make a practical list of “tactics” but building collaborative workflows begins with a much deeper origin: company culture. You’ll be doing yourself, your employees – and ultimately, your customers – a favor if you have a look at the cultural dynamics within the organization.

Some key elements of a good collaboration culture include:

  • A sense of community. When people feel valued, that their perspectives and contributions matter, and that they are truly a part of the bigger picture, they are more likely to be open to exchange ideas and ask for help when they need it. There’s a balance, of course – your company can’t function on brainstorming sessions and happy hours alone (though it is important to meet outside of the limitations of meetings to connect on a personal level to instill a sense of community). 

Collect team members regularly to discuss tasks, ideas, and goals. To enable cross-team collaboration, invite people from other teams to join, share a space, and communicate face-to-face; it will give them a sense of how to work together.

Show that every voice is valued and allow everyone a chance to be heard. Younger, less senior team members have a valuable perspective, and it’s important to invite them into the conversation.

  • Communication as a lifestyle. That may sound a bit up-in-the-sky, but let’s bring it down to earth: communication should be the bedrock of all within the company. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Communicating well is an ongoing commitment to learning and fine-tuning. By fostering an environment of open, honest, constructive communication and ongoing feedback, you will give your employees a sense of safety in expression. When you create a safe space for ongoing communication, for people to make mistakes and be wrong you will have more people – including those introverts who may find it especially challenging – willing to contribute freely.
  • Culture is a top-down strategy. Not to start exploring the dynamics of “hierarchy” within the company, but it’s shown that culture throughout the workforce is influenced by every layer. The leadership team should be on board with the visions and values of company culture, and should embody these themselves. They should be a role model for how they would like their teams to collaborate by letting go of their ego, being communicative, consistent, and using a tone and language that supports collaboration.
  • Take time to celebrate. You don’t have to take the company on a fancy holiday to celebrate every win, but it is important whenever your team celebrates success to emphasize the collaboration that made it possible. Appraisal metrics should be defined by both individual success and collaborative efforts, and find a way to reward and celebrate collaboration. Tools such as 15five are great for putting some of the power into the hands of the individual, for real-time praise and feedback as well as self-assessment reporting.

Consistency is Key

Being consistent helps to form streamlined workflows. When employees and teammates know there is a clear process, and why and how it works, it is easier for everyone to follow. When all teams clearly and consistently manage expectations, they will be on the same page and can rely upon one another. By setting reasonable expectations, everything runs more smoothly.

Communication shows up again in this article (we told you it’s important!) and this time, it’s about having regular communication through proper channels. Using tools such as Slack helps to ensure everyone knows how and where to communicate updates between teammates and other teams.

Holding regular face-to-face meetings ensures everyone knows when and where they can share their progress, questions, or bottlenecks. Ultimately, the more predictability there is in the check-ins and communication culture, the more collaborative individuals can be.

Depending on the nature of your business, having regular one-on-one meetings with management to provide feedback and give a more personalized space for sharing from employees can also help to support the broader aspects of working together. We recommend also having regular meetings amongst managers whose teams collaborate with one another, to provide high-level updates. Set these meetings, and keep them!

Conclusion

Teams that collaborate together are happier and more productive. Investing time and attention into creating a collaborative culture, means creating a safe space for constructive and consistent communication, and ensuring everyone has a clear shared vision of the common goal. This will increase productivity, lead to more satisfied customers and employees, and be a catalyst to business growth.

With these team collaboration best practices, we hope you’ll see that the onus is on the entire organization to create a thriving collaborative environment, because nothing worthwhile was ever achieved alone.

Boundaries in the Time of the Coronavirus

Boundaries. One of the most defining aspects of the coronavirus period. Stay at home, or close to it. Stay within the boundaries. That is clear.

And yet there is one boundary that is less clear than ever. It is a boundary that has always challenged us – the boundary between work and home life. For many of us, the home is now the office, which means that we are, effectively, at work 24 hours a day.

A common complaint we’re hearing is that the workday has gotten longer. A lot longer. The morning starts earlier and the end of the workday carries into the late hours of the night. Even the weekend has become legitimate work time, as it’s hard to know which day it is. The result, predictably, is exhaustion and fatigue, the tell-tale signs of approaching burnout. And if we’re not careful, it will affect our productivity, our health, and our relationships.

So what can we do? 

Put the boundaries back. Decide on your work hours and stick to them. Of course, you may need to be flexible. This period is challenging for everyone. Juggling house-bound children, work and housework isn’t easy, and concessions are inevitable.  But even our concessions need limits, and it is up to us to establish them. The following points could make your boundaries more acceptable to the people in your life.

  1. Set realistic boundaries. Many of us are playing multiple roles simultaneously.
  2. Ask your manager to prioritize your tasks, and explain clearly what you have on your plate and the relevant time requirements.
  3. Manage expectations proactively. Tell colleagues in advance when you are available and when not. And remember to be flexible as these are not ordinary times.
  4. Keep your communication positive. Emphasize the times when you are available.
  5. Leave a buffer for exceptions and compromises. Rigidity is only likely to cause stress.
  6. And finally, invite your colleagues to follow your example. You just might create a new and welcome trend.

There’s a lot of talk about the coronavirus period being an opportunity. It is undoubtedly an opportunity to practice setting healthy boundaries.

Communicating During Times of Uncertainty

How Communication Can Clear Up a Fog

One of the ‘biggest’ questions people are asking now during the novel Corona pandemic is: how do you communicate in times of uncertainty?

The answer is that in periods of uncertainty we must communicate certainty.

When times are tough we need to hear a simple, concise and coherent message and plan that will enable us to have a vision of a future and a way to get through the tough times.

When all around us is chaos we crave clarity. On a battlefield uncertainty wreaks havoc. You don’t know where the bullets will come from, how the enemy will react and what they will do. It’s so loud you can’t even hear what your fellow soldiers are saying. This is called the “fog of war”. In all this chaos and uncertainty the one thing that has to be certain is the core message, the main idea that drives every one of your decisions and actions towards a clear goal despite the havoc. Doing business, running a company and managing people during this novel Corona pandemic is no different.

Periods of uncertainty are fertile grounds for speculation, conspiracy and decline in morale. The absence of a simple core message invites rumors, panic and confusion. We can see it around us today – in countries, like the United Kingdom, where the leaders are communicating mixed messages, people don’t know how to behave but in countries that have a clear message and plan, like South Korea, the population understands what to do and can work towards it. The same goes for the workplace. Leaders, managers and CEOs who can communicate a clear core message and plan, help their employees understand what is important and expected from them, and this ensures a greater sense of trust and stability.  

In reality, communicating and sticking to one main message is rarely done or not done well enough.

Why is this the case?

First, it’s because in times of uncertainty it’s not always obvious what the most important message is. We are so overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation that we cannot see the wood for the trees.

Second, we find it hard to let go of competing ideas because they all seem significant and we can’t decide which is the most important message. But here’s the thing – if you have more than one core message, you dilute your message and you are adding to the uncertainty instead of clearing it up.

Third, when we know the core message we assume it is also obvious to others and that we don’t need to spell it out. Wrong! Remember people desperately need certainty to balance the uncertainty. We need you to spell it out, to make it clear, to fill the void – to communicate leadership.

Here are five tips to help you communicate certainty:

  1. Clarity – identify the one most important message that brings value to your audience.
  2. Authenticity and Honesty – don’t shy away from the facts and the challenges. Address the rumors, the elephant in the room. People appreciate honesty.
  3. Concreteness and Specificity – don’t communicate your message through abstract ideas or clichés. We are pre-programmed to feel things for people not for abstractions. Relate to the specific challenges and issues of your customers, employees and company. Give concrete details, examples and stories that your audience can relate to. Don’t just say “we care” or “customers first” make it concrete, provide a benefit like “offer a discount” or “extend the terms”.
  4. Practical Empathy – it’s about acknowledging peoples’ concerns and going one step further – extending an invitation for them to share their concerns and showing the willingness to take practical steps to address them. 
  5. Vision – talk about the future. Communicate a vision of certainty. Remember uncertainty covers all aspects of pessimism so your job is to offer the certain and optimistic version of the vision!  

Once you have crafted your message of certainty, your effectiveness depends on you communicating your message with commitment and energy.  As the saying goes: “your audience cares only once they know you care”. And your audience will commit only if they feel you are committed.

In a nutshell – under uncertainty – be clear, authentic, specific, practically empathetic, and share your vision with energy and commitment. Only then can your communication begin to clear up the fog.