How to develop leadership skills in employees
It’s a popular misconception that certain individuals are natural-born leaders. Psychological studies* show that genetic factors only play a minor role in determining people’s leadership abilities. That means you can’t automatically expect an employee who doesn’t have any previous experience in leading a team to thrive in a managerial role.
Instead, organizations need to prepare their people for future leadership positions with dedicated training and guidance.
This article will explore six effective strategies to develop employee leadership skills. We also cover which soft skills aspiring leaders need and why it’s worth investing in their development.
*Science Direct, 2006
What are leadership skills?
Leadership skills are categorized by capabilities such as overseeing processes, guiding initiatives, and motivating team members toward a common goal. In a work environment, they also include the capacity to create opportunities and remove obstacles for employees.
Most leadership skills are soft skills related to interpersonal traits or attributes, such as reliability or empathy. Although leading a team can call for some hard skills like technical abilities or analytical thinking, they’re rarely sufficient by themselves. Instead, industry knowledge and expertise should complement an employee’s personal communication style and people skills.
Key leadership skills
Here are some key leadership skills your organization should prioritize:
- Delegation — The best leaders show they trust their reports by distributing the workload instead of doing everything themselves or micromanaging others. They also know how to coach their team members to work on new tasks independently so they can take on more responsibilities.
- Reliability — Dependable leaders build trust with their colleagues by doing what they say they will. They should also model company guidelines and expectations, like taking an active part in meetings and not working evenings or weekends.
- Communication — Leaders are the channel between the organization and their reports, so they need to communicate bigger-picture business objectives clearly. They should also hone their communication skills to build a strong rapport with their team, solve disputes, and give constructive feedback.
- Decisiveness — Being able to make tough choices makes leaders more efficient and shows they have confidence in their ideas. Teams may be more receptive to unpopular decisions if their manager has convictions backed by experience and expertise.
- Innovation — Leaders who recognize opportunities for change and improvement help their teams consistently perform at their best and grow professionally. They also challenge the “that’s how we’ve always done things” mentality, which often causes stagnation.
- Empathy — Seeing things from their team’s perspective helps leaders understand what each employee needs to succeed. It can enable them to get to the root cause of someone’s lower-than-expected performance to find a meaningful solution.
- Motivating — Good leaders uncover different employees’ key drivers and use them as motivational tools. Some managers might build such strong professional relationships with their team that people will be inspired to emulate and impress them.
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Why invest in employee leadership development?
People crave development opportunities, and leadership skills are a top priority. According to a recent report by SHRM, 54% of employees ranked leadership training as important, making it the highest-ranked of all the soft skills. Investing in leadership development helps address your team’s needs and keep them engaged at work. And as part of a holistic development program, leadership training contributes to a positive learning culture at your organization.
Leadership skills are in high demand. LinkedIn found 49% of businesses consider leadership and management training to be their primary focus area. This demand is due in large part to:
- A tight labor market, which means many businesses are competing for top talent.
- Companies under-delivering on development, which is why only 17% of employees with an interest in leadership training tend to participate in a related program.
- The Baby Boomer generation reaching retirement age, which will open up many leadership positions.
Investing in leadership development means you can meet this demand by up-skilling your current team members. Avoid costly hiring processes and prioritize internal promotions that benefit your people by giving them opportunities to advance.
Your staff will consider it a powerful compliment that you see them as future leaders and would entrust managerial company roles to them down the road. It will also help motivate employees to perform at their best and steadily work toward their goals.
Strategies for leadership skills development at your company
Here are some effective strategies if you want your people to sharpen their leadership skills.
1. Identify your essential leadership skills
Every business has unique needs and requires a different blend of leadership abilities. Before you plan any development initiatives, decide which skills would make the most sense for you to prioritize. Consider your:
- Strategic planning models
- Company culture
- Individual employee roles
- Current challenges
For example, if you work for a startup, leadership may need to focus on innovation to encourage new ideas, develop more products, and reach additional customers. Or, if your company has a high turnover rate, managers could benefit from developing their empathy skills to help them to pinpoint and address staff dissatisfaction more effectively.
Most importantly, consider what your people need. Use engagement surveys to uncover current sentiments about management and what areas need improvement. An engagement action plan could also help you detail what skills future leaders need to better support employees.
2. Offer a variety of training courses
Formal training courses give team members the theory and practical knowledge they need to become leaders. They can be internal or external, depending on your resources, and can take the form of:
- Seminars and webinars
- Elearning programs
- Web-based courses
Given the popularity of hybrid and remote work, it makes sense that some of the best training resources are online. For example, Leapsome’s partner GoodHabitz has a range of leadership and management courses that cater to different learning methods. Courses like these also give employees the flexibility to learn at their own pace and arrange lessons around their preferred schedule.
3. Hold workshops & focus groups
Engage employees in regular discussions about leadership with an experienced manager or team lead. These sessions let colleagues explore ideas and exchange instant feedback. You can include activities like:
- Debates — Employees can look at common problems their leaders face and help them find a solution.
- Discussions — Trainers can ask staff to collaborate on leadership scenarios in pairs, small groups, or with the entire team.
- Ideas sessions — Teams can use these to share their ideas and build on their knowledge about different topics.
- Scenario planning — Staff can visualize sensitive conversations or decisions and plan out what they’d do.
Besides developing leadership skills, workshops and focus groups are an opportunity to build stronger staff relationships. Employees get the chance to get to know each other better and support one another while discussing their ideas.
4. Create a mentorship program
Pair team members with experienced managers to develop their leadership skills. Mentorships are flexible, so you can structure the program to suit the department, team, and individuals involved. Here are some popular ideas:
- Arrange 1:1 sessions for mentors and mentees
- Have mentees observe their mentors in real-life leadership situations
- Ask mentors to monitor how mentees handle new leadership responsibilities and offer constructive feedback
To target specific skills, make pairings based on the mentor’s strengths and the employee’s areas of improvement. For instance, someone who struggles with conflict resolution would greatly benefit from observing a manager who excels at defusing complex situations among their team.
5. Provide regular feedback
Feedback is critical to learning and development. That’s because team members need help identifying their strengths and areas of growth, so they know what to focus on. This is especially important for soft skills related to leadership, as they’re hard to quantify.
Suppose that a manager is trying to improve the way in which they provide instructions to their team. Their instructions might be confusing, leading their employees into stunned silence The manager might misinterpret this silence as an indication that everyone understands, when the reality is that the team don't know what they are supposed to be doing. A trainer could enlighten the manager on this by closing that feedback loop and subsequently, could help them to assess and improve their communication skills.
Regular feedback also ensures you address issues promptly, so you can stay on top of growth areas as they arise and reduce the risk of employees repeating errors and learning suboptimal practices. Plus, consistent feedback provides an opportunity to reinforce what staff is doing well and praise their successes.
If your company doesn’t have one already, create a review cycle to ensure team members receive feedback on a regular basis. You can discuss their progress in one-on-one meetings like performance appraisals and career development talks. Use performance appraisal forms to collect feedback from each employee’s trainers and mentors to get a full overview of their progress.
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6. Foster an attitude of responsibility & independence
Encourage managers and team leads to delegate tasks and avoid micromanaging their reports. As a result, employees will become more independent and learn valuable problem-solving skills. They’ll also develop a leadership mindset where they try to clear roadblocks based on their instincts and experiences before seeking help.
Managers and team leads can examine their workload for opportunities to give reports more responsibility. That might be simple activities like encouraging team members to meet with clients directly or taking turns running meetings, as David Ciccarelli suggests below:
“We encourage leadership by providing an opportunity for people to lead our company-wide meeting, which we call the ”Huddle.” Each week, a leader serves as the ”Huddlemaster,” a master of ceremonies that keeps the whole meeting running smoothly. This is a great chance for people to get a public speaking opportunity in front of their peers and introduce themselves to colleagues they might not have the chance to work with very often.”
— David Ciccarelli, Chief Executive at Voices
Prioritize & personalize development with Leapsome
Leadership skills development can solve a labor shortage while meeting your team’s professional development and career advancement needs. But you need to ensure your company targets the right skill sets for all individuals and departments that make up your organization.
Build personalized courses for a diverse range of roles with Leapsome’s Learning module. You can easily collate learning materials from our resource library and your external sources to create classes. Then, simply add your content to our Learning Paths to build a curriculum for each role. That’s how you guide employees from their current positions to future roles as leaders at your organization.
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