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11 skills that will help you become a better leader in the new era of work 

By Christoph Niewerth, Board, Germany – Hays

People automatically look to their leaders in times of crisis, and the last few months have certainly delivered some of the greatest challenges those leaders have ever faced. However, once the immediate tests posed by the pandemic have subsided, leaders will need to be equipped to succeed in a significantly transformed world of work – one in which remote, hybrid and flexible working practices will be the cornerstones of the ‘new normal’.

With this in mind, here are 11 of the skills that leaders will require in the new era of work.

1. Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence might be the most critical of all of the skills needed by leaders in the new era of work. Emotional intelligence – also sometimes called EQ or EI – is the ability to manage our emotions, which enables us to better handle crisis situations. Our EQ also allows us to appreciate and understand the emotions of others. Therefore, the set of social and emotional skills that makes up our EQ will be crucial if leaders are to make the best decisions and build the best relationships possible, amid the constant change, uncertainty and instability of the post-COVID-19 world of work.

An emotionally intelligent leader has a strong understanding of their own and other people’s emotions, with the ability to manage them successfully. There is a close relationship, then, between emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion in the most effective leaders. As I have previously written, compassionate leadership is not about ‘going soft’ or being a pushover. Instead, it’s about such qualities as self-awareness – as I touched upon above – and self-compassion, and the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

2. Self-awareness

Linked with EQ, self-awareness is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “an awareness of one’s own personality or individuality”. Organisational psychologist and researcher Tasha Eurich has gone further, identifying two broad categories of self-awareness: 1. internal and 2. external.

Internal self-awareness focuses on how clearly we see our own values, passions and aspirations, and our impact on others. Meanwhile, external self-awareness is our understanding of how other people see us. Eurich has underlined the importance of leaders actively working to develop both types of self-awareness, commenting: “…leaders must actively work on both seeing themselves clearly and getting feedback to understand how others see them.”

Key to developing that self-awareness is adopting a regular habit of mindfulness and self-reflection. By routinely taking time to reflect on their skills, strengths, weaknesses and behavioural patterns, as well as how they may be perceived by others, leaders are able to better tell the difference between their own perception of a situation, and the situation as it objectively is. Reflecting will also help them to develop better critical thinking skills, and to more accurately identify what their people need from them – both will be critical in the new era of work.

3. Adaptability

During this crisis, leaders have had to adapt and tackle new challenges on a near-daily basis. In the process, however, we’ve learned that we can affect significant change overnight – for example, by leveraging entire workforces to suddenly start working remotely. So, we know we can adapt quickly, and have the necessary skills to do so. And, in the new era of work, we will need to continue working this way in response to the new changes and uncertainties that will inevitably arise. This has been one of the key learnings our CEO, Alistair Cox has personally shared.

This means that your business and senior leadership team will need to continue taking an agile and adaptable approach, combining flexible thinking with good forward planning. That must include putting multiple plans in place for achieving objectives, so that – whatever circumstances your organisation may face – it always has several potential solutions at its disposal. Take the steps now to devise contingency plans that will help your business to navigate the new challenges posed by the ever-evolving post-pandemic world of work. But be ready to pivot them quickly, and in a completely different direction, if required.

The most successful and capable leaders in the emerging new era of work will, in many ways, be those who have the confidence and conviction to pivot plans and take a fluid approach where needed, in addition to having the mechanisms in place to make any necessary changes quickly.

4. Communication

At this time when so much remains uncertain – not just about the course of the pandemic, but also about the real-world impact on our daily lives – people are looking to leaders for direction and a sense of the way forward. The way you communicate this will therefore have a huge impact.

Leaders in the new era of work need to be authentic, clear and regular communicators. They must also be honest and vulnerable, with an ability to admit that they don’t have all of the answers, but are working hard to find them – not least because they, too, are still learning and devising solutions to the challenges that are continually arising. As our CEO, Cox says: “When a massively destructive event like this happens, and people are worried, anxious and scared, they look upwards to the leader of the business for answers – answers we, as leaders, don’t always have. But at times like these, there’s no place to hide, you’ve got to be out there front and centre. The key is to maintain regular communication, and give direction in a way that is clear, honest, authentic and humble, to give people both guidance and reassurance, even when that reassurance might be difficult to give.”

As a leader, you will also need to adjust your communication for the new era of the ‘hybrid team’, in which some of your workers at any one time may be based in your main office, and others are based at home or remotely. You will need to maintain clear and fair lines of communication with both groups of employees, so that every team member feels equally included in your organisation’s mission in the post-pandemic working landscape.

5. Creative problem-solving

It has long been argued that it is crisis and limitation, rather than stability and freedom, that most help to spur on creativity and innovation. Charlotte Gifford, writing for European CEO, has noted that “we often assume that we are at our most creative when we have an abundance of time and resources at our fingertips, but research suggests that constraints help us unlock our brightest ideas.”

To illustrate her point, Gifford drew attention to a 2018 review of 145 academic studies, which found that while resource abundance encourages us to only propose the easiest available solutions to problems, resource scarcity tends to produce the most novel solutions to problems.

This is certainly a point of great relevance to the coronavirus crisis, which has been likened to wartime in terms of the effects it has had on innovation. Elevated demand for ventilators, protective equipment and hand sanitiser has led to organisations across the sectors devising all manner of often unexpected solutions. We’ve seen Formula 1 engineers, for instance, making breathing aids, and brewers producing hand sanitiser.

Such ingenuity arose amid the pandemic because of the urgent need for it, and as we transition into the post-COVID-19 era of work, the ability to tackle challenges creatively, think outside of the box, and drive new innovations will continue to be greatly needed. This will be especially so as the pace of digitalisation increases and customer demands and expectations change more quickly than they have ever done before.

One of the key lessons of the last few months is that leaders cannot depend on always being able to do things the way they have always done them; even if they do not proactively innovate themselves, changing circumstances and needs are likely to eventually force their hand. Now, then, is a time to lay a new path – perhaps one that you didn’t think your business would take just a few weeks ago.

6. Critical thinking

Closely related to the above point about creativity and problem-solving, critical thinking will be imperative in the new era of work, for the simple reason that the new and unfamiliar circumstances we face in the wake of the coronavirus crisis are likely to present new challenges.

But what is critical thinking? Contrary to common belief, the term ‘critical thinking’ does not mean quite the same as intelligence, although intelligence is a component of critical thinking. After all, we’ve probably all met people who were good at summoning up obscure information or resolving complex mathematical equations, but who often made poor decisions.

Guest writing for Entrepreneur, Shawn Doyle – President at New Light Learning and Development Inc. – defined critical thinking as “thinking about how you think”. He went on to cite several steps that we can all take to develop our critical thinking skills, including taking virtual or online classes, being unafraid to question assumptions, and teaching team members how to think more critically and objectively.

In this new and unpredictable era, we all need to show greater willingness to routinely question our own thought patterns. By using our critical thinking skills to explore every conceivable leadership problem from every possible angle, we can place ourselves in a better position to devise the right solutions.

7. Inclusiveness

One key change that the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought to the world of work is a surge in remote working. And as we’ve moved through the crisis, we have seen the introduction of hybrid teams, whereby some workers are office-based, and others home-based. It has never been more important for leaders to lead their teams in an inclusive way, ensuring every member of the team feels they are of value.

As Dan Robertson, Diversity & Inclusion Director at the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion (ENEI), has previously written, inclusive leaders tend to be those who provide a compelling vision that inspires diversity of thinking. They also show high levels of empathy, acceptance of everyone without bias, and an ability to listen to the opinions of diverse groups.

Robertson also noted that insufficiently inclusive leadership serves to hamper innovation. Even pre-COVID-19, it was important for leaders to take an inclusive approach in order to help avoid the ‘groupthink’ that could be so damaging to organisational decision-making, as well as to minimise the likelihood of unconscious bias in talent selection, retention and recruitment.

Hays Australia and New Zealand Managing Director Nick Deligiannis recently wrote about how you can ensure you’re leading your remote and hybrid teams inclusively. Such steps should include setting expectations and making accountability clear to all staff at an early stage, committing equal time and focus to each member of the team, and discouraging a ‘them and us’ culture, whereby friction may arise between remote and office-based staff, driven by unhelpful and negative attitudes from one group towards the ‘other’ group.

8. A commitment to lifelong learning

As Cox says, “Nothing I could have learned at business school could have ever prepared me for the past four months. While these weeks have undoubtedly been some of the most challenging of my career, they have also been some of the most valuable in terms of lessons learned.” The COVID-19 crisis has certainly shone a spotlight on the importance of commitment to lifelong learning, regardless of seniority.

In the new era of work, the best leaders will be committed to their own lifelong learning and role-modelling those learning behaviours within their organisations. Key to this will be encouraging your employees to develop a growth mindset, whereby they are always on the lookout for new opportunities to add to their skills.

So, be a role model, and commit to your own, continuous lifelong learning. As Cox says, “I strongly believe that you are never too senior or old to learn something new. In fact, the best leaders I know are those who are always learning new things, always reading or exploring a lot and above all, always make their own development a personal priority. These people usually lead high-performing businesses. And that’s no coincidence. As I see it, if the leader of a business is committed to their own learning, generally their entire workforce can be too. And that can only lead to good things.”

9. Considered risk taking

The ability to take well-reasoned, calculated risks has always been an important component of leadership. Leaders should not confuse it with genuinely reckless risk taking that combines high risk with low potential reward.

In the new era of work, however, this skill has probably become even more pivotal. After all, this is a time of considerable uncertainty and ongoing evolution in the corporate landscape. Leaders need to be ready to take opportunities as they arise, which will always involve an element of risk taking and venturing into the unknown.

To make risk taking an effective part of your own leadership strategy, you should ensure you first have a clear goal and vision, and gather all the information you will require to estimate the risk of a given action.

It is also crucial to consider the costs of the particular action relative to your resources, as well as to evaluate the potential positive and negative outcomes of taking that risk.

10. Resilience

Closely interlinked with the importance of risk taking is that of adopting a positive and proactive attitude to whatever circumstances you may find yourself in as a leader.

It is impossible for even the most effective leader to only ever experience success in their life and career. The reality is that as a leader, you will encounter setbacks from time to time, and in order to overcome these disappointments and failures, you will need to build personal resilience. The IMD describe resilient leaders as having “…the ability to sustain their energy level under pressure, to cope with disruptive changes and adapt. They bounce back from setbacks. They also overcome major difficulties without engaging in dysfunctional behaviour or harming others.”

The turbulence that many organisations have faced in the coronavirus crisis has simply underlined the longstanding importance of leaders being able to function well under pressure. A resilient leader sees the opportunity in every failure, faces obstacles head on, and has a great ability to draw strength from within themselves for the most challenging moments in their life and work.

11. Authenticity

It is also crucial that amid everything else that makes us what we are as leaders, we are also, ultimately, human – and successful business is all about human connection. So, your leadership approach shouldn’t be cold and impersonal – it should feel human and authentic.

Why, however, is acknowledging all of this so important in the new era of work? The reasons are simple: despite the highly interconnected nature of today’s technological world, we seem to be in danger of losing, instead of gaining, that sense of human connection. We are a naturally social species, and the post-pandemic era of work will force us to work together to determine effective routes forward. Despite this, there is evidence that a fifth of the UK population could be experiencing loneliness, and that 40 per cent of employees feel isolated at work.

And of course, this loneliness and isolation epidemic is seemingly unlikely to be lessened by the recent tendency for many more of us to work from home. Restoring authenticity and a sense of human connection to their employees’ experience of work must therefore be one of the key priorities for leaders in the coming months and years. As Capgemini has put it, “authentic leadership’s key purpose is to develop a sense of belonging, shared values and success. All of these are aspects that may easily disappear in the modern, virtual workplace.”

It is as part of this mission that leaders should also be unafraid to show vulnerability, which is another quality that might not seem obviously beneficial to leadership. However, opening up to your workers about your feelings, concerns and goals could actually help you to set an important example of honesty and trust.

By being vulnerable enough to admit that you don’t have all of the answers to a given problem, you can also open up a space for other members of the team to provide feedback and ideas. As I have touched on elsewhere in this blog, feedback and ideas are crucial in this new era in which we are constantly meeting new challenges and needing to devise solutions from a position of self-awareness. And of course, being vulnerable as a leader also helps to make you more relatable and approachable to your team members, while signalling to them that it’s OK to be authentically themselves.

Great leadership skills will always be great leadership skills

As drastic an impact as the COVID-19 crisis has had on the corporate landscape, it’s also true that all of the aforementioned qualities were crucial and valued in leadership long beforehand. Nonetheless, they have arguably become even more important in the new era of work, in which so much has already changed and so much more remains uncertain. So, keep in mind that it’s not just the above skills that will help to make you a better leader in the coming months and years, but also the ability to adopt different styles of leadership as and when needed, as I have previously written about.

Take the time now to build on your skills in all of these key areas – not least given the many ways in which they interlink – and you will be in a strong position to lead your business effectively into the new era of work and beyond.

About this author

After completing his degree as a qualified industrial engineer, Christoph Niewerth joined Ascena (former Hays) as an account manager in 1999. After progressing to department manager, he later became a divisional and branch manager. In 2008 he was appointed Director of Contracting.

In January 2012, Mr. Niewerth joined the Board of Directors and was appointed Chief Operating Officer. He is responsible for the Sales specialisms IT, Finance, Legal, Retail and Sales & Marketing in Germany as well as the company’s affiliates in Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. He is also responsible for Talent Solutions, public affairs and strategic customer development.

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