While some people might be referred to as ‘natural born leaders’, it’s actually a skill we all need to learn and practice. Unlike the craft-based skills though — the ones you can learn at school, university and on courses — leadership skills are best gained ‘on the job’.
It’s no wonder then that some people make better managers than others. More often than not, we’re thrown into management roles with little to no guidance or support. But there are things you can do to prepare yourself for a management role right now, or to improve your skills if you’re a manager already.
This article is broken down into two sections; actions for those who aspire to manage and lead, and actions for those wanting to be a better manager.
Want to be a manager in the future?
While you might not be a manager right now, there are signs to look out for and things you can work on to develop the skills you’ll need.
Signs you’ll make a great manager
As I said in the introduction, nobody’s born a leader. You need to work at it. But here are some of the signs you could make a good leader.
- You’re a great listener, and care about others
- People turn to you for advice, and know they can rely on you
- You have an open mind, and are happy to change tack as needed
- You expect nothing less than excellence, from yourself and others
- You’re confident, and passionate about what you do.
Remember too that not all managers are the same. You don’t have to be an extrovert, or have the loudest voice, or be a perfectionist to be a good leader. In fact, according to psychoanalyst and management scholar Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, there are eight prominent archetypes of leadership.
How to develop your leadership skills
Find something you’re passionate about
If you’re to successfully lead a team, you need to truly believe in what you’re doing. People can tell when you’re only in it for the money and title. Your passion will inspire others to be the best they can be too, and they’ll be brought along with you.
Work out what you’re good at
And learn what your weaknesses are. Spoiler alert! We all have them.
Delegating tasks empowers others, and frees up your time to focus on what you’re good at. So be honest when you don’t know how to do something. Your team will respect you for it.
You need to step out of your comfort zone to learn new things. You’ll become more confident, and you’ll get noticed when you take on new responsibilities. And the more you take on, the more you’ll learn.
Demonstrating ownership also shows your manager that you’re not afraid to take responsibility, and it’s something that they’ll be looking for when considering you for a higher position.
Reflect on past experiences
Cast your mind back to a time you had a great manager (hopefully you’ve had more than one over the years). Or if you’re early on in your career, think about your favourite teacher. What made them so special? Was it their openness, their passion, their ability to stay calm under pressure and make tough decisions? What can you learn from them?
If you’re unlucky, you might have had a bad experience with a manager too. Think about what made it ‘bad’ — was it your boss’ inaction, lack of empathy or micromanagement? While having a bad boss is horrible at the time, there’s a lot you can learn from the experience.
More often than not, being a good manager is about listening to others rather than being in the spotlight. Invite ideas, feedback and suggestions. And listen to them actively. That means keeping eye contact, showing you’re listening through your body language (nodding, facial expressions, the occasional ‘yes’ and ‘uh huh’) and paying attention to theirs.
While a lot of the skills needed to be a successful manager are more ‘human’, as opposed to technical skills relating to your craft, there are still courses you can attend and books you can read to help improve your leadership skills. Here’s our founder Jonny’s top recommendations:
- Radical Candor by Kim Scott
- Grit by Angela Duckworth
- The Hard thing about Hard things by Ben Horowitz (for the aspiring CEO)
- The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier (for engineers)
- The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou (for designers).
Find a mentor
Is there a leader in your life that you look up to? Ask them to mentor you. You’ll learn more about the skills needed to be a successful people leader, and get feedback on your own strengths and weaknesses.
Show empathy and praise others
Just because you’re not a manager right now doesn’t mean you can’t start practising and demonstrating leadership skills. Offer colleagues your help when they need it, show empathy and praise your teammates when they do something great. Work to maintain team morale (don’t have a social committee? Start one!) and avoid cliques and talking negatively about others.
We all need a little confidence to go after what we want. Some people are more naturally confident, while others need to work at it. Read our article on career confidence to find out how to feel more self-assured in six simple steps.
Already a manager and want to improve?
The work doesn’t stop when you become a manager. Carry on practising leadership skills and try new things to keep your mind sharp and skills fresh.
Keep an open mind
You don’t and never will know everything. It’s OK to defer to someone else when appropriate. If someone disagrees, don’t feel threatened. And never micromanage.
Stay attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others
Strip away the titles, the uniforms, the qualifications — underneath it all, we’re just human beings trying to work out how to do life. And we all share the same emotions, and many of the same wants and fears. Emotions are great levellers.
Learn how to read the nonverbal signs, like eye contact, facial expression and posture. Often, it’s the stuff that people aren’t saying but doing that tells you the most.
Consider too how your words, tone and behaviour affects the message you’re trying to convey. You don’t need to act tough to earn the respect of your team – actually, being open and honest, and showing you’re human too will help build better connections and encourage your team to open up to you.
It’s inevitable that you’ll need to have a difficult conversation with a team member at some point or other. If a team member isn’t working to their best ability, or has a negative attitude, you’ll need to address it. Do so calmly, in a straightforward way and in private. Leaders don’t gossip.
Support your people
As a leader managing a team, you’ll encounter a whole host of problems and scenarios that will require different responses — from break-ups and house move woes, to new arrivals, health issues and career crises. You’ll need to learn how to navigate these with care, kindness and empathy. That comes with time. Has your team member lost motivation? Energise them by recognising their hard work. Are they struggling with an issue at home? Take some work off their plate.
Sometimes though, there’s nothing you can do or say to make it better. If in doubt, listen. They’ll thank you for it.
Create a positive work environment
What’s the point? Why bother? No, that won’t work. What you say and how you say it matters. Your negative attitude is catching — you’re signalling to them that you don’t believe in what you're doing, which can lower the morale of your team. So consider how you phrase things before speaking.
Reward your team regularly. Friday lunch on the company card, a treat sent in the post to those working remotely, an early finish after a hard week. Encourage a culture of positive feedback. Here at Progression we have #WinsFriday, where we publicly recognise each other's hard work in Slack, and add Wins in Progression. It couldn’t be simpler, thanks to our Slack integration!
Empower your team to grow with Progression
One of the most valuable and rewarding things you can do as a manager is support your team to develop their skills and be successful in their careers. But how exactly do you do that?
Enter Progression 💫
Create career frameworks to show your team where they are now, where they could be and, most importantly, how to get there. Then power your 1:1s with real insight that highlights your team’s strengths and identifies what they need to work on.
We’re all a work in progress, whether you’re just starting out or have been leading a team for years. But here’s hoping that one day, you’ll be the manager someone else looks up to and aspires to be. I don’t think we can hope for much more than that.