The rise of millennials in the workplace, the inexorable advance of social media and the battle for businesses to regain trust have all placed more emphasis on the need for leaders to hone their ‘soft skills’. The IoD’s professional development offering has a range of courses on leadership skills to help you do just that
The need for directors to possess so-called ‘soft skills’ is long established. The term ‘emotional intelligence’ was first coined in a paper by Yale professors in 1990 and its significance to business leaders first assessed in the global spotlight by psychologist and author Daniel Goleman in his seminal 1998 Harvard Business Review article “What Makes a Leader?”
Few company leaders today doubt the significance of excellent interpersonal skills – long gone are the days when this was considered the “fluffy” stuff – but the need to hone them has been heightened in recent years due a climate of rapid economic, social and technological change.
The need for businesses to regain public trust in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, for example, has intensified the attention on good governance and placed a greater significance on interpersonal relationships around the boardroom table.
“If a board doesn’t have the capability to have robust and challenging conversations without breaking into bits, then it’s highly unlikely to be an effective board,” says IoD course leader Simon Haslam, a strategy consultant and change facilitator with two decades of experience working with senior directors around the world. “The ability to understand others, to present arguments and position lines and ideas capably is key.”
The IoD’s approach to helping leaders enhance those leadership skills through its range of professional development courses is practical and rooted in real-world business. Haslam, himself a chair and non-exec director, explains: “We do that by looking at case studies and taking a ‘real play’ rather than ‘role play’ approach.”
“We give groups of directors real issues to look at and create a situation where they can, for example, experience the process of chairing a group, or being a member of a group, and representing a point of interest which might be counter to somebody else’s perspective and do that in the safe environment of an IoD course. Then people can have that practical insight and a simulation of the effects of different approaches without doing any harm.”
Experienced director Deborah Benson – whose CV includes becoming the first female MD of a large-scale construction company in Scotland – delivers the IoD’s Director’s Role in Leading the Organisation course.
She agrees with Haslam that a real-world approach to learning is key: “One of the strongest facets of the IoD’s programme is the high-level expertise and experience of the course leaders. These are people who genuinely speak from a real-world perspective, they bring the theories to life with real and often personal examples,” she says.
Of developing soft skills, she adds: “If people don’t trust you they won’t wish to follow you. If, for example, you do not have the emotional intelligence to understand why a member of staff is resisting instructions and behaving poorly you will struggle to bring them on board. Leadership and followership are essentially relationships and relationships are developed fastest through the leader’s good soft skills.”
March of the millennials
A huge factor in the increasing need for softer leadership skills is, of course, the march of social media. “In old money, when an organisation faced a particular crisis, one could legitimately spend time with lawyers and manufacture a statement,” says Haslam.
“The opportunity to have that time and insight has gone. Leaders now must respond very quickly – and that’s not to issue a holding statement, but to be competent and engaging in that moment in time.”
Of the IoD’s course Social Media Strategy for Directors, led by international marketing communications consultant Martin Thomas, a non-exec director of Sport England, Haslam says: “I’m particularly fond of the social media work Martin Thomas does. There are plenty of social media offerings out there – but somebody who works at board level, gets organisational direction and also gets social media and changing generations? Such individuals are rare.”
“One of the key things the IoD tries to do is to have practitioners who lead on their workshops who can do that translation – who can understand the board perspective from a practical sense and also then relate very capably to the practical application of the subject matter.”
Closely related to the social media phenomenon, of course, is the rise of the millennial generation in the workplace and as consumers: “A presentation I saw last year discussed how, over the next five years, 80 per cent of the change in the labour market across the world will revolve around millennials,” says Haslam.
“When organisations are typically presided over by boomers and Gen Xers, unless they get where the millennials are coming from – both as employees and consumers – then the organisation will be governed in a way that is out of step.”
But with courses on offer from Inspirational Leadership to Coaching Skills for Directors to Business Presentation Skills and more, there’s no reason why today’s director can’t continually hone their skills to suit this ever-changing climate and the leadership challenges it brings.
“It generates a belief in you and a belief that you will treat people well and look after their interests,” says Benson. “This is where soft skills are critical.”