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Leadership is a vital and all-encompassing skill set for professionals at various levels, whether you have a C-suite title or are just starting to climb the corporate ladder. However, it takes more than just ambition and experience to be an effective strategic leader.
In addition to having the necessary technical skills and knowledge, business leaders must also possess specific qualities that will enable them to inspire and motivate others, make smart decisions and navigate complex business environments.
While some lucky people are born to lead, most of us need to make an effort to strengthen these qualities through practice. In fact, only 10% of people are considered natural leaders, and an additional 20% are considered skilled enough that they have potential to become high-quality leaders. So, unfortunately, most professionals are working against the odds if they want to become influential leaders.
As of 2023, only 48% of employees consider their organization’s leadership to be high-quality, mostly due to the lack of investment in leadership-building initiatives. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be an impactful leader. With the right training and dedication, CEOs can polish these qualities and improve their rank as a leader.
If you are new to the C-suite or aspire to be there within the next five years, my advice as an experienced CEO is that you start working on developing the following qualities now:
1. Visionary thinking
CEOs are responsible for setting the direction and long-term goals of their organization. A key leadership quality, therefore, is the ability to think big and envision the future. To have a clear and compelling vision of where they want to take the company, leaders must be ambitious, imaginative and unafraid to take risks. At the same time, they must be able to plan realistically based on given circumstances and understand that turning vision into reality is a step-by-step process.
Leaders who can manifest this type of innovative mindset are better able to anticipate trends and changes in their industries and develop strategies that help their organizations stay ahead of the curve. They are skilled at thinking beyond the immediate challenges and considering the long-term goals and objectives that will ensure strong performance and progress. Visionary leaders are also better able to inspire their teams, build trust and create an environment where everyone is encouraged to contribute to the company’s big-picture success.
2. Strategic decision-making
Business leaders are responsible for making strategic decisions that will guide their organization toward success. This means that they must be able to analyze complex information, weigh the pros and cons of various options and make decisions that are in the best interest of the company. Strategic decision-making is a crucial leadership quality that requires a combination of analytical skills, business acumen and emotional intelligence.
If there is anything we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that any unforeseen event can disrupt the world as we know it at any time. Businesses were forced to halt completely and reassess everything amid the global pandemic in 2020, and several never recovered. This was not due to a lack of effort, but because most businesses were ill-equipped to deal with something so drastic and unexpected.
Leaders who were able to adapt quickly were able to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and even thrive in some cases. Similarly, changes in consumer behavior, technological advancements and political and economic uncertainty can all require leaders to adapt their approaches. By being adaptable, organizations can navigate through these changes and emerge stronger. This requires not only a willingness to pivot but also a mindset of continuous learning and improvement, as well as the ability to lead and motivate teams through change.
4. Emotional intelligence
As a CEO who has managed over 1,500 people during my career thus far, I can tell you that emotional intelligence is a game-changer when it comes to connecting with your employees. It’s also the most difficult quality on my list to influence. Some leaders have it, some don’t. Those who have it are better able to build impactful relationships that drive unity and alignment among a team.
The ability to cultivate emotional intelligence as a strategic leader encompasses other vital skills — including self-awareness, empathy, and social skills — to enable leaders to build a culture of trust, collaboration and innovation within their organization. By being attuned to the emotions and perspectives of others, leaders can foster a positive and supportive work environment and be better at managing conflicts by navigating interpersonal dynamics to find win-win solutions.
Of course, understanding others is only part of the relationship-building equation. The other part is the ability to appeal to others with effective communication, which I’ll discuss next.
5. Effective communication
Ideally, an organization is aligned by its leader’s ability to clearly communicate the organization’s values and goals to employees, stakeholders and customers. Leaders should be able to take their vision and distill its complexities into simple, easy-to-understand strategies for their team so that all employees know what goals they are working toward and why.
Unlike emotional intelligence, communication can be easily improved with practice. I believe it starts with listening. Encouraging employee feedback and acknowledging their ideas and opinions shows employees that their input is important to the company’s success. As the leader, you can benefit from this feedback loop by practicing both 1:1 and 1:many communication habits, while learning how to appropriately respond to both positive and negative feedback. The communication loop that results from an open dialogue is sure to prompt stronger relationships and improved business performance.
CEOs are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of their organization. This means that they must take accountability for their decisions and actions, and they must be willing to accept the consequences of their choices. Leaders who can take ownership of their mistakes and failures — and learn from them — are more likely to earn the trust and respect of their team members and stakeholders.
Accountability is a trait that becomes more effective when cascaded from the top down, so it must start with the leader. In a fast-paced and well-oiled organization, all team members should be held accountable for their actions and responsibilities. I emphasize this to help fuel a culture that values transparency, teamwork and productivity. Granting employees ownership of their priorities and tasks reiterates that their contributions matter to the success of the company and motivates them to put in the work to exceed expectations.
Building a successful team is not only about hiring the right people — it’s about creating a culture that will make your employees excited to work there. At Align, all new hires must go through at least three rounds of interviews with multiple team members to ensure they are a good culture fit and that the other employees can envision them working well together.
A strong team is the foundation for any successful organization, and it is the responsibility of the CEO to facilitate team-building activities and establish clear goals and expectations for the team. A CEO who values team-building demonstrates a commitment to creating a positive work environment where team members feel valued, supported and motivated to do their best.
Additionally, team-building can help identify the strengths and weaknesses of team members, which can be leveraged to create a more cohesive and effective unit. Ultimately, team-building is not just a one-time event, but an ongoing process that requires continuous effort and attention from the CEO to ensure that the team remains aligned.
8. Strategic networking
Networking is essential for all professionals, regardless of having a C-suite status. While face-to-face connections are ideal, the great thing about networking in 2023 is that you can essentially do it from your couch or home office. LinkedIn is a great hub for like-minded professionals if you can find the right groups to join. Also, joining local business organizations and attending both in-person and virtual networking events can help grow your network substantially. These are ways to connect with other business leaders, share insights and build relationships with potential customers, partners, investors and mentors.
Ultimately, my job as a CEO is to provide my team with the resources and experience they need to succeed, and strategic leadership is at the root of it all. With the right guidance from the top down, CEOs have the power to drive change in their organizations that help pave a brighter future for the company and its people.