Business leaders have developed new priorities over the past few decades. Initially, everything was about numbers, and a manager’s primary concern was adhering to the demands of executives. This usually meant meeting specific financial targets, and spreadsheets ruled every decision. This is still true to an extent – market research and budget reports remain an important part of any company’s decisions.
However, the best-performing businesses understand that the ability to navigate Microsoft Excel isn’t the only trait of a great leader. As topics like employee engagement and ongoing performance management become increasingly important in the workplace, companies have started looking for leaders who can manage both spreadsheets and people.
Mixing technical and emotional intelligence
Think back to your favorite boss. What was it about that person that made them such a pleasure to work for? Did they micromanage you, or did they train you to a point where they were comfortable with your skill level and left you to your own terms? Did they force everyone to perform the same tasks regardless of who did well, or did they find your strengths and capitalize on them?
Effective managers understand their employees on a personal level. They don’t become best friends, but they do know their staff’s personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, then use that knowledge to put people in roles they will excel in. Great leaders are strategists who understand their consists of nuanced individuals – not drones.
Understanding that working with people requires different skills than working with data is part of an emotional intelligence mix necessary for the leaders of tomorrow. Writing for Entrepreneur, Mariah DeLeon, vice president of people for the career company Glassdoor, discussed how emotional intelligence is one of the biggest determining factors of success.
“As the workplace continues to evolve, making room for new technologies and innovations, these qualities may become increasingly important,” DeLeon explained.
People skills are a significant part of emotional intelligence. It’s not enough for managers to simply understand their employees; they need to be able to communicate with them as well. Traits like active listening and the ability to provide constructive criticism go a long way toward motivating staff members and improving performance. In addition, managers need to be empathetic and self-aware. A common complaint among business leaders – not to mention the people who work for them – is many people new to management and similar positions have never evaluated themselves critically before. They tend to ignore their weaknesses in favor of theory and statistics. As such, not only do they not have a grasp of their own failings, but they also lack an understanding of how they come across to others.
Self-aware leaders are able to work around their weaknesses, in part by utilizing the assistance of people who are strong in ways they aren’t. Such leaders are also more likely to trust their coworkers, leading to better collaborations with stronger outcomes. Overall, these people create a positive working environment.
Of course, this isn’t to say technical savvy no longer has a place in leadership roles. On the contrary, your ability to understand a spreadsheet allows you to make the most of your human capital. Say, for instance, you’re an executive at a software company, and your monthly helpdesk report showed a sharp increase in the number of incoming tickets. Rather than assume your technical support team is doing a bad job, you would contact your software developers and review product release history. It’s highly likely that customers are experiencing issues with a new upgrade and encountering bugs your developers didn’t foresee. You’d then set up a timeline for releasing a software update with bug fixes. In addition, you’d also send out a memo to your support staff, reminding them of the importance of good customer service during high-volume periods.
It’s this mix of technical and emotional skills that makes an exceptional business leader, and it’s something most companies look for in new hires.
Managing spreadsheets requires a more analytic mindset but is just as valuable as managing people. First and foremost, spreadsheets and the like require organization. Business leaders sort through tons of data on a daily basis, and this information can change at a moment’s notice. Therefore, leaders must also be flexible, fast thinkers that easily adapt to change. It does no good to instruct employees based on information that’s two years old. Even data from two months ago can be outdated in some cases.
What’s more, the data sets businesses rely on are getting larger and more comprehensive, meaning incoming leaders must find ways to interpret previously unimaginable amounts of information. According to research from Cisco, 60 percent of businesses believe Big Data – large collections of information collected from a wide variety of sources – will improve their decision-making process and make them more competitive. Interestingly, the respondents most enthusiastic about Big Data were international, indicating foreign business will be exceptionally important in the coming years.
While collecting and sorting data is best left to computers, it’s the role of business leaders to interpret this information, organize it, present it and use it in forecasting and marketing.
Strong management leads to measurable outcomes
One might argue about the benefits of developing soft skills. What’s the point of learning how to interact with people when a business is focused on the bottom line? Does the ability to manage people affect profits and productivity in a meaningful, observable way? In reality, a thorough hold on interpersonal skills is necessary for business leaders to increase employee engagement and, as a result, see bigger gains. Gallup found businesses with engaged employees saw 21 percent higher profitability, 17 percent greater productivity, 41 percent less absenteeism and 59 percent less turnover. In addition, these companies enjoyed 10 percent higher customer ratings while simultaneously suffering 70 percent fewer safety incidents and 28 percent less shrinkage.
Unfortunately, employee engagement levels are at a historic low. Gallup found only 13 percent of workers across the globe are engaged. Meanwhile, 24 percent are actively disengaged, defined by Gallup as people who feel negatively about – and possibly hostile toward – the companies they work for. As the research organization pointed out, managers need to understand how to communicate with and motivate their employees to combat this epidemic of low engagement. As such, these abilities are increasingly sought after in the job market.
Then how do managers and business leaders increase engagement? In part, they must know how to tailor their approach to individuals, not just groups. Dealing with the different viewpoints of executives, shareholders, employees and customers is one of the most challenging aspects of business. No matter what position you hold within a company, you need to know how to interact with people of different personality types and competing interests. Leaders that do so gain the respect of their employees, who in turn feel more positively toward the business as a whole.
Additionally, managers must create an environment of trust. When employees trust their leaders, they feel more at ease and are less likely to harbor negative feelings toward their jobs. The natural result of trust and respect is greater engagement.
A trustworthy, approachable manner can also decrease turnover, especially with regard to younger generations. According to separate research from Gallup, millennials are notorious job hoppers, and 93 percent of this generation advanced to a new position after leaving their previous employer. This implies these individuals didn’t feel comfortable approaching their managers in pursuit of new opportunities. A trustworthy manager can eliminate this problem, thereby reducing turnover.
Developing soft skills with a Master of Business Administration
Soft skills are often forgotten in the world of business until it’s too late. You might ignore these valuable qualities until sales are down over consecutive quarters, and your best employees are leaving because they don’t feel appreciated. Too many companies find themselves with leaders who can read an entire issue of The Economist with ease but have no idea how to inspire salespeople. That’s why MBA programs like those at the Robert H. Smith School of Business have created their curricula to reflect needs of businesses based on these real-world experiences. Upon completing your degree, you’ll enter the job market armed with the business skills employers value and the hands-on experience that sets you apart from other candidates. You’ll read and generate financial reports with ease while simultaneously remaining focused on your staff.
An MBA also introduces students to cross-cultural concepts. International business is expanding, both because companies are entering new markets and because consumers are making more cross-border e-commerce purchases. For companies to successfully thrive in these markets, businesses must have leaders who understand and can adapt to build effective intercultural communication. Many of today’s job seekers lack the ability to grasp cultural nuances, but an MBA gives you the capacity to think across borders.