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The latest ways to build up your leadership skills; it’s easier than you think!

Posted by Cliff Locks On June 2, 2021 at 10:04 am

The latest ways to build up your leadership skills; it’s easier than you think!

Becoming a better leader normally involves, well, being a leader. Indeed, most leadership experts say about 70% of learning and development comes from challenging assignments that force leaders to learn new skills. The rest of that development usually involves hours of training seminars, working with coaches, and dedicating oneself to become more self-aware, mindful, and reflective.

Dennis Carey, Korn Ferry Vice Chairman, Co-Leader, Board Services, with edits by Cliff Locks, Investment Capital Growth, Managing Director, Board Member, and Executive Coach

In a pandemic, of course, much of that training wasn’t possible. But the skill sets for being a strong leader—of a team, a department, or an entire company—couldn’t have been more in demand, and still are. Only these days, leadership-building advice has been shifting, with greater emphasis on careful listening, more transparency, and greater probing. Below, a host of our tips—some fairly standard, some unorthodox—to grow into a better leader.

Say it straight.

Journalists learn that if a story doesn’t state who, what, where, when, and why, then the story isn’t clear. Experts say that’s something leaders should keep in mind. Indeed, leaders can get into trouble if they aren’t transparent about what to do, when to finish it, how to do it, and why it needs to be done.

Leaders also should avoid “happy talk,” or empty platitudes that can muddle the issue, says Dennis Carey, vice chair and co-leader of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice. “If something could apply to any company when you say it out loud, it’s useless because it’s too generic,” he says.

Actually listen.

There are reams of research indicating people aren’t very good listeners. That’s particularly true when the topic involves something distressing or uncomfortable.

A leader who listens can help build trust among stakeholders, improve employee engagement, and even lower those stakeholders’ stress levels, says Evelyn Orr, chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute. Anyone can start a technique called “active listening” right away. Instead of thinking about your response, which is what most people do when others are talking, take in what is being said and repeat it back in different terms to show that you understand and can place yourself in the other person’s shoes. At a minimum, don’t cut people off or ignore what they’re saying. “I don’t think you need a lot of skill for that,” Orr says.

After listening, ask questions.

This isn’t new advice; it’s the Socratic method. But there’s a reason why it has lasted a few thousand years. It stimulates critical thinking and can draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. Asking questions, by its very nature, invites comments and conversations. Research shows that expressing vulnerability, which is what a question is, is a strong signal to others that you are trusting, and you’re more likely to be trusted in return.

To be sure, these questions shouldn’t be accusatory, such as “How could you miss the production targets?” Instead, ask questions that invite people to explore major new opportunities. Experts say that when a leader asks questions, it gives employees the freedom to ask questions also. Questions can spur innovation and literally change a corporate culture.

Specifically ask “What would you do?”

Asking this question is particularly empowering, experts say, because it gives a subordinate or a peer the chance to be in the driver’s seat. Serious employees will learn to think critically to find solutions that can work or, at the least, bring a new perspective that the leader hasn’t thought of before. 

Even if an employee doesn’t have an answer, he or she usually appreciates that you, the leader, are open to suggestions. Asking “What would you do?” can lead to higher employee empowerment, engagement, and productivity, says Linda Hyman, Korn Ferry’s global vice president for human resources.


Many leaders have to-do lists that give every task equal weight, like a grocery shopping list. But effectively prioritizing allows leaders to figure out which areas they should spend their valuable time. More broadly, when a leader sets priorities, it helps create meaningful tasks for teams.

Especially now, when people have been overloaded with work for more than a year due to the pandemic, prioritizing is essential. “Leaders who prioritize for themselves help their teammates as well,” says Melissa Swift, Korn Ferry’s head of workforce transformation.

Read books… by comedians.

There are countless leadership books out there, including several by Korn Ferry authors. They’re filled with good advice. But Kevin Cashman, one of those Korn Ferry authors, suggests that corporate leaders can learn as much from funny people, citing books by George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, and Steve Martin. Nearly all comedians consistently have to deal with pressure, adversity, and second-guessing, and nearly every comedian has learned the importance of being agile. Leaders can take away valuable lessons from improve, along with stories about awe, surprise, and irony, says Cashman, Korn Ferry’s global leader of CEO and enterprise leader development.

Contributors: Dennis Carey, Korn Ferry Vice Chairman, Co-Leader, Board Services, with edits by Cliff Locks, Investment Capital Growth, Managing Director, Board Member, and Executive Coach

Cliff Locks is a trusted mentor, confidant, and advisor to CEOs, C-Level Exec, and high-potential employees to help them clarify goals, unlock their potential, and create actionable strategic plans.

Available to join your Board as a Certified Master Professional Board of Director and Advisor.

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Most successful leaders enjoy talking to someone about their experiences, which is why most develop a close relationship with a Trusted Confidant—a person with whom they feel free to share their thoughts, concerns, and ideas without fear of sharing too much or being judged by the people they lead, or their colleagues and superiors. I am a sounding board who will help you to better develop and see your ideas through to fruition.

The most effective Executive find confidants who complement their strengths and sharpen their effectiveness. Bill Gates uses Steve Ballmer in this way; Warren Buffett turns to vice chairman Charlie Munger. In the end, both the Executive and their organizations benefit from these relationships.

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Who can you turn to when you need to find clarity? Who is your “Executive Confidant”?

Referrals to a team members or family members are always welcome.


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