Ed Manfre wants to know what you’re reading.
As a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Los Angeles office and a member of Heidrick Consulting, Manfre helps CEOs assemble and develop world-class leadership teams.
Manfre and his colleagues at Heidrick frequently find one trait that he says separates the average leader from the exceptional one: Agility.
The Center for Agile Leadership defines truly agile leaders as being inclusive and democratic, and exhibiting “a greater openness to ideas and innovations. With a passion for learning, a focus on developing people and a strong ability to define and communicate a desired vision, they possess all of the tools necessary to successfully inspire others and become an agent for change within any organization.”
To help identify a candidate who possesses such tools, Manfre starts by asking one simple question. “I often ask what someone is reading right now, either about their industry, their role or a personal interest,” he said. “If they struggle with that, it’s a signal about how they prioritize their own learning and the learning of people they lead.”
There are other indicators of agility, of course. “A few signals of an agile leader with high potential include a wide range of project portfolio successes and interests, sometimes across multiple industries and functions,” said Manfre. “They some- times are seen or see themselves as ‘Swiss army knives,’ but also possess deep expertise in at least a few areas. There is a demonstrated passion and successful track record for collaborating with a wide range of colleagues, and for building their skills as leaders of people.”
Leading people in 2022 comes with different requirements than it did in, say, 1992. In addition to being agile and adaptive, the modern manager must be an empathetic, compassionate, emotionally attuned leader who understands what his or her team members need to perform at their best.
The modern manager must also understand that there will be days — during a global pandemic, for example — when family obligations, financial worries or any one of countless other stressors prevent employees from being at their best.
Leaders need to exhibit this kind of empathy and understanding of human nature to be effective in what Manfre describes as “an era of near-permanent disruption” and going forward. He and other experts urge emphasizing these types of attributes as much as experience, education, technical expertise and other “hard” qualities when identifying and developing leaders within an organization.
Undervalued and Overlooked
Research supports the idea that qualities like empathy, compassion, flexibility and agility are valuable tools in a leader’s toolbox.
A Center for Creative Leadership study, for example, analyzed data from 6,731 managers from 38 countries. The analysis gathered responses from subordinates rating their managers in four areas: sensitivity to signs of overwork in others; interest in the needs, hopes and dreams of others; willingness to help employees with personal problems; and compassion toward others when they disclose a personal loss.
The study found that empathy is positively related to job performance, with managers who show more empathy toward direct reports being viewed as better performers in their jobs by their bosses.
The coronavirus pandemic has “amplified and accelerated” the need for these types of compassionate, adaptable and resilient leaders, said Pam Borton, CEO and president of ON Point and a consultant for PsyBar.
“Times have changed dramatically and permanently, and so have the capabilities and skills that employers need to hire and that employees need to exhibit,” she said. “Businesses are not only trying to stay current and relevant, but also trying to predict and anticipate future needs for upskilling the workforce.”
“Times have changed dramatically and permanently, and so have the capabilities and skills that employers need to hire and that employees need to exhibit. Trying to stay current and relevant, but also trying to predict and anticipate future needs for upskilling the workforce.”
COVID-19 has offered organizations and their leadership a “shocking reminder” that they can’t be caught flat-footed, “and that there needs to be constant focus on the future and helping clients solve complex problems,” Borton said.
“Using our latest crisis as an example, it is more important than ever for leaders to have strong and effective communication skills that transfer seamlessly to remote platforms, and that they are able to project a powerful and inspiring message that engages and motivates a team to achieve shared goals.”
The COVID-19 era has also highlighted the need for managers to sense when a given employee needs more flexibility to do their job, needs a friendly ear or just needs a mental break. This ability to handle interpersonal relationships is often referred to as emotional intelligence (EQ). And modern leaders would be well-served to possess it in spades.
For example, a recent study of 1,325 participants from 70 countries found a distinct link between emotional intelligence and greater leadership performance. The study, which defined emotional intelligence as the capacity to be “smarter with feelings,” to accurately acquire and effectively utilize emotional data, found that individuals with higher EQ were seven times more likely to score higher on a host of leadership drivers such as motivation, teamwork and trust.
Developing this type of awareness doesn’t always come easy, “but interpersonal and soft skills must come first,” said Borton. “The complexities businesses are experiencing in the midst of constant change impact all stakeholders, leadership decisions, overall goals and, most importantly, their own employees.”
“Softer” and sometimes-tough-to-quantify traits like these have for too long been “undervalued and overlooked as critical leadership skills,” said Borton, citing studies that have shown emotional intelligence accounting for as much as 85% of overall business success.
Still, “it has taken a global pandemic to finally put these skills at the top of the priority list,” she added. “In order for leaders to successfully navigate the unprecedented and turbulent tsunami that hit everyone in 2020, all individuals must consciously and intentionally lead much more with empathy, compassion, resilience, adaptability, optimism and effective communication skills.”
“Softer” and sometimes-tough-to-quantify traits like these have for too long been undervalued and overlooked as critical leadership skills...studies have shown emotional intelligence accounting for as much as 85% of overall business success.”
Identifying the Intangibles
It takes just a few seconds to pull up anyone’s LinkedIn profile to find out where he or she went to college. A quick scan of a resume can shed light on a candidate’s professional experience and accomplishments.
But a resume or a LinkedIn page can’t predict how an individual will lead in a time of crisis, or how a leader will approach an employee who’s underperforming and clearly struggling to cope with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, for example.
This task is a bit more straightforward when looking at would-be leaders already within the organization, said Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief talent scientist at Manpower Group and professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University.
“Internal candidates are easier because you know their past performance,” said Chamorro-Premuzic. “But, unfortunately, many companies don’t have good performance data for their employees, so they often promote based on people’s reputation rather than talent, which can be a function of their ability to navigate office politics and suck up to the status quo.”
The irony, he said, is that companies are more likely to use objective and data-driven tools when sizing up an external candidate, “which may end up with a more accurate profile of their leader- ship potential.”
To do this, though, organizations “need to avoid basing their decisions on unreliable methods such as the job interview,” continued Chamorro-Premuzic. “People who seem socially skilled in interviews are often just narcissistic and confident, rather than humble and competent.”
IMA Group has typically relied on many of the “traditional” factors — resume, job experience, references — to predict who will do well in a given role with the organization, said Marc Weinberger, president of the Tarrytown, N.Y.-based provider of medical and psychological evaluations as well as screening services.
That said, softer skills such as emotional intelligence, maturity, reliability and empathy have become a bigger part of the equation for talent decisions at all levels, he said.
As a clinical psychologist, Weinberger understands the importance of these traits in any work environment.
“Informally assessing emotional intelligence and a lengthy interview process helps ferret out the strongest candidates who possess these ever-important traits,” he said, adding that IMA’s goal is ultimately to determine the best cultural fit for the organization.
“I think one of the best ways [to determine cultural fit] is a multi-person interview process. This allows for input from a variety of sources, who each bring their unique perspective into how an individual will fit into our organization,” continued Weinberger.
“While the approach isn’t systematic, I’m always impressed by the insights other people share, especially on some of the ‘soft’ skills we’re now beginning to see are key to success.”
Always Room to Improve
Determining the capacity that a candidate — for a top position or any other role — has for showing empathy, compassion and emotional intelligence is certainly a big first step toward finding the individuals who will lead your organization forward.
The next, equally important step is to nurture these qualities in your own leaders at all levels, as well as lower-tier employees who could one day step into leadership roles.
Interpersonal sensitivity, however, “is a tougher competency to develop, as empathy and compassion are more trait-based and hardwired,” said Marie Holmstrom, senior director of talent and rewards at Willis Towers Watson.
Holmstrom urges training leaders to step back in instances that require such sensitivity, and think about a time when they struggled on the job and what — or who — helped them pull through it, and then apply those strategies to this situation.
“What words or actions did you find most helpful, and what was not helpful? When you observe signs of stress in your staff or colleagues, check in with them to find out how they are doing and offer assistance.”
“Importantly, inclusive training is needed to emphasize a broad range of topics including the critical emotion of ‘belonging’ — why it’s important, what it is and how it is fostered through the employee experience and manager interactions.”
She also recommends teaching leaders to focus on nonverbal communication, which is especially critical when in-person interaction isn’t always an option.
“In person and on video, [leaders should] display positive body gestures — leaning your body forward, nodding your head, maintaining eye contact — to indicate your genuine concern,” said Holmstrom.
“Be observant of nonverbal cues — facial expressions, tone of voice, body language — and behaviors by those you work with, to determine if something is amiss. Is there something you can do to help them?”
Role-playing exercises also provide space to explore various communication techniques and common manager and employee interactions that give leaders “the opportunity to flex [their] empathy muscles,” added Manfre.
“And, importantly, inclusive training is needed to emphasize a broad range of topics including the critical emotion of ‘belonging’ — why it’s important, what it is and how it is fostered through the employee experience and manager interactions,” he said.
Ultimately, every employee interaction offers a chance for leaders to gain insight into how their interpersonal skills are evolving. Those in leadership positions should take advantage of these opportunities, said Holmstrom.
“Ask those who are close to you to alert you whenever you say or do something insensitive. Make amends and put things right whenever possible.
Routinely put yourself in the shoes of others when you make decisions that impact them. If you are not sure, ask for clarification rather than assuming.
“Ask them specifically for input on how well you listen, resolve problems for others, empathize with others and address their needs,” she said. “Identify specific steps you can take to improve in each of these areas.”