Whether undertaking organizational culture change, building a talent pipeline, or forging new business opportunities, the issues facing senior business leaders are complex and demanding.
Emerging new challenges, such as integrating AI into operations, fostering diversity, or transitioning to meet ESG standards, make leadership a tougher task than ever. To navigate the difficult path from strategic vision to sustained success, especially through economic uncertainty, senior leaders need to master specific skillsets while addressing pressures and perceived weaknesses. Even the most capable and effective senior leaders benefit from development and outside perspective.
Understanding the basis from which the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)®—the foremost global education and training organization with a sole focus on leadership—delivers this for their clients, is very instructive. CCL has five decades of experience working with senior executives in the private and public sectors, developing personal capabilities and the capacity to lead at organizational level.
Fundamental leadership skills
Senior leaders need strategic vision, to be results driven, create employee and stakeholder engagement, and lead globally. But before all of that, CCL asserts that there are four fundamental leadership skills every leader must develop—self-awareness, communication, influence, and learning agility:
Skill 1: Self-Awareness
Early career professionals are made aware of their performance and the impact they are having on their team through appraisals and senior management feedback. For senior leaders—where the impact on their organization can be profound—feedback is often less forthcoming. Senior leaders should proactively seek unbiased feedback and development support to increase their level of self-awareness of the effect their actions are having on the people around them and ultimately on business outcomes.
Skill 2: Communication
From Cicero to Martin Luther King, great leaders have been geat communicators. There has always been a performative element to leadership communication and, even when sharing information digitally and remotely, considerable skill is needed to make sure messages resonate, are trusted, and inspire audiences.
Beyond boosting a senior executive’s ability to lead, using clear forms of communication, offering candid feedback, and articulating vision and complex strategy intelligibly can set the tone for the organization. By their example, senior leaders can encourage open and candid communication and discussion across the organization—understanding that employee engagement (or dis-engagement) is very much a product of the quality and culture of communication.
Skill 3: Influence
The days of deference and top down ‘command and control’ and are over. The dynamics of power have shifted. Organizations are increasingly less hierarchical and more democratic. For senior leaders to use power today, they need to be able to influence others effectively—skills such as explanation, motivation, persuasion, networking, and delegation are key. Nobody exercises power in isolation. Leaders must join forces with others to shape outcomes, either through networking or through astute delegation to get results.
Skill 4: Learning agility
As a leader climbs up the corporate ladder, he or she will encounter many new challenges and ideas. The previous knowledge and experience that got them where they are today will not be enough to guarantee continued success. Understanding the limits of their own experience and point of view becomes even more important as the scope of their role increases. It is essential that senior leaders reflect on past experiences and, where necessary, adapt their perspectives, take on new ideas, and seek opportunities for personal development. Learning agility is essential for leadership success.
Today’s leadership tensions
In addition, in today's post-pandemic workplace, senior executives must also recognize and be able to manage new leadership tensions which have emerged. Embracing a mindset of ‘both-and’ rather than ‘either-or’ is most effective in handling these polarities.
CCL’s recent study with ExecOnline, based on a survey of more than 43,000 leaders, revealed three major tensions that leaders typically experience and need to resolve:
Tension 1: Addressing social isolation while embracing remote work
Remote working brings many benefits, and following the pandemic, it seems to be here to stay. Unsurprisingly, the CCL survey found that many leaders prefer to work remotely at least part of the time—citing less commuting and a better work/life balance. Furthermore, it has now become almost de rigeur for organizations to offer flexible remote or hybrid working to attract and retain top talent.
The downside is that remote working can lead to social isolation. CCL found that most leaders surveyed had experienced increased difficulty building social and professional relationships due to restricted interactions with peers and employees. The strain and tension caused by this must be acknowledged and addressed if leaders are to function effectively and for organizations to harness the clear talent retention benefits of remote work.
CCL recommends being intentional about facilitating and enabling social interaction with and between remote workers. Organizations should intentionally create virtual spaces for connecting, for both work and social engagement, such as breakout sessions during larger meetings and cross-functional working groups. Real-time, synchronous collaboration should be prioritized and proactively supported. To ensure remote relationships are trusting and productive, it is also important to agree on team norms, such as the principles around behavior, how the work will get done, which tools will be used, and what team members can expect of each other.
Tension 2: Managing burnout while pursuing development opportunities
Today’s always-on, hyper-connected way of working, where the boundaries of work and private life are blurred, can too easily push people into workaholism and over-extension. Yet, because leadership burnout affects established mid-career individuals—those seemingly least likely to be vulnerable—it can be overlooked by employers.
With a worrying 72% of leaders reporting that they are “at least somewhat” burned out, this issue must be acknowledged and addressed. The causes of burnout are complex. They depend on the interplay between an individual’s personality, their work context, and circumstances in their personal lives. Burnout comes when leaders lose their sense of agency, feel their contribution is not appreciated, or when workplace relationships are poor—something exacerbated by remote working.
46% of those in leadership positions said they need more resources to be effective at work and, when asked what would help them, 41% reported a desire for more development opportunities. However, offering development initiatives to already overwhelmed leaders should be handled sensitively lest it feel like something else being added to their already full plates. Coaching can play an important role in supporting executives and virtual leadership development programs can be a way to provide learning and growth opportunities to fit hectic schedules.
Tension 3: Making hard decisions while motivating and engaging talent
Leading an organization when business is booming and shareholders are beaming does not come without challenges. When the opposite is true, it can become difficult to lead. Fostering resilience and ensuring sustained success through times of market turmoil and economic uncertainty takes enormous skill.
Senior leaders must be able to communicate a clear strategic vision and prioritize resources (including staff reductions), while maintaining employee morale and motivating a positive way ahead. In a fast-changing, uncertain environment, this is a big ask. In CCL’s study, leaders noted two big challenges in the current climate: managing more work with smaller teams; and boosting employee engagement without monetary incentives—a pressure exacerbated by inflation.
While CCL found a third of leaders to be highly proficient at strategic prioritization and talent engagement individually, only 9% are highly proficient in both skills. Development initiatives are needed here to ensure that skills of strategic decision-making are balanced with an increased capacity for effective communication, and empathetic and compassionate leadership. This highlights why it is important to maintain leadership development even when times are hard.
Because senior leaders are often highly experienced, confident individuals, they may not always see why they might benefit from further development. This is one of the reason that CCL programs and coaching initiatives usually start with a focus on increasing self-awareness. Then, when considering skill-building in influence, leadership communication, and learning agility, the CCL watchword is application. Organizations and executives who partner with CCL for development ensure that leaders are building knowledge and skills that can be applied in the real world.
Similarly, when moving on to consider change management or integrating AI into operations, CCL learning remains cognizant of the timely, real-world pressures leaders are currently feeling— around shifting market forces or today’s emerging leadership tensions.
Ready to Take the Next Step?
Help executives build the senior leadership skills needed to succeed at the highest levels of your organization. Explore CCL's executive leadership programs, including the in-person Leadership at the Peak or Leading for Organizational Impact program for senior leaders, or explore our executive coaching solutions.
Kathryn Kernick leads CCL’s coaching business across Europe, having previously held General Management, Client Advisory, and Engagement Director roles. She brings 20+ years’ experience of partnering with organizations globally to address critical leadership challenges and is passionate about transforming individuals, teams, and organizations.