Top leadership skills all new managers need to master

Anna Roberts

Oct 2017 ⋅ 8 min read

'Leadership' is an intimidating word for first-time managers.

You've probably seen all those inspirational posters, quotes and infographics explaining how leadership and management differ. Like this one:

"Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." — Peter Drucker

While these inspirational quotes can teach use some valuable lessons, it's best not to worry too much about the difference between being a leader and being a manager.

In reality, your first management role won't give you many opportunities to 'lead' (at least, not in the way that Steve Jobs, Barack Obama and co. lead).

Management isn't particularly glamorous - in your first role, anyway.

But with the right skills, you can soon start to impress your new boss and have the chance to become a leader as well as a manager.

Developing leadership skills is a process that every renowned leader has gone through. No one is born a leader.

Of course, some people are naturally more suited to certain leadership roles, but with some time and effort we're all able to become capable leaders and managers.

Seeing as you've secured your first management role, you must possess some management skills already - or at least convinced your interviewers that you have potential!

Understanding the skills you already have is important, but understanding your weaknesses is even more critical if you're to succeed in your managerial career.

Here's a breakdown of the leadership skills that'll serve you well as a first-time manager.

#1 Communication

Communication skills were probably already pretty important in your previous role, but as a manager you'll need to communicate with a wider range of individuals, with the stakes raised.

Verbal, non-verbal and written communication are all important.

In particular, you need to learn to use precise language, both when delegating tasks to employees, and when speaking to senior management.

This will reduce misunderstandings and, in the case of written communications, provide a paper trail in case there any disputes arise.

Another side of communication you need to work is consistency within each channel. Make it clear when you expect employees to use email, instant messaging (such as Slack) or the phone. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of each communication channel and when to use them.

And remember: you'll need to learn how to communicate during difficult situations, such as when you're firing or reprimanding an employee.

#2 Empathy

You probably weren't expecting empathy to be on this list - it's something of an underappreciated skill in the management world.

But the fact is, empathy is critical if you're to keep your team motivated and engaged. Showing empathy reminds employees that you're not a corporate robot. You understand and take into account the emotions of your team.

You notice when something's not quite right.

And when you speak to the employee regarding this issue, you're sensitive and understanding - not prickly and impatient.

Empathy comes naturally to all of us (well, most of us!), but when you become a manager, your empathetic side can give way to your desire to achieve results and impress your new boss.

There's certainly a balance to be found here, but whatever situation you're in, stepping into your employees' shoes will always improve your understanding of it.

#3 Time management

You'll need to balance general staff management tasks with meeting the demands of your new boss. With short term and long term tasks vying for your attention, you'll need to learn how best to prioritise them.

Low priority tasks should be delayed (where possible), or delegated to suitable employees on your team.

Time management is a skill you'll have no choice but to master. Think about where you could automate or streamline time-consuming processes so that you're spending your time on more important tasks.

#4 Ability to motivate

By ability to motivate, we aren't just talking about your prowess as an inspirational speaker, but also your understanding of different employee motivations and how to appeal to them.

For example, one member of your team might be motivated by making a difference to the wider community. To motivate them, you might ask them to decide which charity your team will raise money for at your next departmental event, or assign them to work with clients who work in charitable organisations.

It's also worth understanding the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation relates to motivation that comes from within - it's a passion for a particular type of work, say, writing or public speaking. Other types of intrinisic motivation include a sense of accomplishment, additional responsibility, or simply the process of gaining knowledge.

Extrinsic motivation comes from sources external to the individual. In the workplace, this might mean financial rewards like bonuses or pay rises, or awards and recognition. On the other hand, external motivators can include avoiding negative outcomes like punishments.

Current thinking suggests that intrinsic motivation is required for individuals to find long-term satisfaction in their work, but external factors also play an important role, particularly in the short term.

#5 Problem-solving

As a manger, you'll face many problems - and it's extremely unlikely that you'll be able to resolve these problems without upsetting someone. There is never a perfect solution to a problem that works for everyone.

It's your job to decide on a solution that gives the best results - both in the short term, and the long term.

Generally speaking, you need to tackle problems methodically.

Learn to follow a process something like this:

  • Define the problem as precisely as possible
  • Identify what might be causing the problem
  • Determine several solutions
  • Rank and select the 'best' solutions
  • Implement solution and monitor its progress

It's best to get all this written down and stored digitally in case your boss or your employees want an explanation for your decision.

#6 Strategic thinking

Strategic thinking is all about planning for the long term. Looking at the big picture involves a deep understanding of industry trends, your company's current and future position, and how your team will need to change during the months and years to come.

This type of forward-thinking is incredibly difficult, but get it right and the long term benefits are huge.

Sure, in a results-driven workplace it's challenging to look beyond the short-term and your immediate workload towards the future. But if you want to impress those above you, it's certainly worth using any spare time you have at work to think strategically.

#7 Adaptability

There's no doubt that our economy requires more flexibility from companies and workers than ever before. As a manager, you must quickly learn how to adapt your plans and processes based on changing market conditions and new technology.

Flexibility isn't the same as constant indecision. Instead, you should be ready to adapt existing plans based on their performance, and build in some elements of flexibility right from the start of new projects.

Don't ignore unforeseen obstacles. Know that you must be able to change your course when faced with problems (or opportunities!), instead of forging on with no regard for the new information you've received.

#8 Planning and organising

You didn't become a manager to do paperwork, but planning and organisational skills are essential to keeping your team running smoothly.

If you aren't organised, your team will feel the effects quickly. They'll constantly have to nag you to reply to leave requests, or they might even turn-up to work hours early because you didn't inform them of the change to the rota.

And your new boss will notice your lack of organisation too, when you're slow to respond to emails and the performance of your team falls behind.

If planning isn't your strong suit, you need to find some techniques and methods for addressing this weakness.

Here are few ideas to get started:

  • Resolve to immediately file paper documents once you're done with them. Don't wait until you're back from lunch or after you've completed another task.
  • Try the Pomodoro technique to remain on task. Split your work into 25-minute long 'pomodoros' to help you remain focused.
  • Check emails only twice a day.
  • Use Trello or a paper to-do list to keep track of current and future tasks.
  • At the end of the day, choose two top priority tasks that you'll focus on during the following day. 
  • Completely clear your desk of clutter at the end of each week.
  • Mute your personal smartphone and only check notifications at lunch and at the end of the day.
  • Try each of these changes for at least 30 days before giving up on them. It takes about a month for a habit to form.

#9 Vision

Vision is your long-term aspiration for your team and the company. It's an idea or concept rather than a concrete goal. Senior management will have their own vision for the company, and perhaps for your team.

It's your job to understand senior management's vision and apply it to your team or department. If there's not much in the way of vision from your boss, you get to develop your own.

Being able to envisage the future of your team not only guides you when making decisions, it also inspires and engages employees if you're able to communicate it with them.

Here's an example. You manage a digital marketing team for an outdoor clothing chain. You want your team's online presence to be the best in the sector. You envisage your website as the top resource for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK, driving plenty of new customers to your brand.

You communicate this vision with your team. Suddenly they have long term focus - something to work towards that they'll be excited to work on and proud to contribute to.

But vision doesn't count for much if you can't figure out how to get there. That's where your strategic thinking and planning skills come into play.

#10 Self-awareness

Yes, self-awareness is a valuable leadership skill - although the current US President suggests a lack of self-awareness is by no means an obstacle to success.

Away from these rare exceptions, self-awareness is perhaps the most important skill on this list. Without it, you might not even think you need to work on any of the other skills.

From a manager's perspective, self-awareness relates to:

  • Understanding how and why you make decisions
  • Understanding your emotions and how they impact your work
  • Knowing your strengths and weaknesses
  • Knowing when to seek advice from others, and when to back your instincts

To build self-awareness, a good place to start is by taking a range of personality and business aptitude tests. Your results will only be helpful if you're honest with your answers.

You can also ask your team what they think of you - via an anonymous employee survey, obviously! Take their responses seriously and don't dismiss them if you disagree.

A useful habit to form is to make a note of the reasoning behind every decision you make and goal you set. Check the notes you made six months later, and see how accurate you were.

Did your new hire fulfill their potential?

Were you right to prioritise a specific project?

Did you achieve the results you thought you could achieve?

Here's another quick self-awareness test: which of the other nine skills on this list do you possess? And which do you need to work on?

Learning these skills

Even the most successful manager is unlikely to excel at all these skills.

Building your management skillset is an ongoing process, but at the start of your management career, choose two or three skills to focus on.

These skills should be those you're less competent at, but would come in handy in your new role.

Here are some resources you should learn from:

  • Books and ebooks
  • Online guides, videos, and blog posts
  • Your network
  • Mentors
  • Management courses

The fact that you're reading this article shows that you're keen to improve on these core leadership skills.

Building your skillset is key to advancing your managerial career. Are there any skills we've missed? Let us know in the comments section below!