Business Management
4 min read

Developing leadership soft skills: Why executive education is worth it

EHL Insights
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The traditional tenets of managerial training, such as strategy and finance, are now being joined by  the leadership soft skills we may have once been quick to disregard, each supported by a host of subskills one would be wise to foster in executive education. EHL Insights takes a closer look.

Why a leadership development program?

At a time when companies are grappling with the repercussions of a public health crisis on a global scale, it would be understandable if leadership development programs are not the first item on your agenda. Taking time out of your busy schedule to hone your influencing skills, polish up your negotiation skills or deep dive into how empathetic leadership models delivered in a physical and virtual environment may seem a whimsical pursuit. Take a breath and a step back, however, and you will see that the actions you take to right the ship at this difficult turning point will set the course for the future for you and your company.

The success and agility of employees, employers and entrepreneurs alike depends on decisive, targeted investment in learning and development. By replenishing our skillset with high-leverage tools, we can start to plug the skills gap and adapt to a market environment that is being ravaged by the double disruption of the COVID-induced recession and increasing automation.


Adding value through executive education

Whether you are considering attending a relevant short course, acquiring a specific certificate or earning yourself an MBA degree, executive education helps you to break deep-rooted patterns or habits and equips you with the tools adapted to a new leadership reality. Applying fresh knowledge and skills to familiar challenges reveals avenues to novel solutions. Simply taking a moment to focus on your personal and professional growth has a tendency to usher in creative thoughts – new ways of thinking, of being, of doing business.

At the same time, featuring executive education programs in your CV may boost your employability. If you are looking to make a career move, it may open up new job opportunities or even grant you access to a higher pay bracket. After the period of reflection imposed on us during lockdown after lockdown, you might be looking to explore a new industry or role. Executive education gives you a chance to test the waters before jumping ship. Studying alongside other executives is also an expedient way to diversify and expand your network, not to mention the benefits of joining a new community of alumni. Even if you are satisfied at your current place of work, you may wish to accelerate your career progression. If this is the case, having completed an Executive MBA program, for instance, may signal to your employer that you have the skills required to assume greater responsibility and solve more complex business problems.

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The era of leadership soft skills

When interviewed by The European Business Review, Gina Lodge, CEO of The Academy of Executive Coaching, emphasized:

"We’re in a new era where it is purpose, not profit, that drives organizations forward and that is partnered with a shift from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism."

For executives eager to hold their own in business, this altered work environment brings the demand for leadership skills to the fore, with particular emphasis on leadership soft skills. Heightened people-centricity and a newfound need for empathy have taken over from a command-and-control leadership style. Take it from Harvard Business Review:

The skills many organizations are looking for range from empathy and team management to understanding how to look ahead, set strategic goals, and influence stakeholders from diverse backgrounds.

Dr Achim Schmitt, Full Professor and Dean Graduate School at EHL, adds: "It is about developing the leadership skills and people-centric sensitivity beyond just business knowledge, to help people drive change and continuously adapt, be agile and navigate uncertainty. Creating this people-centricity in future leaders will allow them to build empathy, purpose, and commitment towards all stakeholders in the future. This will become a fundamental pillar of their success in an increasingly digitalized world."

Exerting influence

Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, transparency can prove to be an important part of exerting influence. As we learn to see through the high gloss of social media, being aspirational is no longer strictly synonymous with airbrushed perfection. By showing vulnerability and being open and honest, leaders can win over employees for their cause. Naturally, pulling this off relies upon carefully embedding news of any short-term struggles into the longer-term, more strategic bigger picture. If your crisis communication skills are lacking, perhaps this might be a module to consider.

Influence skills include being able to motivate others to do as you wish, but also successfully discourage them from undesirable outcomes. While aspects such as praise and effective presentation skills can feed into the former, the latter will require you to criticize others respectfully and productively. You will also need to resist the urge to get defensive in the face of any resistance you encounter. Might you say a people management refresher is in order? Remember: What you don’t say may matter even more than what you do say… A crash course in body language, perhaps?


Negotiating with finesse

Stakeholder capitalism” places new demands on leaders’ activities to satisfy employees, colleagues, customers, suppliers, shareholders, even the local community. Making strides among their intertwined interests and goals and finding solutions that work for everyone requires negotiation on all fronts. Work on your negotiation skills in executive education, striving to be fair and considerate, while also pushing forward with your own agenda. This may well include saying no from time to time, which requires a certain sensitivity. Use executive education as your arena to cultivate this sensitivity, being mindful of ending conversations on a positive note wherever possible.

Negotiation skills start with you: Self-awareness is step one. Strive to understand yourself, what it takes for you to be effective. Might you like to attend a workshop on harnessing your own strengths and weaknesses? What needs to happen to enable you to be of true service when it matters? Fostering your own sense of self reminds you what you bring to the negotiation table.


Embracing empathy

If we, as individuals, as component parts of companies and organizations, and as members of a larger-scale community, are to be guided increasingly by purpose rather than profit, we will need to truly understand what it is that people need and want. Not what will best convince them to get their wallets out, but what moves and inspires them. This can only be done by forging meaningful connections, by tapping into our emotional intelligence. Does your EQ need a helping hand? It might be time to seek out executive coaching for that.

Empathetic leadership is more pertinent than ever with a fragmented workforce working from home to differing degrees. The anonymity that comes with not showing your face at the office needs to be counteracted with an increased emphasis on team spirit and inclusivity, acknowledging that we all have lives outside of work and that it is human to need support. Maybe your executive education program will teach you how to be a better listener? Maybe you will brainstorm ideas on building and maintaining morale? Maybe your interpersonal skills could do with a brush up?

The decision to pursue executive education invariably feels like a decision against investing your whole self into your current work. It can be costly, tiring and downright inconvenient. But if your choice of program is well informed, if you tailor your efforts to your own goals, executive education can reignite your curiosity, stoke your imagination and refocus your thoughts on what it is you actually want. Actively build your personal and professional resilience, brace yourself for the future and become indispensable.

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