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Speed up professional development

Three steps to develop leadership skills that will benefit your company

September 1, 2016
By Steven J. Stowell PhD

Steven J. Stowell, PhD

You have ambition and drive. You want to advance in your career, and you’d prefer to do it sooner rather than later. The good news is that no matter where you are in your career, you can begin accelerating your professional development by taking three simple steps – and you can start today. All you need to do is integrate the steps below into your daily routine and commit to continuously learn and grow as a professional.  

1. Lead others
To excel as a professional, you have to develop your leadership skills. Whether you’re already a member of the leadership team or simply have aspirations to lead others one day, you can take steps right now to improve your ability to lead.

The tricky part? Becoming a leader is not always a natural transition – and in fact, things rarely go entirely smoothly. Managers are often selected from the pool of current team members who are performing well as individual contributors. However, being a leader is a very different role from being an individual contributor. To be an effective leader requires an entirely different set of skills and competencies. That’s why proactively working on your ability to lead others effectively – even before you have the opportunity to become a member of the management team – will advance your professional goals in exciting ways.

  • Make an effort – Research shows that front-line managers don’t receive enough training to help them be successful in their new management positions. What that means is that if you want to succeed, you’re going to have to take it upon yourself to learn about effective leadership, and it’s better to have honed some of these skills before you actually become a leader. You can always rely on the guidance of others to help you along the way, but you’ll need to make an investment in yourself first.
  • Commit to helping your company succeed – Even if you’re just starting out in the company, take it upon yourself to contribute to its success. Learn everything you can about the business, how it operates, and how you can help. Treat the company as if it were your own, and take a vested interest in its short- and long-term success. Be open to new ideas and perspectives, and be willing to contribute more of yourself to the organization.  
  • Be an influence – Famed philosopher Albert Schweitzer said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others – it’s the only thing.” Whether you’re a manager or not, mastering the art of influence requires that you access and utilize your internal reservoir of personal talents, attributes, and experiences so that you can make a positive long-term impact on individuals, groups and the business. Are you someone who does the least amount of work to get by, or will you fully commit to a project until it has brought a measure of success to the company? Do you collaborate with others with respect, valuing opinions and ideas, or do you criticize? If you’re an example of commitment and respect, others will notice.
  • Learn how to set and reach goals – Whether you’re required to or not, set personal, developmental goals for yourself that are attainable and worthwhile –and then meet them. Take this skill with you as you advance in your career, and teach others how to create goals for their own careers and for the company.

2. Be a strategic thinker
Your company needs to be innovative and strategic if it’s going to keep its edge in the market. That doesn’t mean that only those at the top should be innovating and setting strategic direction. No matter what your position in the company may be, you can (and should) develop a strategy for the piece of the business that is your responsibility.


When you can come up with value-added solutions to problems facing the business, you will make a difference and position yourself and the business for excellence in the short and long term. By developing, articulating, and following through on your personal strategic-contribution concept, you will become more visible and valuable, and people will take note – and as a result, your professional and leadership-development goals will be easier to achieve. Learn to see beyond the obvious as you approach challenges and opportunities. This is where breakthrough ideas can be found.

3. Fine tune your communication skills
We’ve been talking since we were toddlers – but that doesn’t mean we’re good at getting our point across, truly listening to others, or using open communication to build relationships. One of the things that seems to be most lacking in new leaders is the ability to communicate and share information, and no matter where you are in your career, effective communication is crucial to your professional development. You could be the best at your job, but if you can’t communicate effectively with your team members, management, customers, or other employees, your contributions won’t be as valuable – and people may not even realize what you have to offer.

When you communicate effectively, you build trust and respect, help everyone align their actions with their intentions, execute plans and strategies that really work, and ultimately drive bottom-line performance.

To reduce confusion and frustration within your organization – and even help to avoid common problems altogether – actively work to make personal progress in the following areas:

  • Learn self-awareness – Self-awareness is one of the core tenets of emotional intelligence and an important element of effective communication. Take a hard look at your personal communication style and find areas where you can improve. Do people generally respond positively when you bring up an idea or ask them to complete a task? Do you offer encouragement and support? When you have to provide feedback and coach others in the workplace, are you able to do so in a way that motivates performance improvement? Nobody is a perfect communicator, but we should all be working to achieve these goals. The more self-aware you are, the easier it is to articulate a message in a way that others will understand.
  • Use questions to open up dialogue – Asking questions is a powerful communication tool that is often underutilized. Asking open-ended questions provides people with the opportunity to explain their thinking and adds more depth and richness to the dialogue. For example, instead of stopping the conversation by saying, “Your idea won’t work,” you might say, “I’m not sure I understand how your idea fits into our current strategy. Can you please explain what you envision?” If you remain open-minded to the other person’s perspective, you’ll be more likely to arrive at a solution that meets everybody’s needs and takes all the relevant factors into account.
  • Listen actively – Making good eye contact and paying attention to the messages that our body language sends to others are both important aspects of active listening, but non-verbal cues aren’t the only things you need to be concerned about. Active listening also has to do with being actively engaged in the conversation and genuinely interested in what the other person has to say. There are many factors and distractions that may make it difficult to give the other party your full attention, but you need to work to overcome them in order to get the most out of the conversations you have at work.
  • Break down silos – Communicating across boundaries (whether real or perceived) is one of the most important components of creating an engaged, integrated workforce that is aligned towards a common purpose. Work hard to create a culture where relevant and timely information is regularly and openly shared across individual, team, and departmental lines.

Don’t wait until you’re in a leadership position to develop these necessary leadership skills. Have a conversation with your leader about how to get started and where you should focus first. Then, use your personal drive to pursue your dreams and make a difference for the organization. Today is your day, and the time to get started on your leadership development is now.

Steven J. Stowell, PhD, is the founder of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness (CMOE), and author of The Art of Strategic Leadership. CMOE provides competency-based training that focuses on coaching individual leaders, building high-performance teams, enhancing bottom-line performance, and more.