Leaders: How To Improve Soft Skills

Whether we as project managers are new to the discipline or experienced hands, we usually know how to improve our technical skills. Want to learn more about Agile techniques? You can attend training courses and even become a certified Scrum Master. Want to learn specific project management tools or software? Shadow someone who already has the knowledge you are seeking. Find an expert, buy them lunch and ask them to teach you. You can find books on the subject, and you can involve yourself in professional organizations which discuss the tools you desire to learn. We can learn most skills through osmosis.

How then do we learn the soft skills involved with leading others? Throughout much of history, people have believed that leadership qualities are natural and inborn or that leaders are chosen by God(s) or fate. Although those beliefs have fallen out of favor, a lot of people still seem to cling to the feeling that you are either a leader, or you are not…and that if you are lacking in a particular area of leadership it will be very difficult to change.

Some people believe that leadership skills can only be gained through years of experience, and that you cannot short-cut that process. Those people are partly right.

So, how do you get better within the leadership domain?

The answer is simple, which is not to say easy. It is the same as with technical skills or any other type of skill. You must do the following:

1. Make the commitment to learn and improve

Yes, the first step is commitment because if you do not accept the responsibility for growing and make the positive decision to do so, you will continue in the path of merely making accidental progress. For project managers, that idea is not very appealing, is it? We want to take charge and make something happen! If you want to be truly effective at improving your soft skills, create a plan to do it and then EXECUTE.

2. Surround yourself with those who have the skills you want to gain and observe them

You may already be doing this without thinking about it. But go ahead and take it one step further: one great way to learn is to ask an expert to be your mentor. Ask for a little of their time, tell them you have noticed certain qualities about them that you would like to learn, and ask if they mind sharing their insights and letting you observe them. Most leaders would be delighted to be approached in this way. Over time, you should also be able to get feedback from a mentor about how you are doing with the skill you are trying to learn.

3. Visualize yourself doing what they do (not necessarily how they do it)

Visualization is used the world over by professional athletes, speakers, and politicians. It can be used for any skill. Want to improve your communication skills and composure when speaking to upper level management? Picture yourself talking with them in a concise, precise, and confident manner. Even visualize delivering bad news about your project — think of how you would do it, what you would say. Then imagine your stakeholders responding in a positive way because of your skill in communicating with them. Engage in your visualization every day, many times a day, over and over again, to the point of obsession. You will find yourself improving your communication to C-level stakeholders and it will probably have a bleed-over effect to your confidence in other areas as well. Visualization is an incredibly powerful tool for improving at anything. However, most of us never try it out or if we do, we are not persistent enough to achieve the desired effect.

4. Put yourself in situations where you can practice, even in small ways

This is the area where some people may get bogged down, especially those at the start of their career or those making a career transition. What if you are not currently in the role you want to have, but you want to improve your soft skills to prepare yourself to take on more responsibility in a senior position? You have to step outside your immediate comfort zone and do more than you have done in the past. If you can, ask your manager to assign you to a project to gain the particular skill(s) you are seeking. Volunteer with a non-profit or with your local PMI chapter. Join Toastmasters and work your way into an officer position.

5. Practice with intention

Practice, practice, practice. This is where the people who believe you need experience to lead are right. You do need to practice new skills that you want to learn or even existing skills that you want to improve. For example, if you want to improve your listening skills you need to actively practice doing just that. Plan a certain time of day when you will focus on your listening skills and do it regularly. Or use specific events as special times to practice: if you are going into a meeting, remind yourself to use the opportunity to work on being fully present and engage in active listening. Networking functions are also great for practicing listening techniques. You can practice some leadership skills with friends and family or at social occasions where the pressure is low.

6. Evaluate your progress periodically and make adjustments as needed

Establish milestones and check in with yourself regularly to celebrate your progress, realign priorities as necessary and identify new areas to work on. For example, I like to schedule a special breakfast or lunch to evaluate how I’m doing versus my goals. Assigning an occasion helps you think of check-ins more as a reward than as a time to beat yourself up. Remember that every small step of progress is an improvement over the skill level you had before. Genuinely pat yourself on the back for all your accomplishments and avoid dwelling on shortfalls. Use these check-ins to think about future goals and plans. Picture yourself as climbing stairs toward the future as the leader you want to be, and view each step as the incremental progress that must be made. Celebrate your victories and know that as long as you remain committed to learning and growing as a leader, you will continue to find things you want to work on.

What do you think? Can you think of any strategies for learning soft skills that I have left out?

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