McKinsey: Top 4 leadership traits for business success

17 February 2015

The traits being ‘supportive’ and ‘results orientated’, as well as able to ‘see different perspectives’ and to ‘solve problems’ show high correlation with strong and effective leadership, a recently released report by McKinsey & Company finds. According to the firm, organisations planning to invest in leadership development should prioritise these four traits.

Leadership ability is central to performance of an organisation, or as McKinsey & Company puts it: “Telling CEOs these days, that leadership drives performance is a bit like saying that oxygen is necessary to breathe.” That organisations need good leaders is commonly expressed and 90% of CEOs report to be seeking to invest more in the development of leaders in light of their importance to the profitable performance of the whole. What the expression of a good leader looks like, however, is hard to divine. Some wonder whether there is just one type or that it is situation specific. Yet while considerable resources are being expended on leadership programmes, each with their own interpretation of what makes a good leader, only 43% of CEOs are confident in the success of these programmes.

McKinsey & Company

In recent research report, titled “Decoding leadership: What really matters”, the consulting firm seeks a basic generalisation on what makes for good leadership. The firm created a basic set of 20 leadership traits from relevant academic sources and their own expertise. To identify the basic features of leadership competencies on the ground in reference to their categories, McKinsey set about surveying 189,000 individuals at 81 organisations. To match the kind of behaviour that is exemplary within their categories, they identified top percentile organisations in which leadership is seen as strong according to “leadership effectiveness as measured by McKinsey’s Organisational Health Index” and compared them to low percentile performers.

The results of their research show that of the 20 traits, four show high correlation with strong leadership, with “these 4, indeed, explained 89% of the variance between strong and weak organisations in terms of leadership effectiveness.”

Top kinds of leadership behaviour

Supporting others – By being authentically interested in their subordinates, leaders are able to build trust, inspire, and engage their colleagues toward meeting ‘challenges’. Intervening in socially permissible ways to improve efficiency, while allaying unwarranted fears from unknowns and channelling the energy of employees away from conflicts and towards relevant goals.

Results orientated – The act of leading is not only to develop and communicate vision and set objectives, but also requires the ability to inspire and support their implementation. These leaders are strong on getting results, tend to emphasises efficiency and productivity while focused on bringing about high-value work.

Seeing different perspectives – This capacity allows leaders to monitor the environment in which an organisation is operating, grasping relevant trends, while encouraging employees to generate and contribute their ideas to improve performance, and differentiate what is and is not important. These leaders base their decisions on sound analysis.

Problem solving – This competency refers to the ability to gather relevant information, analyse it for relevant trends and consider the most valuable next move. This skill or intuitive capacity, which is difficult to get right, is a key factor in a range of decisions, from M&A to everyday team building.

While the authors neither make the claim that these four traits are definitive of leadership, nor that context doesn’t change the kinds of competencies required, the generalisation, McKinsey claims, does give a basic set of “core leadership behaviour that will be relevant to most companies today, notably on the front line. For organisations investing in the development of their future leaders, prioritising these four areas is a good place to start.”


Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

17 April 2019

Soft skills matter in the workplace just as much as technical expertise, writes Samantha Caine, Managing Director of Business Linked Teams.

For too long technical expertise has been seen as the marker of a strong candidate for development into a sales or leadership position. Sales and leadership candidates are tasked with demonstrating a diverse and wide-ranging set of technical skills, yet their aptitude in these technical skills or ‘hard skills’ cannot signify great leadership potential. This is why a healthy balance of soft skills and technical ability is required. 

So what exactly is the difference between technical skills and soft skills? In engineering, it’s crucial to demonstrate knowledge of physics as well as a strong grasp on mathematical equations. Yet, in any industry, it’s important for leaders to be able to interact with other people effectively with soft skills like communication, empathy and adaptability. 

Business Linked Team’s 2018 study into internal leadership development revealed that 69% of large organisations are prioritising the identification and development of future leaders from within the workforce. As more and more organisations begin to invest in sales or leadership development within their existing workforces, more focus needs to be placed on ensuring the right soft skills are in place. 

With those soft skills in place throughout the workforce, the business will benefit from a wider pool of potential leaders developing under their noses, and it should be the same where sales candidates are concerned. 

It’s not just about easier access to ideal candidates for these positions without the rigmarole of recruiting from outside of the organisation. The leadership development study also found that 89% of HR decision makers say succession planning has become a top priority. Those currently serving in leadership positions can’t lead forever and the same goes for those generating sales for the business.

Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

From people leaving for new opportunities or retirement, to people simply stepping aside to focus on other areas of the business, successful leaders and salespeople require experienced and capable successors that will be ready and able to confidently step into their shoes and pick up the mantle without the business experiencing any lapse in performance.

Soft skills make stronger candidates

When it comes to the soft skills required, a strong leader must be able to manage through clear communication and effective time management, coaching and goal setting. They must be able to demonstrate empathy and empower their teams to be successful, productive and fully engaged. And beyond simply giving direction, they must also be able to take direction from those above them and cascade the business strategy down through their teams. 

A strong sales candidate must possess the ability to communicate value to the customer, negotiate well and protect margin or the ability to increase the scope of a particular sales opportunity. 

With the relevant soft skills in place, the business will benefit from increased productivity, greater agility against changing market conditions and greater transparency. In turn, this will provide visibility on issues and inefficiencies while removing opportunity for miscommunication. All of this can transform the culture of a department, improving employee satisfaction and reducing staff turnover. 

Ultimately, developing leadership or sales candidates will require the business to strike the right balance between technical skills and soft skills, and this requires an effective and sustained learning journey.

A balanced learning journey

Facilitating and supporting the development of leadership and sales is best achieved by establishing training groups. By cultivating training groups, businesses are creating talent pools that will inspire and support each other on the learning journey. However, personal goals and learning objectives must be defined for each individual based on their own existing skillsets and the skills that each individual needs to develop. 

With the emergence of e-learning, businesses recognise the value of online-based learning activities, yet many make the mistake of opting for one-size-fits-all solutions which are solely focused on self-study. A development solution will only deliver true return on investment if it combines e-learning activities with group learning activities that provide opportunity for shared experiences and support.

A blended learning solution that combines self-study and face-to-face group learning activities will aid strong development of the talent pool through shared experiences. Through these shared experiences, those undergoing the training will organically develop a support network that supports the development of the group as much as it supports the development of each individual. 

The blended learning approach is supported by one of the seven principles of human learning that socially supported interactions aid the individual development of expertise, metacognitive skills, and formation of the learner’s sense of self. The strongest opportunities for development can be unlocked by blending workshops with online activities such as virtual sessions, peer coaching, self-study, online games and business simulations. But it’s crucial to provide a blend of one-to-one and group sessions too.

Beyond delivering a better learning outcome for the employee, the blended learning approach allows organisations to adapt their training quickly and easily to shifting business demands in an ever-changing landscape.