Does it take a certain type of person to become a successful business leader? According to new research by a talent management company who studied senior corporate women, there are six key traits they share. And the good news is that, far from being inherent characteristics, they’re all skills that can be honed by anyone and at any stage of your career.
1. Assertiveness: being straightforward in your communication style
While assertiveness can sometimes have negative connotations (an issue which sparked the #BanBossy campaign backed by prominent women including Sheryl Sandberg and Beyoncé), it remains a pillar of strong leadership for all the right reasons. “Assertiveness,” says Wikipedia, “is the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive”. Moreover it’s a learnable skill: anyone and everyone can become more assertive.
The first step is to switch your mind-set so that you see assertiveness for what it really is. Digest the above definition and make it your mantra, forgetting negative connotations. “I shouldn’t have to spell this out but I will,” says sporting executive Karren Brady. “Being an ambitious woman certainly doesn’t mean you’re a bitch. We have to change that thinking.” It might be useful to think about all the things assertiveness is not: swallowing your feelings, ignoring someone you’d rather not address, aggressively arguing with a colleague, avoiding saying what you really think for fear of upsetting the status quo.
There are various practical measures you can take to increase your assertiveness incrementally. These include:
- Learning to say no (read an everywoman article on this subject or listen back to our webinar)
- Preparing your thoughts ahead of difficult conversations
- Developing your own powerful point of view (a crucial component of our workbook Powerful workplace communications)
- Facing personality clashes head on and with diplomacy
“There is a fine art to female assertiveness. You might be judged negatively for being direct and bold, [but] when you are diplomatically assertive, you are more likely to get what you want.”
Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D
2. Aggressiveness: bringing in a constructive, emotional element to move projects forward
The researchers behind the study stress that aggressiveness is meant in the ‘forge ahead, won’t take no for an answer’ kind of way rather than the ‘fighty, shouty, instilling fear’ way that aggressiveness can often be construed as. The report’s commentators have suggested that ‘having the chutzpah to move projects on, when you find yourself pushing at closed doors,’ might be a more apt, if less succinct, way of summing up this trait. So how do you develop it?
- Be clear and explicit about what you want and how to intend to get there
- Develop your presence and impact so that what you have to say packs a punch when it really matters
- Build resilience so that you can pull out all the stops when necessary
3. Empathy: being able to understand and relate to the feelings of others
Neither assertive nor positively aggressive behaviour, taken in isolation, gets you very far, says the report, without a fair amount of empathy. Without empathy a leader cannot understand her customers, relate to her key stakeholders or expect a workforce to get behind her motives. While psychologists say that human beings are born with the ability to empathise in their DNA, it’s also a trait that can be developed. Take our quiz on understanding your own empathy levels.
“If you can't have empathy, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”
Leadership expert, Daniel Goleman
4. Ego-Strength: being resilient and able to overcome challenges
Today’s corporate world sees change, volatility, economic instability and technical advancement disrupt every aspect of business at seemingly breakneck speed. Leaders have plenty to keep them awake at night and if they aren’t able to weather the storm, success in business and personal lives are at stake. Delve into our everywomanNetwork workbook to start the process of building resilience today, or take a snapshot view of some of its key areas in the shorter articles below.
5. Stress Tolerance: being comfortable in high-stress environments
Stress comes in different forms: there’s the everyday stress which can be hugely beneficial, pushing you to try new things and ensuring you deliver to deadlines, and then of course there are more harmful, debilitating types of stress which can knock you sideways and even make you ill. The most successful leaders, says the report, are clued up about stress – which type they’re dealing with, and what skills they can best employ to help navigate the challenging times ahead. If you’re in a stressful situation the first step is to understand what particular type of stress you might be experiencing. Then, hone your stress management capabilities with the following practical advice:
“If you take care of your mind, you take care of the world.”
6. Energy: bringing vitality and enthusiasm to your work
As you saw above, building resilience so that you can deal with stress is imperative. Not least so that you have enough gas in your tank to bring to your working lives the final of the sixth traits of the world’s most successful businesswomen.
Understanding your own sleep patterns and when you’re most creative is a good place to start with channelling your energy. Taking care to ensure that you step away and recharge your batteries when needed is also critical. Energy levels are often at their highest when you’re working on the more enjoyable tasks on your to do lists, so take the time to understand your strengths and where your energy sources lie. Finally, build short, snappy exercises into your day, which take your mind away from the task at hand and deliver you back to your desk in a fresher, more mindful way. Or use a chunk of your coffee or lunch break to give your brain a workout with some powerful ideas on topics unrelated to your work. Take some inspiration here:
- The da Vinci career code: Exercises for creative geniuses
- The 5-minute exercises to instantly increase your presence and impact at work
- Listen up: 5 quick exercises to develop your most important communication skill
- Mentoring inspiration: Unlikely sources in everyday life
- Presentation inspiration: 6 great talks to inspire you at work
- Meditation: Your secret weapon for workplace success