Whether you spend it coding, sharpening your design skills, or getting an MBA, the start of your career is a crucial time to develop “hard” skills–the technical abilities that let you get a foot in the door and lead to your first few promotions. But further on, a shift happens: the skills that secured you those initial roles become progressively less important. Sure, you still need to broaden your knowledge base, but the higher up you go, the more your leadership abilities and management experience matter. The “soft,” or interpersonal, skills come to the fore.
As part of my current research, I’ve been interviewing successful founders, funders, and organizational leaders to understand how we can help more people learn the skills they’ll need to succeed in the future knowledge-economy–and not only that, but learn them more easily and earlier. These are a few skills that effective leaders need–but that younger professionals can (and should) start developing long before their first managerial roles.
1. Learn To Turn Off Your Mind
“Operating at a senior level is highly stressful,” says Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder and Chairman of talent marketplace theBoardlist and Board Director at Urban Outfitters, TripAdvisor, and Ericsson. “Learning to turn off your mind is essential to preventing burnout and having the resilience required to achieve long-term success,” she explains. And since it’s hardly just leaders who need to be resilient, it’s smart to start getting the hang of mindfulness–or, short of that, just knowing how to unplug–early on.
Daniel Saks agrees, adding that this is an iterative learning process that takes time. “Finding this mental balance requires work,” says Saks, who is the President and Co-CEO of commerce platform AppDirect. “I used to be ‘always on,’ even taking support calls in the middle of the night,” he concedes. “Breaking this habit has required a real commitment.” Better to avoid getting into that habit than to have to break it later.
For starters, practice keeping your inbox at arm’s length. “I turn off by not checking emails during certain long windows of time,” says Singh Cassidy. If you never develop a dependency on your inbox, it’ll be easier to step away from it in future leadership roles that demand that.
And second, make time in or around your workday just to veg out. “My first jobs were mowing lawns and raking leaves, long hours where I’d lose track of time and suddenly figure it all out,” says Rip Gerber, Chief Marketing and Alliance Officer at cloud CRM company Vlocity. “I’ve pursued that quiet state of mind throughout my career, by walking to work, marathon-running, or writing for a few hours. My biggest and most creative decisions spawn from those states.”
2. Cultivate Perspective
“In my career, maintaining perspective has been key,” says Kirstine Stewart, President and CRO at digital innovation agency TribalScale. “It’s the life-jacket preserving my line of sight and keeping my head above the waters when they get rough.” When you’re new to the workforce, the first few crises you’ll inevitably experience can feel overwhelming, but no matter how you respond, it’s worth thinking through your response afterward.
Cultivating a sense of perspective isn’t something many of us are taught–by our bosses or anyone else–early in our careers. But simply being intentional about it can go a long way. Fundamentally, perspective requires recognizing your own limitations as well as those of the people you work with–and treating both with empathy. As Greg Isenberg, the founder and CEO of messaging app Islands puts it, “Remembering only so much is in your control, enables non-reaction when someone or a situation disappoints.”
This is a powerful soft skill to practice before you’re put in charge of a team, and your own support network is a great proxy. “It’s really a matter of building up a network of people you can depend on to keep you ‘real’ and grounded, and not panicked,” Stewart reflects. When work stresses you out, go to those trusted friends and coworkers for a dose of perspective. Take some time to talk it out.
Then wait a week, and think back on it all. “Perspective is best gained through retrospection,” adds Gerber. “By looking back on how you solved problems or managed people, you are able to observe yourself in action. Successful leaders are retrospective across all facets of their life”–and not just leaders, but everybody else, too, for that matter.
3. Practice Having Hard Conversations
The ability to sort out touchy, uncomfortable issues is a crucial leadership skill–and, again, one you can work on from your very first job onward. Fortunately, it relies on a trait you’re hopefully already leaning into while honing the above two skills: “It starts with empathy,” says Isenberg. “It’s about the ability to understand and speak to the feelings of others.”
Difficult interpersonal situations arise between coworkers just as easily as between managers and their direct reports. So whenever you find yourself in one of those situations, just try to be open and honest, advises Gerber: “Tell them, ‘I have been struggling with how to have this conversation, so it would be great if we could help each other get through it.”
Laura Holmes, a Senior Product Manager at Google, points out that this takes a few tries to figure out–so be patient. “Once you get a few under your belt, it’s easier to have each subsequent conversation because you know it’ll be worth it,” she says.
So build these skills into your plan for advancing your career. They take a while to sharpen, so don’t wait until these traits are mission-critical for your job to start working on them.