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21 Essential Skills for Business Leaders’ Personal Development

In the quest for personal development as a business leader, we’ve gathered insights from CEOs, founders, and other top executives on the single most critical skill or competency that has propelled their careers. From the foundational shift from getting to giving to the crucial ability to adapt amidst AI-driven change, explore the diverse experiences and wisdom of twenty-one leaders.

  • Shift from Getting to Giving

  • Embrace Failure to Progress

  • Cultivate a Teachable Attitude

  • Put Strategic Vision in Tech Leadership

  • Master Individualized Team Appreciation

  • Harness Cross-Cultural Communication

  • Navigate Change with Effective Communication

  • Detach Emotionally for Objective Leadership

  • Use Resilience as a Key to Success

  • Build Trust with Active Listening

  • Enhance Impact with Effective Speaking

  • Reveal Leadership Blind Spots with Self-Awareness

  • Foster Team Bonds for Industry Success

  • Innovate Through Embracing Discomfort

  • Demonstrate Perseverance in Business Challenges

  • Achieve Mastery with Persistent Focus

  • Try Empathy to Connect with Team and Clients

  • Prioritize Sales Skills

  • Be Flexible and Opportunistic

  • Troubleshoot Complex Problems Effectively

  • Focus on Adaptability Amidst AI-Driven Change

Shift from Getting to Giving

The skill that’s been the most critical in my personal growth on my business journey is the ability to switch my thinking from “what can I get” to “what can I give.”

Being ambitious and overachieving, we prioritize working on our goals, building success, and maximizing every opportunity. If you’re like that, it’s a superpower on its own! But sometimes, we can lose the equilibrium and insensibly become over-focused on “getting.”

I’m not saying it’s inherently wrong. It’s important to prioritize self-care, and some dosage of selfishness is never a bad thing. But it can also become an invisible bottleneck.

When you learn how to manage your mind and make that subtle shift from “getting” to “giving,” all of a sudden, things become easier to handle, you get more energy, and guess what… people feel it. Your clients, customers, colleagues, partners, and your loved ones, too.

And here’s the most important aspect—not only does it help you build better relationships and loyalty of your clients, but it also creates more sense of the [so-sought-after these days] sense of fulfillment.

Because the real fulfillment comes from giving, not getting.

Embrace Failure to Progress

Letting myself fail. It sounds a little counterintuitive, right?! Well, I’ve always been a perfectionist and afraid of failure. What I didn’t realize (maybe after a little too long) is that by delaying taking action and trying things, I was slowing personal development and growth.

Someone once said the best thing you can do is “fail forward,” and they’re right. Taking action and failing not only moves you forward but allows for an opportunity to learn.

A recent example of failing forward in my personal development was creating a product for my business and sharing it while it was still in development. Not only did I receive incredibly valuable feedback from testers, but I also found more efficient and valuable ways of delivering it.

Cultivate a Teachable Attitude

I’ve found that developing an attitude of being teachable has, hands down, been the most critical competency I’ve had to learn in my leadership and in business. I found myself in a second presentation, pitching a client on our services.

On my way out, the client pulled me aside and gave me some feedback based on their experience in the industry.

While it was a tough pill to swallow, I thanked them and actually applied some of their feedback. Although I didn’t land them as a client then, I did get to work with that individual again later on at another company.

Learning that no matter my feelings, thoughts, or attempts at thinking I know best, there’s always something to learn, and someone from whom to learn has transformed my leadership for the better.

Put Strategic Vision in Tech Leadership

As a leadership and strategy coach in the tech industry, the most critical skill for my personal development has been strategic vision. This skill, which involves seeing the broader picture and aligning immediate actions with long-term goals, is essential for effective decision-making and guiding an organization through challenges and changes.

Strategic vision has been particularly important in my professional journey due to the dynamic nature of the tech industry. For instance, it played a key role when I identified a need among female tech founders for more than just technical skills. Recognizing this, I focused on enhancing my own strategic vision to better support and mentor these leaders.

This approach has not only helped in my own professional growth but also allowed me to contribute more effectively to the tech community. By continuously honing this skill, I’ve been able to adapt to industry changes and effectively guide others, underscoring the importance of strategic vision in business leadership.

Master Individualized Team Appreciation

The single most critical skill that has shaped my personal leadership journey is the art of individualized appreciation. In a world where dry, standardized acknowledgments are the norm, tailoring appreciation to each team member’s unique personality and contributions has been a game-changer.

True appreciation goes beyond a generic e-card. It’s about recognizing someone in a manner that resonates deeply with them, acknowledging not just what they’ve done, but who they are as a human, and reinforcing the fact that I really see and value them as such.

An example of this in action was with a team member who was exceptionally skilled but preferred to remain under the radar. Instead of calling them out in a staff meeting for praise, I took the time to understand her interests and acknowledged her contributions in a team meeting by correlating them with a project that resonated with her passions. This not only boosted her morale but also inspired others to recognize her skills and what she brought to the table.

Personalized, individualized appreciation has taught me the power of genuine, thoughtful leadership and the profound impact it can have on team dynamics and business outcomes. I have been so impressed with its power to change culture, enhance performance, and meaningfully impact well-being, I make it part of all business activities, whether I’m in “leader” mode or not.

Harness Cross-Cultural Communication

In my professional journey, the single most critical skill that has underpinned my personal and professional development is effective cross-cultural communication.

My journey toward mastering this skill began as a child. I assisted in many aspects of my family’s business, mainly interpreting for my father from English to Spanish and vice versa during business meetings with potential and existing clients. The importance of this skill cannot be overstated.

In today’s globalized economy, business interactions are rarely confined by geographical or language barriers. Proficiency in a second language has allowed me to engage with a diverse clientele and cater to their varied needs with sensitivity and understanding. I call it cross-cultural, rather than merely multilingual, because this skill extends far beyond language alone. It includes the ability to navigate different cultural norms, etiquettes, and nuances that govern business interactions. It engenders trust and respect, which are the currency of any successful business relationship.

One powerful result of this communication skill has been its role in helping me nurture professional resilience. Working in an industry where my gender occasionally poses challenges (cybersecurity), the ability to communicate effectively across cultures has given me the ability to demonstrate my leadership and business acumen.

For instance, I recall negotiating a contract where my ability to engage with the client in their native Spanish, and with cultural awareness, directly influenced their comfort level and confidence in our services. This contract resulted in a lucrative deal and solidified our reputation as a thoughtful and client-centric company.

In conclusion, cross-cultural communication is my linchpin of leadership in an interconnected world. It has enabled me to lead my business to success, not just by breaking down linguistic barriers but also by building bridges of cultural understanding, resulting in a resilient and client-oriented company.

Navigate Change with Effective Communication

Effective communication has been pivotal in my journey as a business leader. Its importance lies not just in conveying information but in building relationships, fostering trust, and driving alignment across diverse teams.

A key instance where this skill made a difference was during a major organizational restructuring. By maintaining open, transparent, and empathetic communication, I was able to navigate the team through uncertainty, minimize resistance, and ensure a smooth transition. This experience not only bolstered team morale but also expedited the successful implementation of new processes, exemplifying how effective communication can be a catalyst for positive change in a dynamic business environment.

Detach Emotionally for Objective Leadership

One critical skill that has immensely contributed to my personal development as a business leader is the ability to not take things personally. This skill aligns with the principles outlined in The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz, which is a book I recommend all leaders read.

Learning not to take things personally is crucial in a leadership role as it allows for objective decision-making, effective communication, and resilience in the face of challenges. When you detach personally from situations, you can approach issues with a clearer perspective, focusing on solutions rather than being emotionally driven.

This shift in perspective enabled me to engage in constructive dialogue with team members, listen to diverse opinions without feeling attacked, and make decisions that were in the best interest of the organization. By not internalizing criticism or differing viewpoints, I maintained a more positive and productive leadership style, fostering a collaborative and open work environment.

In essence, the skill of not taking things personally has positively impacted my professional growth by enhancing my emotional intelligence, fostering effective communication, and enabling me to lead with a focus on the bigger picture rather than personal emotions. It has been instrumental in building resilience, fostering a healthy workplace culture, and contributing to sound decision-making as a business leader.

Use Resilience as a Key to Success

If I had to name one skill, it would be resilience. As a young leader in the nonprofit space determined to solve stubborn issues in society, there are plenty of challenges that arise in day-to-day work. These often range from operational and strategic to societal and emotional challenges as well. The secret to sticking around for the long term and staying determined is to be resilient—emotionally and intellectually.

When I first started out to pursue my dream job in the social sector in my late teens, I was driven by passion and had the support of a very supportive team. However, things changed quickly as I climbed up the ladder and led teams and verticals as a manager in my early 20s. I realized how harsh the world can be, unfortunately. Certainly, backing out was not an option; the only way I could continue to pursue my dreams was to stay resilient in the work I do. Being resilient not only encouraged me to fight the day-to-day demons but also cleared the brain fog and helped me see the larger picture in bright light.

Build Trust with Active Listening

Active listening has been the most crucial skill for my growth as a business leader. This skill, both personally and professionally, has been a game-changer. It’s all about making people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns, whether they’re on my team or clients.

Active listening builds trust and psychological safety. For example, when a team member expresses a problem or challenge, I give my full attention, show empathy, and ask questions to fully understand. This builds a connection and makes them feel heard and supported.

This skill extends to client or customer interactions as well. By actively listening to their needs and concerns, I can provide better solutions and ensure clear communication. This has positively impacted my professional growth by fostering strong relationships and driving business results. It’s a simple yet powerful tool that enhances collaboration and problem-solving in any leadership role.

Enhance Impact with Effective Speaking

The skill of being an effective speaker is massive for the success of a business leader. Speaking comes in many different forms: in large meetings, Zoom calls, one-on-one conversations, speaking on a stage, guesting on a podcast, and connecting at a conference. The ability to be interesting and persuasive will give you an edge. I know because, up until I was about 28, I had a hard time being effective in important meetings with people 20 to 30 years my senior.

To get better, I went to Toastmasters and came out a different person. My thoughts were more organized, and I understood some nuances about myself and my speaking style that would help me in different situations. I learned that repetition and practice are important for effectiveness.

As a result, I became far better in large meetings and used my learnings at Toastmasters as a springboard to practice, put myself in uncomfortable situations, and learn how to inspire people to spend money with my business. While it takes time and there is no easy fix, I’m confident that people who put in the work get dramatic results from becoming inspiring and persuasive speakers.

Reveal Leadership Blind Spots with Self-Awareness

It might sound cliché, but one skill that’s truly transformed me has been self-awareness. Building a business is like building a website. You can have the flashiest features, but if you ignore the broken links and hidden errors, it’ll never soar.

Self-awareness is the flashlight that reveals those blind spots and keeps you on track. It’s not just navel-gazing; it’s actively seeking feedback, embracing criticism, and constantly learning from mistakes. It might sound simple, but it’s the foundation of my professional growth. It’s the mirror that shows me the best version of myself as a leader.

Foster Team Bonds for Industry Success

The success we’ve achieved over the years in the animation production industry owes much to the talented individuals on our team. One of my key skills is keeping these talents happy and treating them like family, rather than just as employees. This approach has been effective in creating strong bonds and retaining our talented team, leading to productions that consistently outperform our competitors.

Another trait that has significantly contributed to our success is a steadfast focus on client satisfaction, even when it’s challenging. We’ve managed to maintain a 70% client return rate, meaning seven out of ten clients come back to us for additional projects, some even opting for yearly contracts. The efforts I put into maintaining high satisfaction levels among both our team and clients have really paid off.

Innovate Through Embracing Discomfort

The most critical skill for my personal development as a business leader has been the ability to embrace discomfort. While often overshadowed by more tangible skills, the capacity to navigate uncertainty and discomfort has been a transformative force.

An illustrative experience came when we faced unexpected technical glitches during a crucial product launch. Instead of panic, I fostered a culture that viewed discomfort as an opportunity for innovation. The team rallied together, brainstormed creative solutions, and not only resolved the issues swiftly but also unveiled enhanced features.

Embracing discomfort as a pathway to innovation and growth has been a subtle yet powerful driver in my entrepreneurial journey, shaping not just problem-solving abilities but also the overall resilience of the team and the business.

Demonstrate Perseverance in Business Challenges

Perseverance has been the most important skill in my personal development as a company leader. In a competitive and ever-changing profession like beauty, it is critical to recover from setbacks and adapt to new opportunities.

One example of the value of resilience in my professional development was when we experienced a substantial supply chain disruption due to unexpected complications with our raw materials.

This disruption posed a threat to our manufacturing schedule and our customer reputation. Instead of concentrating on the issue, I quickly convened my team to explore alternatives and discover alternative suppliers.

We quickly established new connections and kept our production schedule because we refused to be discouraged by the setback.

The incident taught me the virtue of resilience and the need to take proactive measures in challenging situations. It also improved my capacity to remain calm under pressure and devise innovative solutions when facing unforeseen challenges.

Resilience has not only helped me overcome obstacles but also influenced my perspective as a company leader. It has taught me to accept change, persevere in hardship, and motivate my team to do the same. By showing resilience, I grew personally and created a resilient culture within my company, allowing us to overcome challenges and prosper in the industry.

Achieve Mastery with Persistent Focus

The key skill in my development as a business leader has been persistent focus. During my last 12 years of entrepreneurial journey, concentrating on a specific technology stack and market segment, I was able to grow and master my craft.

You might have heard about the 10,000-hour rule to become a master in anything. That requires both focus and persistence. This persistent focus has been pivotal in growing myself personally and achieving success in my ventures.

Try Empathy to Connect with Team and Clients

One skill or competency that has been the most critical for my personal development as a business leader is empathy. Empathy is the ability to objectively sense others’ feelings and perspectives. It allows me to have more meaningful and relevant interactions with my team.

Practicing and showing care and willingness to help others is a critical leadership competency. It helps people to use an appropriate emotional response to situations and attend appropriately to the feelings of others. Compassion helps me to be easy to approach and talk with, and I’m able to build rapport quickly and easily.

Prioritize Sales Skills

After being a failed entrepreneur with multiple businesses not working out, I turned to some books for guidance. Almost every business book suggests that learning sales is the best thing you can do if you want to make it in business.

I was shy, not very personable, and didn’t know anything about selling to people. And to be honest, the thought of me doing this paralyzed me. But I did it anyway, and wow, it had such a big impact on my life. Not just professionally, but personally, too.

Knowing sales isn’t just about selling to people. It’s about connecting with other human beings. You learn how people’s body language is a treasure trove of information and can hone in on very small cues people give off.

Five years on, I now run a successful writing agency. And I put it all down to the fact I’m great at talking to people, which came about from working as a salesman.

I speak to people on the phone without hesitation, being able to think on my feet and, above all, can quickly understand people’s needs. On a personal level, this is also a great skill to have.

If you want to make it in business, start by learning to sell.

A great place to start is the book Fanatical Prospecting by Jeb Blount. But the best way to start is by getting a sales job in a large corporation and learning from the top salespeople who work there.

Be Flexible and Opportunistic

During an eye test last week, my optician asked, “How did you get to be Head of HR?” She was genuinely interested, and I was genuinely nonplussed as I pondered my career bio. How exactly did I get here?

The answer, I fiercely believe, is to always be open to change. Embrace the opportunities that come your way, and most importantly, don’t stagnate. If you’re bored with your job, then find another one—this sounds simple, but it is. Remaining in a job that makes you unhappy, excessively stressed, or simply bored just doesn’t make good business sense. If you’ve given it your best shot or there’s no room for progression, then what is the point of staying and becoming increasingly resentful and miserable?

Being flexible and opportunistic throughout my career has meant that I’ve remained positive and interested not only in my job but also in what’s around the corner. Keeping yourself passionate and willing to learn new things keeps those synapses firing! It’s never too late to learn a new skill or profession, and it will lead you to places you never imagined when you set out.

Life is long (although paradoxically short too!) and all experiences and knowledge harvested can only make you a more rounded person, which is valuable in the people business. Working in various professional fields throughout my life has given me the chance to pick up a whole wealth of different viewpoints, aspects, and information.

It also keeps me sane!

My advice to anyone starting out is to get out and seek new experiences, professionally and personally, and keep adding to that rich tapestry of life.

How did I get where I am today? Linguist > horticulturist > safeguarding officer > PA > Head of HR… and tomorrow I’m off to South Africa for 2 weeks to build a schoolroom (yes, really!).

Troubleshoot Complex Problems Effectively

The ability to break down complex problems into small details and troubleshoot them with long-term and effective solutions is important. This skill is crucial because leaders are frequently overwhelmed by a variety of challenges, some of which are external.

For example, we have an upcoming project that must be completed within two weeks. Realistically, this project would take a month or two. Our team first identified our available resources. We then devised strategies for dividing the tasks and delegating them to the appropriate individuals who could complete them efficiently. We set a strict timeline for those tasks, which resulted in a 2-week completion time.

This improved my composure and how I handle larger challenges when leading a team.

Focus on Adaptability Amidst AI-Driven Change

As Head of Content Strategy at Spike, one skill or competency that has been critical for my personal development as a business leader is adaptability, particularly in response to the AI shift. The rapidly evolving landscape of digital marketing and content strategy demands an ability to pivot, learn, and adjust to new technologies and automation tools driven by artificial intelligence.

Adaptability is crucial because it enables me to stay ahead of the curve in a world where AI is reshaping how we approach content creation, distribution, and audience engagement. An example of how adaptability in the face of the AI shift has positively impacted my professional growth is when we integrated AI-driven content optimization tools into our strategy.

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