Leadership Skills and How to Hone Them

Leadership is a complex array of skills and attributes and it can be difficult to sum up in a concise definition. Some people believe that leaders are born, not made. Others think one can develop and hone leadership skills, just like any other ability. I happen to fall into the latter category.

I have helped dozens of up and coming sales pros to help them become better, more effective leaders. This involves being attuned to new trends, staying abreast of the changing environment and consistently working on building skills that myself and others will need to succeed. Like any other industry, I need to grow and refine my leadership skills in order to stay ahead in sales.

Read on to learn more about leadership skills and how to hone them to improve your chances of crushing it in the sales world.

The 3 Levels of Sales Skills

First things first: Leadership skills come in three tiers.

The Fundamentals

First, you have to learn the fundamentals of selling. This involves learning to close, or gain commitments as well as how to overcome objections and resolve concerns. You also have to learn how to deliver a value proposition that has features and benefits.

This stage also involves learning how to prospect. I call this “opening relationships” and “opening opportunities” because you can’t close any deal that isn’t first opened. Prospecting is just as fundamental to selling as closing, even though we often spend too much time worrying about closing. It’s important to devote just as much time to opening.

Another critical part of the fundamentals is that you learn to tell stories (or present). You have to be able to talk about how you will make things better for a prospect, how you get different results, and how you have helped other people in similar situations.

Once you have a command of these first level fundamentals, you can graduate to the intermediate selling skills.

Intermediate Selling Skills

Great leadership means being able to diagnose your clients needs in some sort of discovery or needs analysis. You can’t easily diagnose your dream clients needs if you don’t know what they are all about. It takes time to master the art of diagnosis.

Because there are now so many people and companies that sell what you sell, you have to be able to differentiate yourself and your offering. Differentiating is difficult, and it takes time to develop yourself to the point that you stand out from the crowd. You have to spend time learning how to differentiate what you do from what your competitors do.

The last of the intermediate skills is negotiation. This means assessing where you can create and capture different levels of value. As you grow, you will learn and develop the skill of creating and capturing more value. But this isn’t an easy skill set to learn initially, especially when so many buyers choose to believe price is the same thing as cost.

Business Acumen

Once you’ve spent time selling (or working in some capacity where you have responsibility for results) you develop business acumen and situational knowledge. You learn how business works, and you have had enough experiences to recognize patterns and ideas that are worth trying.

You also develop the skill of helping people and organizations change. More and more, companies make decisions by consensus, and salespeople have to help lead and manage change. They sometimes have to act as the catalyst for change, something that is not easily done without having had the experiences that develop those skills. This final stage is complex and will continue to develop over time as you learn more about your buyer and their needs.

Sales is a leadership role. The skill of leading others is what allows you to lead your clients, lead your teams, and lead your client’s team–even when you have no formal authority. Leadership is necessary, especially for large, complex deals.

The acquisition of these skills doesn’t occur in a linear fashion. They develop over time, and you develop them through your experiences, your training, and your personal and professional development. None of them are easy to develop, but all of them are necessary and well worth the devotion of time and energy.

Supremely Important Leadership Skills

I couldn’t possibly name all of the skills involved in leadership, but here are some of the critical ones that I think are most important in the sales world and just generally in life.

Fearless Agility

The modern world isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. The constant stream of new technology and the pace at which expectations are changing mean that we need leaders who can keep up. Being able to quickly and effectively think, decide and inspire is a crucial part of staying successful in a world of changing demand.

Empathy

Empathy is one of the most crucial leadership skills because it allows us to build emotional intelligence within ourselves as leaders. Empathy and compassion are the cornerstones of human and allow for mutual understanding of all kinds of issues. Being successful in business means being successful with people and we need empathy to really understand other people’s needs and concerns.

Flexibility

9-5 desk jobs are becoming obsolete as teams are quickly transitioning to work from remote locations, co-working spaces, on their own time, etc. Flexibility is a timeless principle and leaders will always need it to succeed. Being able to adapt to new technologies and a younger workforce will help keep you fresh and effective.

Having a Vision

Great leaders are always looking at the big picture. Having a clear vision and being able to commit to it can differentiate a great leader from a good business person. Leaders who can capitalize on ways to make their vision a reality will soar ahead of the pack.

Listening

Leaders have to be highly skilled listeners. Not only will this help you understand the needs of your team, but it will also help you hone into the needs of your clients and partners. This means listening on multiple levels and tuning into the concerns and requests as well as the emotions behind them.

Humility

Humility means simply recognizing that everything is not all about you. This is immensely helpful to leaders when it comes to preparing for the future. It helps to make sure that you aren’t overlooking the value that other team members can add.

Communication

Leaders can be incredibly smart, hardworking and motivated but if they don’t know how to communicate they are never going to get very far in sales or any business endeavor. Interpersonal interactions are incredibly important and allow leaders to reach individuals and connect with them on their level.

Quick Learning

One often overlooked leadership skill is the ability to learn quickly, over and above just recalling information and knowledge. It is so important to be coachable and adaptable in order to manage the overload of information in the tech world and to be able to respond to the varying needs of new clients in real time.

Authenticity

Honesty, integrity, credibility, and trust have always been the currency that salespeople trade in. But the deeper fundamental is the shift towards embracing transparency and authenticity as an asset in business. In order to succeed, leaders need to develop trust and you need to be authentic in order to encourage people to connect with and trust you.

Self-Discipline

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The master key to sales effectiveness will always be self-discipline. The most successful people I know who use social media work harder than almost anyone else I know.

3 Ways To Improve Leadership Skills

One thing that is consistent across all great leaders is their constant willingness to improve their leadership skills. Skills are not static. I have to work steadily to sharpen and improve them and so do you. Fortunately, there are some basic concepts you can incorporate into your personal edification strategy.

1. Read and Study Leadership

Leadership is a complex array of skills and attributes. There are as many definitions as there are leaders, and an equal number of ideas about the skills and attributes leadership requires. Because there are so many ideas, there is a whole lot of reading material on them. Diving into this material is a great way to continuously improve as a leader.

The role of sales now requires that the salesperson be a strategic orchestrator, leading cross-functional teams made up of members of their own company, as well as the client’s company. We recognize this fact, but there are few (read: none) sales organizations that focus even the smallest portion of the training and development resources towards leadership. This means you are all but certain to have to train and develop yourself.

Go to your local bookstore and buy a couple of books on leadership. I make no recommendation as to what books you should read – you will easily find something that appeals to and engages you.

For my money, I like to read books by actual practitioners, leaders who face challenges that seem insurmountable, like Shackleton, Washington, and Patton. I find it easy to distill their stories into lists of ideas and attributes (but then, I am a list-maker). If you don’t like to read biographies, or if you don’t like distilling the lessons yourself, choose a book that has a number in the title. A book with a number in the title means someone else captured the stories and distilled the lessons into a list for you.

Take the time to write down your ideas as you read. Make notes about the skills and attributes of leadership and collect stories of where you have seen these come into play in your business. Especially write down the failures of leadership and what leadership skills and attributes might have prevented those failures. This exercise alone will ingrain these lessons into your DNA, and you will find yourself thinking of your own leadership problems in the framework you develop.

2. Learn to Own the Outcome

When you sell something, you are responsible for the outcome.

This has always been true. If your client does not achieve the outcome you sold, it stands that you are accountable for their failure.

Leadership is, in large part, about responsibility for outcomes.

Learning to own the outcome means first accepting the responsibility for helping them to achieve the outcome. It also means understanding that you will have to lead others even when you have no authority, other than the authority that accompanies owning the responsibility for the outcome. But it is simply amazing how much authority comes along with owning the outcome. In most cases, you will find no one fighting to take your place as the person responsible for the outcome and even fewer who volunteer to take on the biggest problems.

Leadership is, in part, taking responsibility and tackling the biggest problems.

3. Learn to Lead from the Front

Leadership is where the action is. Leaders have muddy boots because they are on the front lines with the people they lead. Leadership, especially as it pertains to sales, isn’t about authority. It is instead about finding the obstacles to achieving your goal or vision and then rallying the resources to overcome those obstacles.

You don’t lead from behind a desk. You rush to the sounds of the guns. You go to where the action is and you make your presence felt. There is very little that you can do to create lifelong relationships in sales that tops being by your client’s side when they are dealing with their most difficult challenge.

You helped create the vision. You sold the vision. Problems showed up. You answered the phone. You rushed to the scene to make a difference. This is what your client expects, and following through on expectations is the true foundation of sales success (as well as the referrals this brings).
To put this into practice you have to step up, take ownership, and lead. Many (most) (all) great leaders got baptized in a similar fire.

Conclusion

Great salespeople have the ability to lead. They have the ability to generate results through the efforts of others on their teams, as well as their client’s teams. But to be a consistently successful leader, you have to keep developing and honing your leadership skills over time. This will help ensure you have everything you need to survive.

Filed under: Sales 3.0

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