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The five pillars of leadership development

Historically, “good” managers were known for and judged on productivity, performance, and their problem solving acumen. Today, people demand more from their leaders in the workplace than ever before.

It is well documented that we look to our jobs to provide a sense of psychological safety, belonging, purpose, and a genuine investment in the personal side of our work lives – at both a cultural and policy level. Managers and leaders are the most visible agents for making that a reality for people, which means a fair amount of weight rests on their shoulders. The unique strains placed on managers in recent years is what will define the direction leadership development takes now and in the future.

Key leadership trends in 2023

  • Managers are leaving their jobs
  • Leadership development needs to change
  • Management training the number one focus for businesses this year

Management used to be a desirable career path. For many people it still is. But the challenge in taking on a deeper level of leadership seems to be having an impact: managers themselves appear to want out. Recent studies have shown as many as two thirds of managers no longer want to manage. And it appears managers are leaving their jobs – not quite in droves, but enough that it’s noticeable.

Managers require new capabilities in a modern working world. They need to feel supported and empowered in their role. Able to thrive in a new and endlessly changing workplace dynamic. And to play an active role in creating working environments that place trust and the human experience at the very core. So that the people they’re responsible for get more of what they want out of work – a sense of belonging, connection, feeling seen, heard, and valued – and, ultimately, the business they work for benefits in a big way too.

According to LinkedIn’s 2022 Workplace Learning Report, leadership development and management training is the primary focus for nearly half (49%) of L&D teams globally. Google’s manager research project Oxygen found the top qualities of a good leader to be:

  1. A good coach
  2. Empowers the team and doesn’t micromanage
  3. Creates an inclusive working environment
  4. Results and productivity oriented
  5. A good communicator
  6. Supports career development
  7. Has a clear vision/strategy
  8. Has key technical skills
  9. A good collaborator
  10. A strong decision maker

From a combination of what the latest research tells us and our own work supporting leaders and managers firsthand in the coaching room, we’ve developed an approach to leadership development based on five pillars, designed to get managers and people leaders in touch with their own needs as well as the needs of their people.

1. Wellbeing

Adapting and maintaining personal wellbeing is a key skill for leaders to develop. Identifying their own needs, being comfortable asking for support when needed, and being an effective and reliable source of support for the people under their care is how you create a working culture where wellbeing is prioritised.

The CIPD’s most recent Wellbeing at work report (November 2022) says “…healthy workplaces help people to flourish and reach their potential. This means creating an environment that actively promotes a state of contentment, benefiting both employees and the organisation.” And that the benefits of supporting wellbeing at work include “…increased resilience, better employee engagement, reduced sickness absence and higher performance and productivity.”

Opinion pollsters Gallup say wellbeing is a leadership issue: “You have to bring wellbeing to people, not wait for them to seek it, and the messenger is the manager. Managers know employees better than anyone else, so they can coach wellbeing in the right way, at the right time — provided they have the development they need.”

The reality is, this isn’t always the case. Some of the more eye opening stats you’ll see on the subject say 79% of managers feel overworked or stressed and 60% of leaders display strong indicators of burnout.

Everyone seems to be feeling the strain at the moment. And the collective wellbeing of teams falls upon leaders to manage. At the same time, they’re also meant to be responsible for their own wellbeing, as well as driving productivity and retaining staff.

It might go without saying but overwork and stress isn’t good for anyone. And burnout takes people out of the game entirely when it become unmanageable. Leaders who feel equipped and able to support their own wellbeing are in a healthier place to cope with the challenges and stresses of daily life. They are also much better placed to support the wellbeing of people in their team.

Coaching helps people tap in to their own wellbeing needs, talk through their experience of life, and identify either what gives them strength or what’s missing – what they need at work or in life in order to be at their best – it might be a neutral ear, a period of rest, healthier habits, or a better overall balance.

It’s more than possible to build the skills and awareness needed to spot and address signs of struggle in both the self and others. Developing the ability to effectively manage, respond to, prevent, and recover from burnout, overwhelm, stress and low-mood means managers can give people the support they need, when they need it.

When the happiness, health, and productivity of both the manager and their team is protected, everyone involved is better equipped to identify and respond to workplace stress from a place of kindness and pragmatism.

2. Uncertainty

Make room, death and taxes. There’s a new absolute certainty in life: the absence of certainty.

Cultivating the resilience needed to thrive in change and uncertain environments gives managers the confidence to adjust and respond to life events, bounce back effectively as and when they need to, and have the foresight to project future outcomes and prepare their teams well in advance.

In recent years we’ve faced a global health crisis, witnessed Russia’s war in Ukraine, we’re currently dealing with the escalating cost of living. There will likely be a new thing to contend with next week, and the week after that.

World events – particularly threats to humanity – affect people in ways that might not always be obvious at work. Like it or not, it isn’t easy to explain the reason you occasionally zone out of the weekly all hands is because you’re worried about the fate of the human race, or the world your kids are going to inherit, or simply making it to the end of the week.

Few managers were trained to cope with hybrid working in the first place, much less how to continue getting the same or better results out of their teams in a relatively new remote setting. Even fewer managers have been trained to respond to employees affected by war or worried about being able to pay their bills. No manager was primed to be a combination public health, economic, global politics expert alongside keeping their teams happy, in check, and driving productivity. This is all new territory for a lot of people.

Uncertainty is an unavoidable facet of life, and managers who not only accept it, but embrace it as a given, are able to respond with greater composure, accuracy, and effectiveness to inevitable, unpredictable challenges. This is behaviour that models well too, when managers take the lead and set the example they expect their team to follow.

In coaching, we connect people with who they really are, reminding them of their unique strengths and what keeps them grounded. It’s easy to lose sight of these things when your only constant is change and you aren’t sure what’s going to happen next at work or in life. Coaching can be used to establish and maintain a baseline, which helps managers weather whatever storm they happen to be sailing through.

We work with leaders on self awareness, adaptability, and resilience as ways of dealing with uncertainty, so that when issues do arise, managers have the presence of mind and the skills to overcome them.

3. Empathy

Developing compassionate leadership capabilities is key to creating mutually supportive, well connected teams. Managers who connect with their team on a human level are empathetic to the feelings and points of view of others in their team. Worryingly, 69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating with their employees, and 68% of employees would prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work

It’s hard to teach empathy. But it is a skill you can practice and develop like any other. Actively listening to people, putting yourself in their shoes, taking concerns seriously and responding appropriately are all desirable traits of modern leaders. And it tracks that people who feel seen and heard by their manager are more likely to remain satisfied in their role and loyal to their company. Not to mention, in a working world increasingly led by data and performance metrics, a human first leader is a key differentiator for a lot of people.

Forbes often talks about the importance of empathy. CEO of non-profit C200, Catheryn Dolezal, writes about how empathetic leaders create more effective working environments:

“Balancing the stressors of work and home life can be a battle. The good news is that an empathetic leader builds trust and helps employees focus on balancing both work and life concerns, which creates a more positive work environment with better outcomes. A recent study surveyed almost 900 different employees and found that leaders who practice empathy will have a more engaged team as well as a more profitable business. Of those surveyed, 86% said they are more successful at balancing their work and life concerns when they have a leader focused on empathy, while just 60% without an empathetic leader felt successful.”

Sanctus Coaches work with managers on setting effective boundaries, dispensing simultaneously honest and caring feedback, developing the skills needed to triage all manner of employee issues accurately and effectively, and the confidence to hold difficult conversations with different stakeholders at work.

When both employee and manager feel heard and valued, we have the basis for honest dialogue, which enables people at work to broach topics they might otherwise find challenging to raise in a workplace setting. Empathetic leaders play a vital role in creating working environments where everyone feels supported and connected – particularly important in a hybrid working world.

4. Authenticity

Leaders who feel free to be themselves at work, who know their strengths and can use them confidently and effectively, are well placed to lead from a place of authenticity and generosity that places humans first.

Managers who are connected with themselves are better able to connect with others. This is not about being everyone’s best mate, but recognising the immutable fact that even the most battle hardened leaders are human beings too, with thoughts, feelings, flaws and blindspots, hopes and dreams and all the rest of it.

Authentic leadership is about transparency. Which can make people feel vulnerable. Which means it’s really about trust. Trust in yourself. And trust that your team won’t reject you for being honest with them. It’s a funny thing, trust. The more you give, the more likely you are to see it returned to you. If people can’t be honest with their manager, there’s only so much potential you’ll unlock in them.

To lead a team effectively, the people within it need someone they can relate to. And that can’t happen if the leader has too many barriers up. Open and honest communication is key, not just keeping team members in the loop with business updates but being up front about performance and feedback, and checking in with team members on life outside of work every now and again. This is not a call to dissolve the boundaries between work and life, it’s just being realistic about how the two things intersect on the job, and investing the time and effort in creating meaningful connections with team members.

Coaching helps with self confidence. Helping people appreciate their uniqueness and bring as much or as little of it as appropriate to work with them. We don’t ask people to leave their personality at the door when they enter the coaching room – the opposite: we encourage managers and leaders to bring their whole self to sessions with them, and encourage the option to be available to everyone in the workplace.

Sanctus Coaches work with managers on more effective ways of leading and developing teams long term, getting a better understanding of employee wants and needs (including motivational, growth, and support needs), and fostering more meaningful relationships with direct reports and peers alike.

5. Purpose

Our fifth and final pillar is all about staying the course with impact-lead, purposeful engagement – in work and in life. Purpose is a hot talking point lately, and something we’ve written about recently:

“Why is purpose important at work? Because we spend most of our time there! If your work isn’t aligned to some form of meaning, it’s really hard to sustain energy. We need a clear ‘why’. Only it doesn’t have to be a big one. For some people, having or making enough more money is a strong enough purpose to keep them going.”

One recent high profile example involves American clothing brand Patagonia. Company Founder Yvon Chouinard made headlines in September 2022 with news he was going to effectively give the company away “to a specially designed trust and a nonprofit organization… created to preserve the company’s independence and ensure that all of its profits — some $100 million a year — are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the globe.”

The climate is the most pressing issue in the world for a great many people, and anecdotally, this move seems to have been met favourably. What Patagonia are tapping into here, is the idea that people are more inclined to meet their potential if they feel fulfilled in what they’re doing. Saving the planet? You can’t really get much more purposeful than that.

This is set against a backdrop of absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover costs increasing 25% since 2019 – reaching almost £56 billion in 2020-21 – as employee engagement rates fluctuate throughout the year.

Leaders are the conduit for instilling purpose in their people. To do that, they have to be alert to the motivations and purpose of individual team members, and somehow find a way to link that to the broader goals of the business.

Coaching provides guidance for leaders to determine their actions based on the best interest of the business. Leaders who are in tune with what their people need in order to thrive often see employees enjoying greater job satisfaction, clarity, and productivity.

Connected Leadership

This, in a nutshell, is the Sanctus approach to leadership development. We call it Connected Leadership: an individually tailored 1-2-1 coaching track designed to develop capabilities beyond conventional leadership training – things like empathy, self awareness, and resilience.

Managers and people leaders at all levels are coached on how to lead with authenticity and generosity, build the skills and awareness to spot and address signs of struggle in the self and others, and equip themselves with the tools and mindset needed to thrive in uncertain environments.

Our approach is impact led and identifies progress as well as opportunities for further development. By benchmarking skills pre, during, and post programme, the people we coach can clearly see the progress they’ve made in these key areas. Connected Leadership is backed by research showing significant benefits:

  • 74% less stress
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 40% less burnout
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 76% higher engagement

To continue learning, please head over to the following pages, Connected Leadership and Leadership Development.