Skills Development for Busy Middle Market Leaders

As the leader of a middle market company, it can be hard to find the time for skills development. You know you should be reading that industry journal, or taking that time management class, or even watching TED talks to spark new ideas - but the phone is ringing and your inbox is overflowing.

Executive coach Alisa Cohn says it's a common problem, but one that savvy middle market leaders can overcome. There are three fundamental kinds of skills you have to develop, she says. The first is technical or domain skills, such as keeping up with technological developments (how to use Skype now that your client insists on it) or industry trends (innovations you should consider in sourcing or the production process). "You have to develop your skills regularly to keep up with the times and be relevant," says Cohn. But those shifts don't happen overnight; reading regularly and trainings or classes every six months or a year may be sufficient. 

On the other hand, the second and third type of skills - leadership and time management - require constant vigilance, she says. "Being able to lead in a complex, nuanced, ever-changing work environment is even more important [than technical skills]. You should be working on that every day." Similarly, managing your productivity is a critical component of your success as a leader, says Cohn. "There's limited time, but unlimited things to do. In order to have impact, you really have to develop skills around discerning what the most important things are to accomplish."

So how can overextended executives build skills development into their daily routines? "First and foremost, decide you're going to do it," says Cohn. "It's not a lot of time, but it takes energy." Next, she suggests that you determine what success would look like: "How will I know I'm becoming a stronger leader? How will I know I'm more influential? How do I know people trust me more?" You can establish data points that are internal ("I feel more confident") and external ("it's easier for people to get onboard with my concepts"). 

To see what strategies work, Cohn advises that you study the most influential or successful people in your company or industry. What do they do behaviorally? What don't they do? She cautions that pure imitation generally won't work. "You have to craft your own style," she says. "Experiment, see how it works" and then iterate. It's also important to realize that different situations often call for different approaches. "You should never do the same thing [unthinkingly] just because it worked in one environment," she says, citing the example of one executive she coached whose leadership style involved asking questions to drive consensus. "That's excellent," she says, "but now he needs to set up an organizational structure quickly and you can't do that by constantly asking what everyone else is thinking. Asking questions is not what's required here."

You can become an even more effective leader if you build time into your schedule for periodic updates on technical matters - and develop the daily discipline to make small adjustments to your leadership and productivity skills. Over time, small changes can have a major impact.

Dorie Clark is an NCMM contributor and marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on TwitterCircle her on Google+


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