What leadership means to employers

The words jump out from the page of most job advertisements: strong leadership skills. Whether you’re pursuing a mid-level job or you’ve reached the pinnacle executive level, leadership skills are required and in high demand.

In 2012, a Society for Human Resource Management survey reported that 17 percent of HR professionals had trouble identifying qualified managers. Qualified management likely includes professionals with effective problem-solving and decision-making skills, agility, and organizational awareness. This leadership skillset is lacking throughout most industries, according to a report produced by Mashable.com.

So what does “leadership” mean to employers? And how can you prove your leadership abilities?

It depends.

Perhaps not the earth-shattering response you were hoping for. But let’s consider the characteristics of a leader, which are as vast as they are varied; a leader can be viewed as a hero, as a visionary, or as an innovator. A leader adds structure or mission or even transforms an idea as was seen by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A leader looks to solve problems, prioritize, and influence those around her or him.

Leaders create a context for us to do our best, contribute to social capital, and help others. Leaders don’t have all the answers, but do ask all the right questions and include the followers in the conversation. Remember leaders need to be worthy of their followers. Leaders include diversity of thoughts, often brought into the conversation by people who are different by the nature of their upbringing, color, culture, or sexual orientation. Lastly, leaders understand “to lead” is a verb, a process, a journey—not a goal.

But in the context of a career, and seeking out positions that require strong leadership skills, what can you do to stand out?

“Leaders must have credibility, and credibility is all about following through—doing what you say you will do (DWYSYWD),” suggests Dave Frostman, advisory board member for the University of Denver’s college of professional and continuing studies, University College. “Leadership is a choice—a choice we need more employees to make.”

As you work toward proving your worth as a leader in your career, the question often asked is: can leadership be learned? Based on years of educating leaders, my answer is that good leadership skills can be learned. Having strong leadership skills in your leadership toolbox can help you model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage the heart (Kouzes and Posner, 2007). What can’t be taught is the courage to take on leadership roles.

“A leader understands that leadership is not a position one is given, but rather a moniker one earns,” said Dr. Allison Friederichs, Director of Columbia College and Master Teacher for University College. “From this perspective, anyone can be a leader, regardless of position. Organizations must realize that any person within that organization has the potential to lead others through the communicative choices they make.”

Quintessential Careers suggests a sample bullet point for your resume that indicates your leadership and management skills: “Goal-driven leader who maintains a productive climate and confidently motivates, mobilizes, and coaches employees to meet high performance standards.” You can take it a step further by including examples of proven leadership in your current role. Have you taken on an organizational challenge effectively and successfully? Are you part of an ad-hoc or committee indicating you’re willing to take on more responsibility outside of your job description? Have you advocated for change or made improvements to processes? All of these actions contribute to forming the definition of a leader in the workplace.

“Having worked with a large number of leaders over the years, and being in a leadership position myself, I see that people want a lot from their leaders: strategic vision, inspiration, and organization being chief among them,” said Kevin Raines, Principal at Corona Insights. “However, it’s absolutely vital that it’s all built upon a foundation of honesty and trust, or the other attributes will never gain traction.”

From communication to project management, there are multiple skills that lead up to being a successful leader. In a study completed on the effectiveness of leadership by the Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor, it was determined that credible leadership is a result of open communication, decisive action, and personal presence. Only 37 percent of those polled rated leaders as effective communicators. Now there’s a skill worth developing!

Another area to explore is project management. The Project Management Institute (PMI) published a forecast predicting that in the next decade, there will be 15.7 million project management positions created globally—that translates to 6.2 million jobs in the U.S. by 2020. Schedule and budget management, strong leadership, strategic, and business-management skills, plus organizational expertise are essential to succeed in this role, according to U.S. News & World Report.

There are ways to prove your leadership ability in all of your day-to-day actions, whether you are a leader in an official capacity, or simply exhibiting the characteristics of a leader in the work you do. As organizations seek out professionals who are strategic, innovative, and collaborative, it’s also essential that the managerial skills are top-notch. Ultimately, a leader needs to have the ability to manage and motivate.

“Many textbooks will state that leaders are knowledgeable and liked,” said Jerry Call, instructor for the Leadership and Organizations program at University College. “If they do not have these traits then they are simply known as the boss.”

It should be clear that anyone has the ability to be a leader, and that doesn’t necessarily mean being a boss. Leaders come in all shapes, sizes, roles, and functions; it’s up to you to leverage your own leadership abilities and learn how to lead through a heightened focus on communication, management, innovation, and follow-through. Employers will recognize a leader when they see one, and you may very well be that leader in the making.  

To learn more about the Leadership and Organizations program at the University of Denver, and how you can customize your master’s degree or graduate certificate to suit your career needs, visit universitycollege.du.edu. Build a customized program using the interactive Degree Builder tool or make an appointment to speak with an advisor by calling 303-871-2291.

(Editor’s note: This paid content is supplied by the University of Denver’s University College.)

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