What does it take to be a leader?: excerpts from a 'Signium Speaks' podcast on executive leadership skills

We brought together some of its most experienced specialists in senior leadership appointments in a podcast discussion of the topic: what makes a good leader in today’s business environment and in the years to come. The experts, all managing partners from Signium’s international network, represented Signium offices in China, the US, Mexico, Germany, and South Africa, and contributed some vital insights into the key skills and traits required by the leaders of the future.

In response to the question of what leadership capabilities are the most sought after, Glenn Anderson of Signium USA felt that the number one quality should be an inclusive approach to management. He added that leaders must model the change they want to see. “I think the days of the old – the monarchy sort of rule – are long gone and will probably never return,” he said. “We need leaders who are able to lead a team to make decisions on the direction of the business with little or no fear of risk-taking, and who are not afraid to fail and admit it and then talk about it as a team, as a group, as a unit. It’s increasingly important in today’s environment that leaders do not take an ivory tower approach to management and leadership. They need to be creating and influencing – or infusing I should say – the right behaviours.”

Carolin Fourie of Signium Germany also puts at the top of her list traits associated with inclusivity and collaboration, showing how much leadership has evolved from previous models which might be considered more authoritative and dictatorial. Carolin named characteristics such as ‘empathy’ and ‘leading by example’ as crucial for successful leadership. “Being trustful, fair, honest, and having integrity as a leader” are now seen as key assets, she argued, “and being able to empower and trust one’s employees. The time of leaders who are experts in every aspect is long gone - future leaders need to hire people who know more than themselves and they need to trust them. As a leader they have to facilitate an environment that allows strong people to thrive and to grow further.”
Felipe Rivelles from Signium Mexico is aligned in this assessment, that a “strong values system” is imperative, as well as the ability to be a “good listener” and possess a level of self-awareness that prevents them being controlling: “a leader will understand that he or she does not necessarily know everything so will strive to surround themselves with experts.” 

However, the humility required for this progressive approach should not be at the expense of more ‘traditional’ leadership traits, says Felipe. “A strong leadership style” and “strategic vision” is still the number one priority in his list of desirable leadership skills; “the top leaders understand trends and potential changes, preparing and steering the company through them.” This involves discernment and a steady hand when it comes to the tough decisions: “there must be a balanced focus on outside stakeholders (clients, suppliers, regulators) as well as employees and shareholders. And also balancing the short term pressures for profits versus strengthening the foundation for continued growth.”

A further requirement discussed by the panel was the need for modern leaders to have a global perspective. “I really believe that a knowledge of world markets and cultures is continuing to be something in terms of effective leadership that our clients are looking for,” said Glenn Anderson. Felipe agreed that “an ability to operate effectively in multicultural environments” is increasingly paramount. It was also felt that this required a level of open-mindedness to other cultural ways of operating – “as the world is growing together and businesses operate across the globe, leaders have to be open for other cultures and not dictate their vision based on their cultural expertise,” insisted Carolin. 

Linked to this sense of cultural adaptability, effective leaders also require broader flexibility. Felipe called this quality “adaptability and agility – they need the ability to operate in an ever changing and uncertain environment, and to take action fast.” This asks for a degree of courage which should mark leaders out from others, said Carolin; “a future leader has to be brave and has to have the guts to explore and to take new and unpaved paths.” Annelize Rensburg from Signium Africa interprets this trait as a kind of creativity – “it takes creative thinking to find alternative ways to challenges, whether old or new. And dovetailed with this is innovation – making the creative ideas work in terms of effective implementation.”

Ultimately, however, for Annelize, the number one asset that future leaders need is high levels of skill in communication. “I continually stress that communication (both oral and written) is the most important thing, engagement with people and communication that gets the real message across in a correct manner to the right audience. Not only does this create better internal working, but also leads to greater customer focus.”
Here in summary are the top traits singled out by our panel of experts:

• Inclusivity
• Risk-taking 
• Collaboration
• Empathy 
• Integrity
• Strong values
• Strategic vision
• Incisive decision-making
• Global perspective
• Flexibility
• Creativity
• Communication skills

To listen to the full discussion, download the podcast.