Four Skills to Master for Effective Leadership

Four Skills to Master for Effective Leadership

When I decided to apply for the USC CERPP Leadership in Enrollment Management certificate program, lots of people asked why I would undertake the work of the program if I wasn’t considering a move back to the enrollment director’s seat anytime soon. But for me, it wasn’t a question of whether to do it. A quote from John Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership comes to mind: “Leaders are readers,” constantly on a quest for knowledge. No matter where in your career you find yourself, if you are a leader (or want to be) you must make continued education a priority.

To be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect from the CERPP program. I read the syllabus and have certainly read some of the articles and attended presentations offered by the program's faculty (and it’s an impressive faculty, to be sure). But I’d been a director of admission and I work with enrollment professionals on a daily basis, so I expected it would simply be a deeper dive into topics affecting our work. While there is a certain element of that in the program, I was immediately checked by the things I didn’t know, or at least the things to which I hadn’t given due credit as critical skills needed for our work in this profession.

One of the most important aspects of this program has been the time participants have to reflect on our experiences and look ahead to planning for continued growth. Recently, we dove in to the topic of personal leadership. Our studies in this program have introduced us to a number of different leaders, all with different capabilities, and we were asked to craft our own vision of leadership. That started me thinking about the leaders I have had the opportunity to work with thus far in my career.

As a result of this exercise I have come to realize that for me, a leader is synonymous with a teacher. Every encounter I have had with leaders and leadership has taught me something-- skills and styles to incorporate into my own practices, or cautionary tales of things and behaviors to be avoided; either way, a lesson. I share my thoughts here with you and I encourage you to take a few moments to think about who you are as a leader, or who you could be.

Drive: There are a number of skills most valuable for authentic and productive leadership. The first key, for me, is an inner drive for excellence or achievement toward a goal. It does not matter what the goal or objective is -- this skill can be translated into achievement across many products, disciplines, or industries.

Passion: The second key is passion. To me, passion is at the root of why you do whatever it is you do, and though you can find some measure of success with drive alone, passion will enable you to push and grow beyond mere achievement of a goal. Passion is infectious, and as renowned author Simon Sinek notes, people will be inspired to work with and for you if they also believe in why you do it.

See, Embrace, and Encourage Talent: The third key is the ability to recognize, embrace, and encourage talent and leadership in others without fear. A strong leader knows s/he is better when surrounded by a strong team, one that represents a variety of accomplishments and skills that no single person could possess. In a 2014 essay by Kathleen Massey, then the university registrar and executive director of enrollment services at McGill University, she wrote about this aspect of her experience while moving through her career: “I learned [through this experience] that the wisdom and experience to make changes and improvements often exists within the community doing the work and benefiting from the services. It’s our job as leaders to find a way to unleash that knowledge and create a setting where people are empowered to make changes. This means developing the courage to let your own ideas be transformed by the influence of those around you. It also means being comfortable with crystallizing and communicating a vision and setting the bar high for performance and holding people accountable to it.”

This insight has stuck with me in the years since. The need for hierarchy is present only for measures of accountability, not ladder climbing. No one works to undermine another, only to develop and highlight the skills of those around them. 

Articulate the End Goal: The fourth key to effective leadership is to clearly articulate the end goal. Not just the why, but the how and the what must be clearly envisioned. The ability to see where you want to finish or what it is you hope to achieve allows you to get there as effectively and efficiently as possible. This includes the ability to reverse engineer that end goal to understand the work needed to get there, and to create measures and mechanisms for accountability along the path to the end goal. Effective leaders stay out of the weeds and keep an eye on the big picture, because they have talented teams to manage the details when needed.

I think these four skills are universal to strong, effective leadership regardless of the product, industry, or end goal. In my mind, one must have a vision for leadership before determining how to lead. To that end, I could list countless important traits one might possess to demonstrate their leadership -- things like kindness, strong listening skills, content knowledge, honesty, understanding, and empathy are all valuable. I don’t list them here as an afterthought; they are certainly worthy of their own development and attention, but they are the skills that I believe are most open to variation based on who the leader is, not how they must lead.

As you think about the leadership you’ve experienced and the leader that you are, I encourage you to keep learning; being a constant “reader,” if you will. And if you’re looking for that next challenge, you might want to consider checking out USC’s Leadership in Enrollment Management certificate program, or their newly formed Master of Education in Enrollment Management and Policy.