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The most effective leaders I’ve worked with have two key things that allow them to inspire their teams — self-awareness about their strengths and weaknesses, and empathy.

Soft skills [human capital] are the hard skills inside the glass walls of today’s organisations and my experience is they are difficult to come by and make all the difference when it comes to performance.

Aurecon is a privately owned engineering and infrastructure business with 7500 staff across 25 countries. We’re owned by about 700 of our senior staff across the globe and that drives a certain culture because our leaders have skin in the game. We have a global board made up of executive and non-executive directors. The non-executive directors bring independence and governance to the oversight of the organisation.

Communication and listening are critical skills for every leader. Some innately have them, others don’t, but I believe you can learn them. The key thing is to recognise when you don’t have these skills, but be willing to practise learning them. Some people will get better at them than others. Seeking feedback is key to this, as is having a great mentor.

It is also important to recognise no one leader can be great at everything. Leaders need to recruit people around them who play to their weaknesses, therefore creating a strong team.

A learning mindset

The conversation used to always be around IQ, so it is great people are now having a conversation about focusing on EQ. This is a measure of a person’s emotional intelligence, but as with IQ, some people will innately have higher EQ than others. With advances in technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), we will see “soft” skills such as a leader’s emotional intelligence outrank “hard” skills. We can’t yet teach AI to empathise, infer meaning, or manage emotions — which are all critical elements of the corporate world. It will be important for leaders to have a learning mindset. What they are learning may change, but to succeed, the best leaders will still require an innate curiosity and desire for knowledge.

Leaders who are emotionally self-regulated and self-aware know how to pause, think and step into another person’s shoes before acting. They know how to sniff out the needs of both colleague and customer. Often people talk about stepping into other people’s shoes, but fail to take off their own shoes first.

San Francisco-based software company Slack Technologies, for example, has its product managers working in customer support to field complaints first-hand, under the banner of “everyone does support”. The idea is not only to build real-time product knowledge, but empathy, as an integral component of digitally resilient cultures.

We must get better at listening. In today’s fast-paced society, it’s a rare but critical skill in the workplace. If leaders can learn how to get others talking and create safe, engaging environments where the smartest one in the room isn’t necessarily the highest-paid, innovation will automatically pop. If empathy is an articulated goal and we make it our aim to see the story from someone else’s side, we’ll sidestep a lot of time and energy-guzzling conflict. We’ll be able to relate better to our clients and teams. And if we can be dead honest with our own strengths and weaknesses, we will then probably have the insight to tolerate others’ limitations and oversights.

Continuity

I grew up outside Melbourne and my first job was as a waiter in a small restaurant. This taught me some amazing soft skills.

My first human resources role was a six-month work placement with Connell Wagner [which became Aurecon in 2009] while I was at university. I had no idea what engineers did and had never been that interested in science or maths. This is somewhat ironic as I have since spent 17 years working with STEM professionals and being fascinated by what they do and their impact on society.

I was lucky to be offered a permanent role at the conclusion of the work placement and finished my degree on a part-time basis. When I originally took on this work placement, I was only 20 and I’m still amazed at my journey from HR and payroll assistant to chief people officer at the same company. Staying in the one firm brings the challenge of continuing to develop and reinvent yourself. Having a growth mindset is important because staying in one organisation for a long time, you run the risk of complacency.

Communication and listening are critical skills for every leader. Some innately have them, others don’t, but I believe you can learn them.

In defence of HR

I accept that human resources often gets a bad rap, but to do it well is actually quite hard. In the past, it was often tick-the-box processes — which by now we should have already eliminated or automated. That’s not where HR can have value. Working with the CEO, executive team and board around the strategic direction of the organisation and what organisational culture and skills the business needs to achieve its aspirations is where HR adds value.

When I think about the evolution of HR practices during my career, what is exciting and innovative is challenging the way things have been done in the past and asking “why”. The future of work is now and asking why is so important in shaping this. As leaders, it’s what we reward, what we punish and what we walk past that matters. The third, what we choose to walk past, is the most critical when it comes to setting the culture of an organisation.

Remuneration is a hot topic with companies being urged to consider more than financial success when working out how to remunerate people. If you’re serious about putting people at the apex of your business, your people practices need to be innovative and leading. How you hire, retain and develop your people must constantly be challenged.

Virtual networks are the new boardrooms to foster dialogue, thought leadership and consensus building. Employees need to know how to use them to generate collective action. Even as the shadow of AI replacement looms over their shoulders, workers need to keep investing in digital. Employees, particularly leaders, need to keep reinventing themselves and redesigning their roles for the future in the face of digital change.

Traditionally, the word “team” has been associated with a sense of place where shoulders rub and office space is shared. The rise of the digital age has re-imagined what it means to work in teams — where you work has very little to do with it anymore.