The Soft Skills That Make Successful Leaders

Three leaders from Boston-based tech orgs share the lessons they learned when cutting their teeth in leadership.

Written by Robert Schaulis
Published on Oct. 27, 2022
The Soft Skills That Make Successful Leaders
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There is perhaps no greater referendum on a professional’s soft skills than the leap from an individual contributor role into a managerial position. 

Where once technical proficiency had been sufficient, a newly minted leader may find effective team communication and judicious delegation are now a must. Where excelling in delivering individual results was once a boon, managers may find themselves alienating team members by taking on too much and not providing support and growth opportunities for their reports. 

“The ability to create trust between you and your team is a subtle but critical skill,” Peter Wein, lead data engineer at MORSE Corp, said. “Your team needs to trust that you will lead them successfully through the lifecycle of a project, and you need to trust your team will get the work done to the best of their ability.”

According to Wein, many young leaders who have excelled as individual contributors tend to want to take on too many individual tasks when learning to manage a team. In doing so, they run the risk of stifling mutual trust between the leader and their team. Ultimately, this can lead to professional and creative stagnation. 

“By enabling others to succeed, you can accomplish far more as a team and will regularly create novel solutions to challenges that arise,” Wein said. 

Built In Boston asked Wein and two other leaders to weigh in on the challenges of developing soft skills, the teaching moments they encountered early in their careers, and the strengths that prospective leaders should hone as they eye the next step in their career path.

 

The Hometap team poses for a photograph
Hometap

 

Alex Valentine
Learning and Development Manager • Hometap

Hometap is a loan alternative for tapping into home equity without taking on debt. Homeowners receive debt-free cash by selling a percentage of the equity in their homes to Hometap.

 

What are the most important soft skills for you as a leader?

Emotional intelligence and communication. Understanding and realizing the impact that my words can have on others helps me take deliberate steps to be tactful and thoughtful in how I communicate. Being self-aware of my feelings and inner senses allows me to directly address my needs first before supporting others. I have to put my oxygen mask on first.

 

What made you recognize the importance of those soft skills, and how did you develop them?

Oftentimes, it was through struggle or challenges. There have been moments in which I haven’t given myself the time and space to feel, or I have communicated poorly when working with stakeholders. In these moments, my message hasn’t landed and has since then led me to make changes to be a better leader to my team and a better peer to my colleagues.

Understanding and realizing the impact that my words can have on others helps me take deliberate steps to be tactful and thoughtful.”

 

Which soft skills did you find it hardest to develop when you first started in a leadership role, and why?

Delegation is always difficult when you’re a new leader. You are so used to being an individual contributor and doing things yourself. It becomes hard to transition and let things go. You have to trust that others are capable and give them the room to fail forward. This skill comes with time, and having good mentors in your corner helps massively. 

 

 

The Immersive Labs team at work around a conference table in the company's Boston hub.
Immersive Labs

 

Kristine Hunt
VP, Revenue Marketing • Immersive Labs

Immersive Labs is the leader in people-centric cyber resilience. The company helps organizations continuously assess, build and prove its cyber workforce resilience for teams across the entire organization, from front-line cybersecurity and development teams to board-level executives.

 

What are the most important soft skills for you as a leader?

Problem-solving, communication and leadership, in that order. 

As a leader of a high-performing team, I need to be ready to help guide individuals through conflict resolution and provide the runway they need to shine and drive the business. 

Having the ability to quickly resolve challenges requires healthy communication and showing leadership to give all audiences confidence in my decision-making process. Further, healthy communication within a team environment, especially in a remote landscape, can proactively keep our runway clear of obstacles so we can meet and exceed our goals together. 

Our collective focus must continue to be data-driven, so having the ability to problem-solve quickly can reduce ambiguity and keep our momentum moving forward as a team.

 

What made you recognize the importance of those soft skills, and how did you develop them?

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have had some outstanding managers and mentors. Over time, I watched them as they guided me through problem-solving and conflict resolution. 

When I first entered the workforce, I landed a job at an early startup. The pace was fast and the information came non-stop. I quickly realized that my actual job role was not challenging, but learning how to work with others in an office was the biggest challenge. If you had asked me at that time what soft skills I needed, I wouldn’t have been able to answer. Now I know that soft skills are the most important skills any person can refine over time. 

As an individual contributor with exceptional mentors, I saw firsthand how leadership and communication skills can build and scale a high-performing team. When I entered my first leadership position, I was ready to lead by example. I also understood that I will never stop developing my leadership skills.

Now I know that soft skills are the most important skills any person can refine over time.” 

 

Which soft skills did you find it hardest to develop when you first started in a leadership role, and why?

In my opinion, soft skills are learned over time. They grow as you grow. For me, learning to become a leader and show leadership was the most challenging soft skill to develop. I’m still developing that one. To me, leadership is the one skill that you need constant feedback on to ensure you are meeting expectations from all stakeholders and understanding that not all expectations will be the same.

 

 

Two employees lounge in the MORSE Corp lobby overlooking the Charles River
MORSE Corp

 

Peter Wein
Lead Data Engineer • MORSE Corp

MORSE Corp’s team of scientists, engineers and software developers employs asymmetric and unconventional approaches to create and deploy practical solutions to problems faced by U.S. National Security interests.

 

What are the most important soft skills for you as a leader?

One of the most important leadership skills is the ability to identify the most effective way to communicate with each member of your team and augment how you share information accordingly. For example, some people prefer being given less direction and having agency in their ability to approach a problem, while others prefer having a recommended approach beforehand. Understanding which team member prefers which method will enable you to deliver information effectively and maximize how much your team can produce. 

Beyond that, being invested in the personal and professional growth of your team is critical to success. This can take many forms, from encouraging a team member to work on a task outside of their comfort zone to spending time developing other technical — or soft — skills. Ultimately, this will help their careers and is a sign that you care for your team beyond the bottom line. 

As a leader, learning how to effectively manage everyone’s work — your own included — builds this trust and lets your team’s natural skills and preferences rise.” 

 

What made you recognize the importance of those soft skills, and how did you develop them?

As an individual contributor, having a manager who cared for my professional development and effectively communicated with me exemplified how powerful these skills can be. On the flip side, having a manager who did not exemplify these attributes helped me to understand why these skills are so important. 

Now as a leader, I exemplify these attributes by setting a regular cadence of meetings with individuals on my team to make sure I understand where they are at, where they want to be and how I can empower them to get there. While this isn’t an overarching change to the leadership paradigm, maintaining this effort in a consistent manner will have a large positive impact on your team.

MORSE has also been a major factor in my leadership skill development. Not only do they provide training when you first begin in a leadership role, but they have regular meetings to discuss leadership best practices and how to continue growing. Being part of a company that understands the importance of leadership skills and cultivates a collaborative environment where knowledge is shared between leaders has helped me grow into the role quickly and effectively.

 

Which soft skills did you find it hardest to develop when you first started in a leadership role, and why?

Especially in your first leadership role, it often feels easier and faster to do all of the work you previously did in addition to your new leadership role. Unfortunately, this not only hampers your ability to adapt to a new leadership role but also inhibits the mutual trust required for a successful team. As a leader, learning how to effectively manage everyone’s work — your own included — builds this trust and lets your team’s natural skills and preferences rise. 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by Shutterstock and featured companies.

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