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Leadership Skills Needed to be a Great Leader

 Last Modified On: February 7, 2024, Author: Amy Sanchez

Great leadership is essential for companies to grow and increase revenue. In addition, being a good leader typically yields career growth, strong relationships and advocates, and new opportunities that can result in a very successful career. Knowing about what size company should you work for is important too.

Yet the question of HOW to be a great leader, and what leadership skills are needed, has eluded us for years. Understanding what is self advocacy and mastering it can play a pivotal role in your career as well.

  • How do I motivate my team without getting pulled into the weeds?
  • How do I drive the results I want with the team I have?
  • How do I deliver on corporate goals without sacrificing my personal life?
  • What do I need to do, say, and model in order to be considered a good leader?
  • What do I do when things get tough?

As an executive career and leadership coach, these questions come up again and again in my coaching sessions with leaders, even those who are already considered “good” leaders. Some people even hate their bosses. The truth is, that achieving the above is a delicate balance.  And it’s impossible to strike that balance 100% of the time.  If we were always perfect, we would never grow.

But it is possible to be mindful about how you build your executive presence and the practices you incorporate to strike this balance, which often is congruent with leadership skills that set you up to be a great leader. Based on my research, these leadership skills include:

  1. Developing a clear understanding of what kind of leader you want to be
  2. Executing best practices to ensure you drive the results you want
  3. Tending to your needs as a high-functioning human so you can sustain the energy needed to be a good leader

Other articles I’ve read about leadership address one or two of the above.  But I’ve yet to find a body of work that addresses all three.  So I decided to create it.

The goal of this work is to help those who are currently in or growing into leadership roles to become empowered through exercising great leadership to make a positive difference in the world.

The methodology I used to answer the questions above included interviewing three great leaders and asking them how they developed their leadership skills. I wanted to know their opinions about executive coaching and does it even work.

My criteria for choosing these three great leaders included:

  1. Operating in a senior position
  2. Rapid advancement throughout their career
  3. Widely recognized, both via water cooler conversations and in performance reviews as a top leader or in other words, one who has respect in the workplace.

There was no shortage of people who met this criteria.  I started with these three superstars:

  1. Katelyn Watson- Chief Marketing Officer at Nurx
  2. Antoine (A.J.) Johson- Regional Director, Gartner
  3. Meredith Vornholt- Senior Director of Marketing at Nevro (previous head of marketing at a Johnson & Johnson company)

These three leaders have a wide and loyal following of people who recognize and appreciate their approach to leadership.

Key Themes that Emerged from Top Leader Interviews #skills of a leader

Leadership Philosophy and Approach

  • The key to great leadership is TRUST.
  • Don’t tell people what to do or how to do it.  Tell them what you want to achieve and let them fill in the how. Let them review their performance by themselves instead of hand feeding them.
  • Offer help when it’s needed not by taking over but by asking HOW they need your help (or offering suggestions and letting them choose).
  • Give credit when credit is due and be a cheerleader for your team. When you grow by supporting others along the way, the probability of feeling loneliness at the top goes down significantly.
  • Tap into the WHY for people and accelerate the why with the task at hand. Give people the opportunity to shine.

Self-Care, Internal Narrative and Boundaries

  • Everyone had a morning routine that included some form of exercise, quiet time and reflection BEFORE they looked at work emails. (If you're looking for help in finding time to recharge, this is for you). Good leaders always know how to set priorities as a leader.
  • When they were in situations of intense stress, they all had some kind of de-stressing technique that they intentionally employed.  For one- it was to do something that she had control over.  For others, it was to exercise or incorporate meditation.
  • When things get tough, they all had a very positive internal narrative that drove them to find the confidence needed to arrive at a solution.

How to Handle Difficult Situations as a Leader

  • All three, in different ways, referenced leaning into curiosity when things got tough. They take time to think through how to solve for the situation at hand and two pointed to not taking things personally. Even when things get tough at work, they seem to figure out some way to resolve conflict at work.
  • When they had an under-performer, all of them were proactive about having conversations to specify expectations.  All three were also realistic about the need to let some people go when, after these conversations, employees still didn’t meet expectations.

The primary takeaway that I walked away with after interviewing all three of these successful leaders is that, "It’s important to foster trust with your team to empower them to take initiative but that shouldn’t happen at the sacrifice of your own needs." If someone is suffering, help them overcome imposter syndrome for better efficiency at work and in their personal lives. In fact, it’s just as important to self-care as it is to tap into the needs of others. One fuels the other and when done in perfect orchestra, powerful leadership rises.

Trust and care for others, trust and care for yourself, and make tough decisions early without compromising your values.

Finally, be mindful of what you tell children you are in a care-giving role for when they face adversity.  For each leader I interviewed, the words they heard from their primary caregivers set the foundation for how they currently talk to themselves when times get tough.  The more empowering you can be, the higher the likelihood that the children in your life will develop the internal narrative necessary to persevere through challenges as they grow up.

This was a really fun project, and the leaders I posted about garnered tons of responses on social media.  To read the specifics from each leader interview, please scroll below. If you really want to get an answer to 'what are leadership skills' and what are the skills of a leader, you should not miss the following bits from the interview of some great leaders.

I hope this fuels you to reach your next goal as a leader looking to change the world in a positive way.

Katelyn Watson- Chief Marketing Officer at NURX

Katelyn Watson, Top Leader

Leadership Philosophy

What’s your leadership philosophy?

It starts with a foundation of trust- I give everyone on my team the benefit of the doubt.  If they violate that, then I have to look closer at what they’re doing.  I try to empower my people by not telling them what to do.

This is the way I approach it: I will share how I’ve see it done in the past.  This idea could work.  What ideas do you have?  I prompt them with ideas and if they don’t have the answer, they have a good place to start from what I’ve seeded.  This allows them to take ownership of the execution and the idea.

When we’re in situations where there is a tight deadline or a very specific ask, I’ll share this context with them when I do need to provide more specific direction.

I’m always thinking about: How do I empower my team by providing input but not solutions?

Where did you learn this?

I started in digital marketing at a young age.  I had the luxury of a high budget, a skill-set others around me didn’t have and because of this, was interacting with executives very early in my career.  The early roles I was in enabled me to be a self-starter.  I was working with executives when the stakes were relatively low.  I learned how to manage by the way they were interacting with me.  No one ever regurgitated their road map and asked me to execute; people trusted me and empowered me.  When I did execute, I received positive feedback and twice, early in my career, my boss was let go and their senior leader connected with me to ensure I was going to stay.

I saw a lot of success early on and when I began to manage others, I utilized the hands-off, supportive approach that was modeled to me.

Also, my mom instilled this in me at an early age.  She constantly reminded me that the world didn’t revolve around me, to think about others.  She also told me that I could accomplish anything and do anything.

How do you motivate people?

I set aside time where I talk to people on my team about their performance and their motivations (where they want to go in their career).  I increased this frequency during COVID.  The level of uncertainty in people’s lives is higher than it’s ever been. You have to understand that first and then only you can think of developing the skills of a leader.

Talking to my team more personally gave them a sense of certainty.  I’ll ask things like, “How do you think things are going?”  “What does it look like one year/five years from now in your career?”

I get a wide variety of responses- some people lay out the desired path- and I can support them accordingly.

Other people on my team have no idea where they want to go. They are struggling in their role/the uncertainty of the future.  So I help them see the paths, I present options for them based on their career to help them see where they can go.  I started on the agency/consultancy side where I saw lots of paths very early.

I ensure people that their advancement aspirations are on my radar.

Also, you have to practice and get good at cheer leading for your team and yourself. I find that a lot of people struggle with confidence, women and men.

For example, there are people who are really skilled/good at what they do and are terrified about presenting to a large group.  I help them through this by comparing this experience to that of a tour guide.  A tour guide could be making everything up.  But they know more about city than anyone on the bus.  So, if you know more about this topic than everyone in the room, you have nothing to worry about.  These are your partners and colleagues, they want to see you succeed.

I also make sure that my team has visibility.  I’ve had to figure this out in a remote environment.

To do this, I created a Slack channel so the company could see when my team brings on new influencers.  And I’ve had to help my team overcome perceptions about this Slack channel and concern that if they share what they’re doing, others might think they’re bragging. I teach them that it’s not bragging, it’s cheer leading. If you aren’t rallying for yourself, no one is going to do it for you. You’re going to be left behind looking for examples of leadership skills instead of developing them yourself.

Self-Care, Internal Narrative and Boundaries

What does your internal narrative sound like that enables you to put yourself out there and overcome difficult situations?

“I know what I’m doing, been there, done that.  No one else knows how to do what I do.”  My mom always taught me "it is what it is" which is so cliché but it teaches you to just take what comes and not worry. First things first, what do you need to tackle to make this situation better? Make a list, tackle it, ask yourself: if I tackle this now, can other things come later? Don't only prioritize challenging projects or situations because then the squeaky wheel will always get the attention.

In one particular situation, an executive offered personal and non-productive feedback.  There were comparisons drawn including words like "how other CMO's do this."

I reflected on this new type of feedback and really and started to beat myself up. It caused me to be less effective for a week.

Then I had a bit of a wake-up call when talking to my vast peer group: I am doing all the right things, I am good at my job, I do know what I’m doing, why?.... because I've done it for 20 years and for multiple companies, I’ve been successful, and I'm constantly optimizing.

In this situation, I set up a follow-up meeting with this exec to revisit this discussion and was very specific in my feedback and intention. I shared that the recent discussion had not put us in a good place and I wanted to make sure that we could move forward and be productive. I gave
specific feedback about what I needed to be different moving forward. This individual
apologized and revealed that there was a high level of stress that precipitated the unproductive comments.

Overall, when I get into a challenging situation like this, I always step back and think: what is right for the company? Should they hire someone else? Am I less than effective? I look at the network and what the outcome could be and realize, it would never make sense for the company to hire this "Other CMO" because they would either be less effective, or do the same thing I am doing, but a lot slower.

This type of reflection allows me to incorporate feedback but also recognize when it should maybe be taken less literally or personally.  I stand back and evaluate if I am doing the right thing for the company, and move on from the topic. My advice is to be confident and stick to what you know.

If you are feeling really confident about the work you’re doing, you should be comfortable
defending it, even when you’re criticized and the outcomes aren’t what you have predicted.
I learned that you have to stand up to people who are challenging your effectiveness.
Highlight how it’s not productive, it didn’t motivate me to do my best work, is there another
way to approach this because I really want to be here.

In a remote environment, when someone says something unproductive to you, you can’t just grab coffee and talk it out. you have to show the skills of a leader and tackle this situation.

We need to make a point to have more personal conversations with each other, even more so in a remote environment.

At the end of the day, we’re all human. What we really all want is to be successful in our
careers and to have the tools to own and execute, in life and career. If you can create an environment where this is widely understood and accepted then it perpetuates trust and understanding.

How do you manage stress?

I admit, I am not the best at this. I make sure to do a work out or walk each day and try to escape the daily grind.  I ensure I compartmentalize - work hard play hard.

Working at 200% when I am working, and when I am not, shutting it off.  If I don't I am working 24/7. When I am over stressed, I take action – I get a project done or do something I have control over.

And I try to remember "My future self will know what to do." This is a quote from Sam Harris that I love. Stress is worrying about the future. The future is not now. You will know what to do when you get there.

What’s your internal narrative sound like when faced with new opportunities?

I use it as an opportunity to think about how this might fit into my future, or when it might fit in. You don't know the flavor you want till you tried them all and visualized yourself doing different things. If I am interested but timing is not right, visualize the actual process and what the change could be like, as well as envision yourself making the change. if it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't.

However, I also use it as an opportunity to network, and to help someone else who is recruiting or has needs by sending them in the right direction. They will remember it and when you are ready for the new thing, they will take your phone call. I always tell my team and others - take the phone call, answer the email, it will always pay off in the end.

What’s your morning routine?

Get up - play with my 3 year old. Drink a bottle of water and take birth control of course. Then hit the roof for a Fit-on work out.  Shower, put the Zoom face on which is dry shampoo and some earrings, and Wander beauty stick (so great for Zoom) and grab a quick breakfast. I check slack in the early hours to make sure I am not missing anything, and then start the deeper work at 9.

Do you create boundaries between life and work and if so, how?

It's hard, since my husband is also in the same field. But we try to cut each other off and just say stop. We worked all day, let's not talk about loyalty programs or digital marketing right now! I try hard to put the phone down and close the laptop to physically take it out of my space and tell myself, this is dinner time for an hour - enjoy this hour. Otherwise I am working all of the time!

What does your support network look like?

My mom - she always reminds me that the world does not revolve around me, or what I am doing, or what my company is doing, DUH.

My friends, they are all so multi-faceted and give me a great perspective for what I can accomplish, and really help me think outside the box given they are all in different professions.

My mastermind group - Enrich. I have been a member for years and it allows me to comingle with other execs, we talk about day to day but other things we may struggle with.

My team! Seems odd to have your reports as a support system, but I focus on learning from them, and having a strong bond. The reason people stay at jobs is people!

Of course my husband, because I met him at work and between us we have ALL the answers:)

Handling Difficult Situations #examples of leadership skills

What do you do when you come across a difficult situation or person at work?

I try not to look at situations as difficult. I just look at them for what they are - something to either respond to or not respond to. When a person is contradicting or making work harder, I ask questions. Sometimes dumb questions posed as "Why would we do that," "Why did we not do XYZ?" Most of the time, they answer their own issue when you ask this way, or explain that we chose to take the worse path, or, they don't know the answer and that uncovers the core issue.

If it is a person, I try to not take things personally ever. Work is work. And while being personal at work matters and helps build relationships, I just always know that most people have fight or flight mode to save themselves and it's not personal.

And I always ask myself "What makes sense for Insert company. name here" vs “what makes sense for Katelyn.”  If you ask that question you will always get the right answer!

How do you handle employees who are under-performing?

I create measurable objectives and say, “this is what you need to get to the next level”, and “this is what is expected if you here at Nurx (or wherever).” And if we move forward and things are still not going well, I am transparent and say that this is not the level of performance we agreed too and let them own it. I find that if you hire well, and give people ownership, most people will figure it out.

I will say some of the worst conversations I have ever had were letting someone go. It is hard to look at someone and tell them they need to find another pay check. On the bright side, I always find that people usually land in a better environment for them. Not every person will work well in every environment. I have worked with great people who don't work well with everyone, and not so great people who thrive in other environments. So, I stay away from saying that a certain person is "good" or "bad," just that they are not right for the company.

Antoine (A.J.) Johnson- Regional Director, Gartner

Antoine (A.J.) Johnson, Top Leader

Your Leadership Philosophy

What’s your leadership philosophy?

I was the oldest of three boys, raised by a single mom, so I’ve always been bossy.  In the beginning, I was influenced by the military approach I learned at home.  This was how I saw leadership at a young age- more of a command/control approach.

Early on in my career, I told people what to do 100% of the time.  This worked for some people but not with others.  When I led my first sales team, I saw 80% attrition in my first 90 days.  My thought back then was: if people would just do what I told them, everything would be ok.  I had a leader who let me fail and we talked about that failure and learnings.  This allowed me to evolve my leadership style.  Then I learned to motivate.  I’m a driver but now, I’m more aware of when I need to pull back.

Today, I take the blame when things go south, I give the credit when things go well.  People feel supported because I have their back.

I believe in hiring smart people and getting out of their way.  I help remove roadblocks that are impediments to the success of my people.  When we work through challenges, I always ask: you’re closer to it than me, what do you want to do?

For example- when I led a call with my team today, I noticed early in the meeting that the team seemed disjointed.  I decided to flex my style, ditch the agenda for the meeting, and just allowed them to vent to get stressors off their chest.

How do you define your role as a leader?

Sometimes I’m a teacher, principle, or counselor.  I evaluate who I need to be [as a leader], at what time, with each person.

During COVID, I check in more often and really work to establish personal relationships with my team.

In your opinion, how much of leadership is taught/how much is innate?

I believe 75% is innate, the rest is learned.  The raw skills are innate then, it’s important to have good bosses who can help you get better.  The best leaders are born.

How do you motivate people?

I tap into the why.  I ask people the first time I meet them: what’s your journey been?  How did you get here?  Then, I help accelerate the why with the task at hand.  I tap into the why and help to accelerate it with the task at hand.

What is your why?

To leave a legacy for my family.

No one taught me the things I need to know today (financially literacy for example).  I want to make sure my children learn the foundational pieces they need to do whatever they want to do.

Also, I love helping people achieve their goals.

Self-Care, Internal Narrative and Boundaries

How do you manage stress?

I tend to be even keel- I’m happy when we win but not unhappy when we lose.  I don’t get too high or too low.  I try not to take on too much stress but when I do, I take a walk or do something physical.  I focus on achieving balance- a healthy mind and body.

I also think through worse-case scenario and ask myself: what’s the probability of this happening?  The probability is never very high.

What’s your morning routine?

I’m up at the crack of dawn before everyone else.  I read the news, walk my dogs, drink coffee and have quiet time.  I’m not a morning person so I have to get my head right- find balance before I interact with others.  I don’t look at my phone first thing in the morning and don’t check it at night. I set an example by setting boundaries and encourage my team to do the same.

Do you create boundaries between life and work and if so, how?

I have realized that I’m not in a job that’s a life or death situation and things can wait.  There’s nothing critical that requires me to be on at all hours of the night.  I can’t work like that.

What does your support network look like?

I have a good network of mentors/former bosses. I am blessed that I can reach out and call any one of them.  I have folks that are solidly in my corner who can help guide my decisions. I have mentors who look like me and mentors of different colors and genders.

How did you develop these mentor relationships? 

I’ve always been good at what I’ve done so I could knock on the door and ask for support when I needed it.  Other mentors have been proactive in wanting to help me.  I start with asking people about themselves and that naturally develops into a mentor relationship.  They usually tell me to do these things and come back and report on how they went.

What’s your self-narrative when things get tough?

Just slow down and you’ll find your way out.  I try not to be too self-critical- this didn’t make me an effective leader.  I’m a good listener, I’m present, I respond.  I ask people to call me out when I’m not a good listener.  Becoming a good listener happened slowly over time.  I’m constantly evolving.

I pick other people’s brains and ask them, how would you handle this/what do you think?  Then I incorporate the things that I learn.  Early on, I recognized that I was too competitive.

At a young age, my mom used to tell me: “Get rid of that stinkin’ thinkin’.” (Side note- A.J.’s mom is an incredible woman.  She became pregnant with AJ in high school, AJ’s grandparents helped to raise him.  His mom went on to have two more kids and get a doctorate!)

Handling difficult situations

What do you do when you come across a difficult situation or person at work?

I’m a big believer in feedback- I will ask for it and give it.  I used to be upfront and that approach led to a top performer leaving.  So I’ve learned to be softer.  I’ve also learned that even though feedback is critical, everyone doesn’t always want to receive it so I try to work it in naturally and organically.

When I fail, I self-reflect and learn from it.  I ask myself: what could I have differently ?  I don’t fail often but when I do, I learn from it.  It’s truly a failure if you repeat the same mistakes – that means that I really didn’t learn from it.

How do you handle employees who are under-performing?

First, I want to understand from them and ask: why do you think you’re missing the mark?

We work to understand how they can do their job differently.

If there’s a skill or motivation issue, I try to put plans together to support the person.

When it’s a will issue, I don’t have patience here.  I like to spend time with top performers.  I hate managing people out but at the end of the day, I’m paid to drive results and I can only do that through people.

Meredith Vornholt, Senior Director of Marketing, Nevro

Meredith Vornholt, Top Leader

Your Leadership Philosophy

What’s your leadership philosophy?

As a leader, your job is not to know everything but to surround yourself with a strong team, establish trust and respect, then align around the common goal you want to achieve.

To be a good leader, you have to have your team want to work hard for you.  The leader is not expected to know how to do everything.  It’s important to bring in good people who are smarter than you who want to work hard for you.  This is something that you earn.

I grew up with honesty and transparency.  I practice what I preach. I roll up my sleeves with my team and figure things out together.

I focus on driving my team to a common goal.  I trust you, I believe in you, let’s work hard together.

How do you define your role as a leader?

First, establish trust with the team.  I don’t know everything but I keep everyone on track driving towards a common goal.  I get in the weeds with people if we’re really trying to figure something out.

In your opinion, how much of leadership is taught/how much is innate?

It’s a combination. Pay attention to others around you and intentionally incorporate what you do and don’t want to do.

As the oldest sibling, I was in charge at an early age so I had the opportunity to learn how to lead early.

How do you motivate people?

First, hire the right people.  Establish trust and build a relationship- I’m here to support you when you need it but need you to work hard too (people end up wanting to do this). Gain respect.

I stand up for my team and give credit where credit is due. Be organized, buttoned up, and prepare in advance to earn respect.

I share the vision and develop the opportunity.  I look for ways to give people the opportunity to shine.

Self-Care, Internal Narrative and Boundaries

Self-narrative when things get tough/in new situations

“You can do this… sit down, focus and go figure it out.”  I get super focused and stay calm.  If there is a problem, I dive in and try to find the root cause, then roll up my sleeves to just get it done.  When I’m encountered with a new situation, I listen, learn, absorb, and focus on what are the biggest opportunities and greatest insights to explore.

How do you manage stress?

I exercise six days per week.  This is how I relieve stress and also, carve out time to think.  When things get really crazy, I meditate to quiet my mind so I can sleep at night and focus.

What’s your morning routine?

70% of the days, I work out and recently, I’ve been writing down three things before I kick off my morning:

  1. What am I going to focus on (ONE thing that if I don’t get it done, it will be a problem)
  2. What am I grateful for? (very specific, not just kids/husband)
  3. What are you going to let go of?

I find that when I answer these questions in the morning, it sets the mood for the day.  I let go of things I don’t need to worry about and focus on gratitude.

Do you create boundaries between life and work and if so, how?

95% of the time, when I pick up my kids, I am focused on them and if I need to get something at work done, I get up earlier in the morning to do it.  I prioritize time with kids at night.  Sometimes this means I’m in office at 4:30am (side note- I asked what times she goes to bed and she admitted it was early but was reluctant to say how early ).  I’m a morning person so working late at night doesn’t work for  me.  I know I’m at my peek in the morning and I take advantage of time when I’m most productive.

What does your support network look like?

  1. I make sure I’m on the same page as my partner. We have discussions to set expectations and make sure we know how to balance everything that needs to get done.  We outsource if we don’t have the joint capacity.  Being there for our kids is our top priority and we try not to outsource this unless it’s absolutely necessary (wake up at 4:30 if needed).
  2. I have a work out partner to stay on track with fitness goals and vent
  3. My boss- she is understanding and also has kids so she’s supportive

Handling Difficult Situations

What do you do when you come across a difficult situation or person at work?

First, I distinguish if it’s permanent situation or a relationship I can develop.  If it’s permanent- I ask myself if I can doing something different.  If I can’t, I come back to, “what are you going to let go of”?

I’ve learned to be OK with someone who will never like me.  I’ve learned to let go of things I’m never going to change.

To help develop a relationship, I find a commonality, compliment them, help them.  This helps to build a bridge to a better relationship.

When people warn me about other people, I first give them the benefit of the doubt first and work to build relationship.

How do you handle employees who are underperforming?

Admittedly this is a challenge for me because I give everyone the benefit of the doubt.  I’ve turned people into better performers and put a lot of time into people who never turned around.  It’s important to make the call early on.  Give and communicate the three things you need them to focus on/improve.  If there is a pattern of needing to continually give feedback, put together an action plan and get HR involved.  There are systems in place to have this play out.

About The Author

Leadership Consultant and Coach Amy Sanchez

Amy Sanchez is a certified executive and career coach located in the Bay Area who specializes in helping mid- to senior-level executives achieve their full potential and build the lives they want.

She has an MBA from USC’s Marshall School of Business and 13 years of corporate experience.

She is a skilled coach and neutral partner who provides clients with tangible tools and effective guidance to successfully navigate the waters of this fast-paced, hyper-connected, high-stakes job market.

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