Leadership lessons from a CEO: soft skills are needed to lead and succeed

- November 9, 2021 5 MIN READ

Growing a thriving business takes a lot more than understanding a balance sheet and setting up marketing automations. A great business draws from the leader’s arsenal of soft and hard skills. It is the journey to success, underpinned by the sometimes hard lessons, that grows a business with real staying power.

When you are just starting out, the hard skills developed through trial and error are an important foundation. But as a business leader, do not underestimate or overlook the soft skills that are equally important to your overall success. According to business titans like LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner, soft skills are more important than how to code.

The importance of soft skills in business

Rowan Hodge has been leading from the front for almost 30 years. He is the CEO of Andersens, a flooring company with over 60 years in business. Just like Jeff Weiner, Hodge believes great leaders need to draw on skills that go deeper than the technical. These are often acquired beyond academia; they are developed in the real world, through trial and error, learning from others and making lots of mistakes. For him, these soft skills, learnt at the coalface have served him well.

As the CEO of a company with strong country values, Hodge has continued to emphasise the values of honesty, integrity and respect in all aspects of the business.

“As a young professional I fell in love with the concept of servant leadership and the idea of setting aside your own comfort for the sake of those who follow you. My own leadership has always been best when I focus on the value of others, or working together and feeling aligned with my team,” he said.

“Being able to take a positive and hands-on approach to teamwork and put others ahead of yourself by understanding them and what they need to achieve, and do their job makes you capable of gaining high performance from most professionals.”

Learn from mistakes

When it comes to making mistakes, Hodge admits he has made a few in his time but it is what he has done with those mistakes that make the difference. “Smart people learn from their mistakes. I may not always be a smart person but I do try to learn from my mistakes and learn from the advice of others who have walked the same path before,” he said.

“At my best I temper the impulse to rush to judgement, or to see things in absolutes. I try not to take myself too seriously. Everybody makes stupid mistakes, it is part of being human. I perform best when I’m not precious about making mistakes. They can be the best learning opportunities.”

Surviving the test of time, as Andersen’s has done, is a testament to the foundations laid by founder Jack Andersen, who started Andersens network in the 1970s. Hodge said every business must rely on the sturdiness of its foundations and the structures that support it, to grow and thrive. “As a relative newcomer to the Andersens team in 2019, I was amazed by the bedrock country town culture that existed. When I first saw that for myself, I knew it was the place for me. You can build almost anything when the culture is robust, positive and focused on a sincere customer servant attitude.”

Be of service

Of the founder, Hodge says, “Jack’s a country boy that started with a carpet section in his dad’s furniture shop before he took the step of establishing a specialised flooring business of his own. His philosophies were always simple and relatable. My favourite is to, “treat your customers like she’s your best friend’s mum.” This attitude; these country town values are still embodied by Andersens today and Hodge does what he can to reinforce them at every turn.

The longevity of the Andersens network need not be a barrier to change however. Innovation is another aspect of business that is vital for ongoing success.  “When faced with older mindsets and industry inertia – an attitude that, this is the way it’s always been and this is the way it will always be – there can be an amount of resistance to innovation. A leader has to remain conscious of that. “A good leader must be able to manage change and to be willing to be uncomfortable in order to grow. Done right, innovation in an organisation with a strong service culture is a recipe for success by differentiation. It creates a significant point of difference,” Hodge said.

“Our Project Green is a good example. I came up with it because for me, it feels good to plant a tree – it really was that simple. I was motivated to plant more trees in my private life. I stumbled on a platform called Plant for the Planet, it’s a game-changing UN initiative creating a marketplace for the sponsorship of trees all over the world. Businesses (or anyone, even individuals) can buy trees online through this platform. When I looked at this structure, it unlocked a possibility for us to do something at scale with the support of our whole franchise network that could really make a difference.

“Not only are we innovating but we are unlocking the nobility that lives inside each of us. We all want to do more for the environment, to contribute to a better tomorrow for future generations. We planted 100,000 trees in the first year of the program and we will try to double that in the second year.”

Focus on growth

For those who are just starting out in their business journey, the danger of burnout is real. Hodge says the best way to avoid burnout is growth.

“It is your duty as the business owner or leader to grow your business – it is not acceptable to hold it steady, it must grow or you must go,” he said. “It is simple microeconomics: if you own an asset you are not growing, you will be eaten alive by inflation and competition. The business you own is the opportunity cost of owning some other growing asset. So if you are going to own a business, make sure you are growing it – even if it is difficult – or you are financially injuring yourself.”

But Hodge explains that growth is not always painful, “The beauty in growth is that you gain the capacity to take on more resources, greater resilience, more economies of scale. Growth actually has the ability to reduce your workload and prevent burnout. But a growing business is also more fun to work in for you and for your team. It is rare that someone’s fondest career memory was of a time they worked in a firm that stayed the same or scaled down.”

One thing that often gets underestimated in business is the power of listening. Hodge says one of the lessons of decades in the franchise industry, including reading hundreds of franchisee surveys, the number one thing people value is communication. “People do not miss communications until they do not get them. Do it and do it well. If you don’t, your leadership will be resisted by your team and by your wider stakeholder group,” he said. “I favour a weekly drumbeat of extremely transparent communication to as many stakeholders as I can reach, reinforced by smaller group or one-on-one communications at all other times. But regardless of personal preference, any leader who communicates well will generally outperform those who do not.”

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