Today, I want to talk about the skills that you, as a leader, need to hone to effectively lead your people.
So, what are the skills I think are important to have to become an effective leader?
The first, in my opinion, is self-awareness. This is the first thing you need, because how else are you supposed to lead well if you don’t know any of your weaknesses or strengths?
For example, one of my weaknesses is definitely my words—they are oftentimes too sharp. This happens because the truth, to me, is more important than grace. I’m the kind of person that wants to get to the bottom of things, to understand what happened and why it happened. I tend to be very direct to the point.
But a lot of people can get hurt when I speak this way. While I end up really appreciating those who can tell it straight, the reality is that a lot of people are just not like that.
Where my weakness comes into play is that I have a harder time adjusting to that—to sugarcoat things when I need to. To break things softly. Or to say things in a more roundabout way before broaching the main subject. I’m just not like this naturally.
Now, if I wasn’t aware of this weakness, then I would have just been leading and speaking to them the way I would naturally. And that wouldn’t be good for the people under my leadership. They’d always feel hurt, discouraged, and dismayed, because of how I spoke to them.
The flip side is true—you need to be aware of your strengths as well. If you don’t know your strengths, how do you convince other people that you are going to be worth following?
So, for example, I know that one of my strengths is taking command of a situation, and having a commanding presence. I always use that, especially when there are turbulent times, like when we were first dealing with the pandemic.
So taking command of a situation is one of my core strengths as a leader. And if I didn’t know that, then I wouldn’t be much of a leader.
Take Steve Jobs, for example. I’ve read his biography, written by Walter Isaacson. And he’s one of the best, if not the best writers of a Jobs’ biography.
And in the biography, it’s a thick white book. I’m sure you’ve seen it, Isaacson says that Jobs was, long story short, an asshole.
Similarly, as I tend to do, Jobs led people in a very direct, very candid manner. But, if you had the chance to work with him closely, especially if you’ve known him for a while, then you would know that, despite his attitude, he truly had the best intentions for the company, for his people, and for their work.
You end up realizing that his directness was really just his character, but his intentions are the best for everyone.
But a lot of people also misunderstand that, especially those who didn’t get to work directly under him. They translate their perception of him, and the stuff they’ve heard from others as, “Ah, our CEO is just like that. He’s just kind of a difficult person.”
So I think that’s life’s dilemma. To have a very good, very strong leader takes a lot of self-awareness, strong will, and candor, which a lot of people cannot take.
But here’s the thing: those who did get the chance to work with Jobs not only gained an understanding of his leadership but benefited the most from it.
Take Tony Fadell, who is an entrepreneur, investor, and author of “Build,” an audiobook I’m listening to now. Fadell worked closely with Steve Jobs on the iPod, and he revolutionized music with the tagline “A Thousand Songs in Your Pocket.”
Jony Ive is another example. Ive was the chief design officer (CDO) of Apple Inc. from 1997 until 2019 and worked directly with Jobs. He is credited with designing both the iPod and the iPhone, and he also wrote a book, Creative Inc.
So you notice people who work directly with Steve Jobs become thought leaders and become very influential. That was his strength as a leader: he could bring out the best in others. And I think that this happens because, if you really want to work with this kind of leader, then you need to be an A-player. You can’t be a B-player or a C-player.
So what is an A-player? Let’s put it this way. Some leaders love to develop their people from nothing. Perhaps you have no experience, or you’re slow to learn. Either way, the challenge of training you to become a high-value performer on their team is something that they enjoy tackling.
I don’t. I find I don’t like working with people who are B-players or even C-players. In fact, I hate it. I prefer working with people who are already good at what they do. And what I do for them is make them into the best possible version of themselves.
So it comes down to the differences in leadership, and again, your strengths and weaknesses as a leader. And I lead best with A-players. I am highly aware of that.
And because of that, I will tell my other leaders in my team—my C-level executives, my middle management—that I can’t work with certain people because these people aren’t bringing their A-game, they’re slow, they’re starting at ground zero. I am honest about it because putting us in that position, we’re going to face a lose-lose scenario. This team member won’t be happy with me, I won’t be happy with them.
But if someone is disciplined, reliable, takes initiative, and sticks to their word—then we will work fantastically well. It’s like we’re making music every day. So that’s that. I know my pros and my cons as a leader.
The next skill you need to learn is knowing how to position your company. If you’re an entrepreneur like me, then you will have definitely thought to yourself at least once, “How do I bring a unique product or service to the market?”
Here’s the easy answer to that: a “unique” product or service doesn’t exist. Chances are that whatever you think of, someone else has thought of it too, and it’s already on the market.
Take SEO Hacker. When I started building this company in the early days of optimization, there were already a few other companies in the Philippines doing the same thing.
But here’s the thing, there were very few companies who were doing SEO ethically. Most weren’t following Google’s guidelines, they were taking shortcuts, doing gray- and black-hat practices to get quick and cheap results.
So when I started SEO Hacker, it just so happens that Google was also cleaning house. They were cracking down on all the junk and spam these gray- and black-hat SEOs created. They changed their algorithm with the Google Penguin update, and then the Google Panda update.
This all affected the companies who were following unethical practices, while my company (and the very few others like it) benefited.
So the good thing there was that I knew how to position myself. Because I started with white-hat techniques, by Google’s playbook, I didn’t have to experience the loss in profit and effort. And because I stuck by these rules—and my company still does to this day—we continue to be successful in an industry full of other SEO agencies and professionals.
It’s not that I came up with a unique service, it’s that I knew how to position us in the right place.
And you hear this so often in other businesses too. For example, lawn mowing, which is a major deal in the US. In this story, it was a down market, so no one was spending on stuff like that. One company said that it was so hard to find clients, so hard to charge and collect from them. So they had to shut down.
But then another company comes in, same service and everything, and the owner says he’s so happy because business has never been better. And they’re in the same business. It’s just the positioning that’s different.
So really, you have to reframe your mindset: It’s not all about coming up with a completely unheard-of product or service. It’s all about being unique in terms of positioning. So that’s being unique about which market segment you’re targeting, the client’s you’re looking for, or the way you present your service. There are so many different ways to position yourself to be unique to your customers.
And if you’re a real entrepreneur, then take another look at your planned business model. Because you made it yourself, then you know what is supposedly unique about what you’re about to start.
The last skill I want to recommend to you is to learn how to manage everything. And I do mean everything.
I was a one-man team when I started SEO Hacker. I did all the content writing, the sales, the account management, the link building, the editing, the web development and design, the accounting, the contract writing—you name it.
Being a leader of your own company is a lot of work. And I always say if it was easy, then everyone would be doing it.
But it really isn’t. It took a lot of hours, tons of blood, sweat, and tears to have the team and business I have today.
I started hiring slowly, one by one, started renting an office and registering us as a business. And the thing is, if you know how to do everything yourself, you will know how to manage all aspects of your operations once you start delegating those old tasks of yours to your new hires.
That’s the problem I see with a lot of other business owners. They get funding from investors, or they take out a loan from a bank. They then hire people who they think they can trust. And then, they don’t try to learn what it is exactly that their team does. They don’t try to learn what goes into each project or task, or even how long it takes to do them. These businesses essentially build themselves atop a black hole of knowledge.
Knowing everything from top to bottom of your business is necessary. It’s what I did.
I learned every job possible under SEO. Then, one by one, I started quitting them and handing them over to the right people.
Handing over your jobs is eventually a necessity. Why? I realized that if I’m paying myself X amount, and using X hours of that amount to do that job, then I’m stealing from the company. Do you understand?
So I started quitting jobs, starting from the work that is mundane, easy to replicate, easy to manage, and easy to see the output. And I started doing more of the leading. When that happened, I focused more on learning leadership and working on that self-awareness that’s needed to lead well.
So, three must-have skills to lead effectively: self-awareness, positioning, and understanding your business. You have to learn these three—it’s a lifelong pursuit of learning how to lead well.