Andrea Learned

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Relational Skills: The Secret Sauce for Business Leadership


The definition of business leadership has changed, a lot, since the 1950s. The fact that there are many more women in leadership positions these days is rightly getting plenty of coverage now. But, beyond celebrating that women are bringing “it” to the table, what “it” is has yet to be been given its full due.

What I’m talking about are relational skills and traits. Things like practicing empathy and understanding communications nuances are the secret sauce for business leadership success. But, while these have long been typed as “women’s ways” or “soft” skills, women are not the only ones who can tap or learn to better use them.

So, why does the traditional business world continue to mainly cite and reward the “hard” and more linear leadership approaches? As it stands, men have not been asked or given the tools to develop skills that are absolutely necessary for leading in today’s business world. Alternatively, women in business have long developed their linear skills in the traditional leadership frame, because the so-called “soft” side was considered the lesser.

Stop Gendering Leadership Conversations

But again, we can say that things have changed, or at least on the surface. There are women’s leadership conferences galore, with smart women talking about deep subjects. And, top tier business magazines host those conferences and promote them like crazy. They must know what they are doing, right?

Those events gather rooms full of incredibly capable, astoundingly accomplished women, with men noticeably absent. That’s a loss for the future of business. The goal has got to be to help more men realize that relational skills are not “feminine” but instead “human,” and that leveraging them is a business requirement. By not participating in the very so-named “women’s” conferences, even as they actually cover gender neutral leadership skills, men lose out in learning how to use and improve their own relational strengths.

So, how do we get more men into those rooms? By not calling them women’s conferences or women’s leadership sessions, for one thing.

I recently spoke with a young, male CEO of a sustainability-focused startup, who told me about his experience attending a highly regarded business conference session on women and leadership. He was one of maybe three men in the room, yet the insights and perspective being shared by the all-women panel offered wisdom that, he felt, would be a huge competitive advantage for any company building their leadership pipeline.

What he mentioned boiled down to exactly what I’d seen years ago while promoting my book, Don’t Think Pink. Inevitably, the conferences where I spoke wanted my sessions to be entitled some form of “Marketing to Women 101.” Not surprisingly, I ended up speaking to rooms of smart women. This was fine, but defeated the goal for more leaders in those industries to come to understand the women’s market as a huge business opportunity, and not a side bet.

Switch, Don’t Replace, Leadership Style Emphasis

With both the marketing to women and sustainability leadership topics I now explore, the idea is to look at women as the standard bearers – and not as women versus men. What we learn from how women buy and lead is how the best of the best practice their crafts. And, this can be applied in developing all future leaders, no matter their gender.

The smartest and most successful leaders in corporations today reflect a combination of universally human traits, a unique mix of those traits that have long been wrongly stereotyped as either male or female. We’ve been living in a world that emphasized a more linear and directive style (formerly tied to the masculine). We are now in a world that needs to not completely replace, but to switch the emphasis toward growing more relational strengths (feminine).

In other words, looking at women’s ways will boil leadership down into the core traits corporations have neglected to teach, train, support and reward in men. Men shouldn’t have to be considered “brave” to enter into conversations about the business leadership traits that are most needed today. We have to stop framing this as “women’s leadership” if we want to spread the wisdom of relational skills and move our sustainable business world even more quickly.

Social Media Amplifies Relational Skills

And, that leads to my other work and passion: using social media engagement to amplify that “relational” reach and impact.

I believe that when executives better understand why empathy and communications matter, they’ll become a lot more interested in using today’s incredible digital tools for integrated leadership purposes (not just as a “networking” aside). They’ll be more excited to document (in blog posts, for example) what they’ve learned in their careers, and they’ll be more likely to connect and share with others seeking further business wisdom and collaboration. By creating a consistent, unique voice and a manageable level of involvement, leaders can exponentially expand their authentic relationship building. They develop social capital to spare.

My own career path in marketing and thought leadership strategy leads me to believe that using relational skills, especially in more social/digital ways, has become the secret sauce for all business leaders. And, because of my deep “gender lens” background, I am particularly keen on helping change the business culture to ensure that more men see it this way, too – and feel confident it’s worth pursuing.


Special thanks to Jonathan Ooi for use of the image.