Top soft skills for IT leaders and how to master them

Top soft skills for IT leaders and how to master them

Communication. Empathy. EQ. They’re must-haves for IT leaders. Use these strategies to improve your soft skills

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Don’t expect quick fixes

Give yourself the necessary breathing room to improve incrementally in soft skills.

Just as you probably wrote some funky code en route to mastering Java or made some missteps during your first cloud migration, you can’t expect to master soft skills quickly.

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” says Wallgren. “Perhaps some of us are more naturally skilled in some of these areas, but for us mere mortals, practice is key. You can read all the great books in the world, but if you don't try to apply, fail, learn, re-apply the lessons in those books, you'll never improve much.”

Indeed, reading widely – and narrowly, when focusing on a specific skill – is also useful. But just as reading a book on Kubernetes alone won’t make you an orchestration expert, reading up on interpersonal skills won’t grant you magical powers. In both cases, you’ll need to use what you’re learning. Perfect doesn’t need to be your goal: Practice will ensure you’re always getting better.

In fact, from the leadership perspective, cultivating soft skills depends upon “making the process of strengthening them a continuous process, not an annual assessment,” Kail says. That matches with his individual experience with regular practice: “I’ve also found that communication, both written and verbal, can only improve if you practice them, so I personally try to speak at events and write as much relevant content as possible."

Also, give yourself the necessary breathing room to improve incrementally in soft skills.

“The key for any IT professional looking to develop soft skills is to first and foremost practice patience,” says Flint Brenton, CEO at CollabNet. “All of these skills are learnable, but it certainly is not going to happen overnight.”

Seek out honest feedback

Just as IT processes often depend on particular feedback loops for improvement, so does soft skills development. Communication is a good example: Lots of people think they write or speak clearly and effectively, but that doesn’t make it true. Find trusted feedback and be analytical (and honest) about it. In any area you want to improve, start by assessing your current state.

“Take note of how you communicate currently – do you use fillers (uh, um…) or go on tangents? How can you improve?” Brandtner says. “Maybe you can focus on being more concise, or use more analogies for non-technical folks to follow your thought process. Ask colleagues or friends and family you trust for feedback on how you present.”

Find a new mentor

Your mentor doesn’t need to be someone in the IT field.

 “Having a great mentor is also valuable in getting another direct and candid perspective of the areas that you need to focus on improving,” Kail says. In fact, that mentor doesn’t even need to be someone in the IT field, nor do you need to follow the conventional wisdom that a mentor is older than you.

[ See our related article, How to succeed with reverse mentoring: 7 steps. ]

Brenton notes that mentors can be particularly valuable when you feel stuck or need help in areas that are commonly associated with soft skills.

“Know that it is okay to depend on others from time to time and reach out to your circle of mentors or leaders to learn from their experiences,” he says.

Make yourself uncomfortable

It’s easy – perhaps easier than ever in the digital age – to stick with what we already know and filter out what we don’t. Soft skills development depends on avoiding that trap. It’s the soft skills corollary to the common IT career advice that you need to be continuously developing and redeveloping your technical knowledge.

“A couple of the core traits that I look for are the desire and ability to continually evolve and a high degree of intellectual curiosity,” Kail says. 

One way to spark that continuous evolution: Deliberately do things that appear, at their surface, to have nothing to do with IT.

“Get creative and step outside of your comfort zone,” Brandtner says. “For example, taking improv classes or enrolling in Toastmasters to work on communicating in front of people can help to improve communication and impact how you present yourself professionally.”

Interact more with people outside of your company

“Even if it doesn’t come naturally, force yourself into social situations,” Brandtner advises.

That isn’t pat advice – it’s strategic.

“Network with peers outside of the company to learn how they’ve overcome obstacles you also may be facing,” she explains. “The goal [of developing soft skills] isn’t to reinvent the wheel – many companies face similar challenges, so the more you expose yourself to different case-studies, the more opportunity you will give yourself to try different solutions.”

One CIO we know has a rule for his people attending conferences: Don’t let me see you sitting with people from our company. You’re there to meet new people and learn. While he’s most interested in growing knowledge of how other teams tackle problems, his people get a side benefit from the conversations. As you observe new people using their soft skills, you will grow your own.

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