The most valuable soft skills in IT: Toronto Women in IT winners share

Soft skills – from communication to collaboration – play an increasing role in IT hiring. Toronto Women in IT award winners discuss the must-have competencies for today's teams
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Given the competitiveness of today’s IT talent market, you may think a job candidate who checks all the technical boxes would be a shoo in for any openings. But HR leaders and hiring managers are placing increasing importance on soft skills such as communication, collaboration, adaptability and more. (Some even argue these skills should be called core skills, becuase they're so crucial.)

More than two-thirds (67 percent) of HR leaders say they’ve passed over a candidate who met a job’s technical qualifications but lacked necessary soft skills, according to a survey conducted by technology consultancy West Monroe Partners.

“When I look to find employees in the vast land of IT, I focus on the intangibles before digging through the technical aspects,” said Claire Lam, CIO, Hubio Technology, who is among the women who were recently recognized for their achievements in technology at the Toronto Women in IT Awards. The awards program, now held in eight cities, has been shining a light on female tech leaders since it was founded in 2015 by Information Age.

I recently asked Lam and other winners to share one or two soft skills that they believe are especially important for today’s IT talent and discuss why those skills are so critical in their organizations. They also shared advice on how to strengthen those skills. 

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

Read on to learn which soft skills these leaders say are most needed in IT today and how to cultivate them. 

Curiosity and Discipline

Transformation Leader of theYear

Helen Wetherley Knight, CIO, Calgary Drop-In Centre: The soft skills I believe are essential to IT are curiosity and discipline. IT is a science first, but it becomes an art in the application, making it essential that anyone pursuing a career in IT has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, process improvement, and learning about the business or nonprofit they serve. This needs to be balanced with discipline; discipline to accept when the time isn't right, when the tool still needs refinement, and when the non-technical teams you support need your business acumen, not just your analytic strengths.

Technology is getting to be the easy part, with so many off-the-shelf systems that can be sold to any business leader. The talent that the IT leader brings to the table is ensuring they use discipline to not jump to a solution until the problem is fully understood, articulated, and agreed upon. It is only when everyone collaborates and then agrees on exactly what problem they are trying to solve, that a technical solution can truly be sought. 

I’ve found significant value in taking organizational change management training, in tandem with project management training. Learning the levers to use to help non-technical teammates gain buy-in is critical to any IT project’s success.

Teamwork and collaboration

Advocate of the Year

Alice Thomas, Chief Digital Technology Officer, Sun Life Financial: Teamwork and collaboration are two of the most important soft skills for IT professionals today. Since we’re building technology solutions for everyone, we need a diverse group of people at the table to make sure we’re getting it right. We need people who can respect and appreciate each other’s differences and who can draw from everyone’s unique perspectives in order to solve today's business problems.

Humility and adaptability are also important soft skills for anyone working in IT. You must be willing to admit mistakes and learn from what went wrong in order to drive the best product forward. Being too focused on perfection prevents you from doing that. You also need to be adaptable to be able to respond to changes quickly and implement feedback at all stages in the development process.

You can cultivate new soft skills over the course of your career if you commit to being a life-long learner.

You can cultivate new soft skills over the course of your career if you commit to being a life-long learner and exploring new ways of getting things done. Move beyond what is known and familiar to stretch your thinking and add to your repertoire of soft skills. Deliberately surround yourself with people from different walks of life and learn from their respective backgrounds. This new information will feed into the solutions you build and will help to nurture a collaborative mindset. 

Self-awareness and humility

CIO of the Year 

Claire Lam, CIO, Hubio Technology: I believe soft skills are the driver of life and the most important part of leadership (which encompasses work and everyday relationships). When I look to find employees in the vast land of IT, I focus on the intangibles before digging through the technical aspects. While I believe overall character is the most important, two other key soft-skills are self-awareness and humility (and I’d add empathy too).

Self-awareness: We can only learn when we realize there's a gap in our knowledge. We can only grow when we understand the experiences that make us who we are and where we can excel. Self-aware individuals thrive on learning and growth as keys to building valuable feedback loops.

Humility: The most exceptional people I've had the pleasure of meeting and knowing have an innate, grounded humility. These people promote teams and people, and they value hard work as well as talent. They are also mindful of inclusivity and eliminating prejudice. They’re the people who demonstrate they’re grateful and don’t allow egos to drive their decisions. 

To develop these skills, listen more than you speak and continuously show curiousity about the world without prejudice. Help the people around you drive to their best potential through collaboration and communication. And if you’re an organizational leader, be sure to encourage idea and knowledge sharing without negativity.  

[ Working to build your soft skills? Read: 7 soft skills leaders wish they’d learned sooner. ]

The ability to influence, communicate ideas, and more 

Future CIO of the Year

Catherine Sim, Associate Director, Engagement & Portfolio Management, Data & Analytics, RBC: In order for analytics and technology initiatives to achieve real impact, technical and business expertise must merge together. However, one critical theme in the industry is that there are many people who are technical experts, and many people who are business experts, but very few people who have a good understanding of both. This gap exists now, and we expect it to continue and only grow in the future.

We’ve found great success in bridging this gap through interpersonal skills, specifically the ability to influence others, communicate ideas, build consensus, and establish rapport. These are the skills that can really differentiate a candidate from others – and it is those “soft” skills (which are hard to automate) that will become increasingly important as technology disrupts the work that we do and the roles required.

It’s all about communication skills 

Data Leader of the Year

Jill Andrews, Director of Analytics, Fullscript: Communication skills top my list of qualifications for new recruits. In a data role, it’s essential to translate statistically and technically complex ideas to a non-technical audience. Successful members of my team build trust with stakeholders and demonstrate the value of the work we do by connecting their findings back to concrete business objectives.

The best way to develop this skill is through practice! Try to look at every project through the lens of the business problem at hand. Consider the most effective way to communicate your results to the primary owner of that problem. What are the actionable insights? Are you giving them any unnecessary information? Keep it clear and concise. Brevity is key.

Communication and the ability to be agile

Entrepreneur of the Year

Sue Britton, CEO and Founder,  FinTech Growth Syndicate: Soft skills essential to IT employees (or any business) are communication and the ability to be agile. At FGS, strong communication skills have been an essential part of building teams that have contributed to our ability to facilitate innovation and grow our company. Whether it’s pitching our organization, rallying the team, or working with a client, practical communication skills are critical for being a leader. The ability to communicate well is the first step to creating meaningful connections with employees and fosters collaboration and produces richer ideas. Practicing active listening, understanding  your audience, and using succinct communication daily, also helps to cultivate these skills in your employees. 

FGS is a lean team, and we’re continually adapting, adjusting, and pivoting to meet our internal needs and the needs of our clients. Being agile is more important than being perfect. It gives our team agency to be creative and take initiative, which in turn allows FGS to have an accelerated innovation process that benefits our clients. Fostering a flexible work environment, empowering your employees, and leading by example, are all important ingredients to cultivating an agile work culture.

[ Improve your speaking and listening skills. See: 10 TED talks to sharpen your communication skills. ]

Teamwork and Adaptability

Diversity Initiative of the Year 

Sawsan Abdul-Majid, President, Advancing New Canadian Women in Technology: Teamwork and adaptability are among the most important soft skills for people working in IT. These are skills we are actively trying to foster as part of the work we do at Advancing New Canadian Women in Technology (ANCWT). Our organization is focused on helping providing bridge employment for new immigrant and refugee women who have technical skills in engineering, technology, computer science and IT. These women have left their home country and are trying to find jobs in the Canadian job market. Women immigrants and newcomers are an important pool of technical talent for the Canadian job market. If they cannot adapt to the Canadian work environment, despite their technical skills, they will not be successful in progressing with their careers here. Not only do these women need to be able to adapt to working in a new country, they must also adapt to the constant state of change that is the new normal in IT. 

Collaboration and analytical thinking

Security Champion of the Year

Mukta Soni, Director, Strategy Information and Cyber-Security, CIBC: Two important soft skills in the cyber strategy world are collaboration and analytical thinking. A good strategy incorporates feedback from lines of business, technology teams, as well as the ever-changing threat landscape, regulatory landscape, and current security posture. You must collaborate with peers, internal and external stakeholders to get all of this information. Other key soft skills include building consensus and cultivating good relationships. Analytical thinking is also a key skill needed to break down complex cybersecurity issues into smaller components, e.g. information gathering,scoping ,confirming scope, architecting solution, etc. 

These soft skills can be easily cultivated by keeping an open mind attitude, practicing patience, and by applying your curiosity in a variety of situations. It also helps to be observant, ask questions, and work on analyzing the solutions. 

Empathy and emotional intelligence 

Business Leader of the Year 

Sarah Bettencourt, Chief People Officer, PointClickCare Technologies: A soft skill I believe is important to any IT professional, but one that is often overlooked, is empathy. In fact, it’s a soft skill that can help any individual foster growth within their career, regardless of the profession. Establishing strong relationships with team members will lead to trust, and when you have trust among your team you allow for a better working environment. Trust within a team enables more collaboration, engagement, and healthy conflict, which ultimately leads to greater efficiency and effectiveness overall. 

What’s often overlooked is the importance of encouraging high emotional intelligence (EQ), which is just as important as IQ, if not more critical, for long-term success. Emotional intelligence is a skill that needs to be continuously sharpened. It’s a skill that requires active listening and discussion, and it’s the oil that keeps relationships running smoothly. If you want to master this soft skill in business, you need to begin by developing strong relationships with team members.

Teamwork and communication

Woman of the Year 

Michelle Joliat, Former Managing Director and Head of Wealth Digitization, Robotics and Process Transformation, BMO: Teamwork and communication are among the core soft skills I believe IT leaders need today. Teamwork is vital to ensure everyone in the business and technology not only work together, but are also supportive of each other and truly collaborative. Communication is necessary in order to listen to the needs of the business and translate those needs clearly to the IT development teams. Commitment to collaboration and communication are critical to ensure everyone is working toward one common goal, with full transparency to ensure there are no surprises.

To hone these skills, teams should work to get as close to clients and end users as possible. Engage in active dialogues, ask questions in Human Centered Design sessions, make sure you fully understand client and end user needs. Not only will this help build your communication skills, it will also foster transparency and teamwork. 

This article originally appeared on Information Age and is republished here with permission. 

[ Read also: Teaching an elephant to dance - a free eBook on leading teams through the six stages of digital transformation. ]

Ginny Holden is an independent consultant who brings the practice of IT to life through memorable storytelling.