7 soft skills leaders wish they’d learned sooner

Working to build your soft skills? Consider these seven soft skill lessons that leaders advise you learn early
912 readers like this.

For IT professionals working their way up the corporate ladder, soft skills development might fall lower on the priority list than building technical prowess and business acumen. After all, it’s less common to list “empathy” or “storytelling” wins on a resume than quantitative business gains. But CIOs share a compelling reason to bump soft skills higher on your priority list. 

CIOs tell us that certain soft skills would have been especially valuable early on in their leadership careers. Relationship skills, for instance, are essential to building team trust. Comfort with delegation is required to free up leaders for more strategic tasks. The art of storytelling proves critical to inspiring others to change. Soft skills like these propel leaders forward in their careers. 

[ How do your people skills measure up? Read our related article, 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

If you’ve been putting off working on your soft skills, consider starting with the list below. We asked CIOs to share the one soft skill lesson they wish they’d learned sooner. Here’s what they had to say:

1. Success is a long game

Jay Ferro, CIO, Quikrete: “When I was a new leader, I wish I had seen that success is a long game. In my 20’s I was an all-or-nothing, binary kind of manager. I would walk into a meeting knowing what I wanted my end-game to be, and if I didn’t achieve that, I would push them into my desired outcome.

“As I got older, I realized that not everything had to be a holy war; you can make your argument over time and achieve smaller, incremental wins without burning political capital, which is a far more effective way to do it. This way, you win them over with delivery, relationship building, communication, and consistency – and not your own magnificence.”

2. Being right does not equal being trustworthy

“I learned that having influence meant that you had to understand the other person’s position.”

Lee Congdon, CIO, Ellucian: “Early in my career I thought that being correct from a technical standpoint was good enough to win influence. Over time, I learned that just because I had the correct technical answer didn’t necessarily mean that people were going to trust or believe me. Sometimes the second-best technical answer is actually the right one for non-technical reasons such as business partnerships, for example.

“Eventually, I learned that having influence meant that you had to understand the other person’s position. You may know the correct technical answer, but if you don’t have influence, others won’t believe or trust you.”

3. People are not robots in a professionalism factory

‘Being professional’ is not the same thing as being cold and unfeeling.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, city of Asheville, NC: “The biggest thing that I will say about soft skills is that they’re not skills, they’re behaviors. In terms of behaviors: I wish I had learned earlier in my career that, contrary to what we learned in 1950’s TV shows, people are not cogs in a machine once they enter the workplace. ‘Being professional’ is not the same thing as being cold and unfeeling. Once I realized that treating people like people – they need rest, they need a sense of belonging, they need to feel safe – instead of some kind of robot in a ‘professionalism factory,’ my leadership career actually started to work right, and I started to achieve long-term gains for my employers.”

4. Learn to let go

Judith Apshago, CIO, U.S. Silica: “I wish I’d developed and embraced delegation as a soft skill earlier in my career. As leaders move or evolve to larger roles in an organization they naturally can’t be as involved in every detail, but sometimes it can be hard to let go. Learning the art of delegation can benefit the leader and their team. It helps free the leader’s time to focus on more strategic tasks and gives others the opportunity to learn, grow, and excel while building trust and encouraging engagement. It took me some time to hone the right strategic/operational balance and frankly, that is something I continue to refine today. Delegation is one of the keys to striking this balance and is a critical soft skill for every leader.”    

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.