Soft skills: 5 ways to tell if yours need work

Your leadership career will hit a wall if you lack strong soft skills. Ask yourself these questions about how yours stack up
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Some technical skills prove easy to identify and measure: Either you’ve worked with the technology, been certified in it, or you have not. Soft skills, on the other hand, aren’t simple to assess, nor are they as straightforward to learn. That’s why people often neglect these skills as areas of improvement, says Kelly Doyle, managing director at Heller Search Associates.

“Soft skills like hiring acumen and communication are just innate to some leaders, while others have to work hard to develop them,” she says. “Soft skills are equally important – if not more important – than technical skills. They’re critical to becoming a great leader.”

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

As IT’s role has evolved from back-office cost center to strategic business partner, the CIO role has changed mightily. Effective IT leaders today need to communicate effectively, lead prioritization efforts, hire outside the box, continuously network, and actively engage customers.

“IT leaders need to build credibility and respect and engage the business,” says Jim Johnson, senior vice president at Robert Half Technology. “Soft skills help them do this. They add credibility to the initiatives they drive, build trust, and ultimately help the business achieve its goals.”

How do your soft skills stack up? To determine whether your soft skills need work, Doyle and Johnson suggest asking yourself these five questions.

1. How often do you meet with people across the organization?

The frequency with which you interact with people and business units outside of IT correlates with the strength of your communication skills, Johnson says. That’s true for both CIOs and rising IT leaders.

“Are you in your ivory tower or server cabin in the woods?"

“Are you in your ivory tower or server cabin in the woods, or do you have meetings across the business and interact with both technical and non-technical people?” he asks. These experiences hone your ability to speak in a language that everyone understands, which builds influence.

“You need to win the hearts and minds of stakeholders so the technology succeeds in making the company more efficient and drives revenue,” Doyle adds. “If you can’t drive adoption, you fail. Communication is key to achieving that.”

2. Are you comfortable saying no?

IT is no longer a cost center; it’s an enabler of the business. As a result, ideas to transform and evolve the business come from all corners of the organization, Johnson says. CIOs must be expert prioritizers, which sometimes means saying “no” or “not now” to ideas.

“The days of CIOs managing budgets still exist, but now they’re project budgets based on moving parts,” he says. “CIOs need to get the business and tech leadership together on a consistent basis to proactively prioritize. Sometimes projects need to be set aside because others are more pressing. This is a key skill for the CIO because the organization is looking at IT to drive the business, not just keep the lights on.”

3. Are you flexible in hiring?

Ninety-five percent of IT hiring decision-makers have admitted to making a bad hire, according to an RHT report. In a competitive candidate market, finding the perfect fit for a job is challenging. That’s why you shouldn’t focus on perfect, Johnson says.

“You need to look beyond black-and-white in a resume and be comfortable with someone who knows nothing,” he says. “In other words, you can teach skills to someone who’s passionate, has the desire and drive, and fits into your culture.”

Rather than focus on whether a candidate is proficient in MySQL and has the requisite Salesforce certifications, consider whether they’ve shown a history of learning new skills throughout their career, Johnson says.

[ Are you scaring away good candidates? Read also: The trouble with IT job descriptions. ]

4. How well do you stay informed and connected?

To keep up with emerging technologies and trends, Johnson says, IT leaders should consistently work to build their network and tap its influence before they truly need it.

“You need to dig your well before you’re thirsty.”

“You need to dig your well before you’re thirsty. Leaders get so caught up in their own bubble of solving problems that they forget to keep in touch with peers and get involved in networking opportunities,” he says.

Attend events and roundtables, and keep in touch with the people you meet, Johnson suggests.  (See also: Business leadership conferences worth exploring in 2019. ) This will provide you with a broader perspective of what’s happening in your industry and beyond, allowing you to apply those ideas within your own organization.

“Break out of your circle of influence and keep your head on a swivel to look for what’s coming or not coming,” he says. “Looking over the wall to see what others are doing will keep you on the cutting edge.”

Podcasts offer another way to stay in the know: Check out these 10 valuable podcasts for business and tech leaders.

5. Do you schedule enough time with customers?

IT leaders must fully understand the needs and desires of their customers in order to deliver world-class solutions, Doyle says. The most effective way to take the pulse of customers is to schedule time with them, whether they’re internal or out in the field. Also, how can you empathize with customers if you're not listening enough?

“A CIO’s commitment to customer engagement will help them develop the voice of the customer, which establishes mutual understanding, trust, and your relationship as a business partner,” she says. “Building that trust and understanding with customers is so important. That’s how you keep them.”

[ Soft skills help you lead teams through change. Get the free eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Kristin Burnham is a reporter and editor covering IT leadership, business technology, and online privacy and security.