Goodbye soft skills, hello core skills: Why IT must rebrand this critical competency

Labeling skills as soft undervalues them. To prioritize skills such as communication, IT leaders must call them what they are in the digital era: Core.
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emotional intelligence

There’s nothing soft about “soft skills.” Every CIO I know is emphasizing the essential value of leadership, communication, agility, and the other non-technical competencies. CIOs tell me we must put more emphasis on them, because these are the skills that drive IT success.

Soft skills are the primary hiring focus of the Fortune 10 companies and other enterprising organizations. Given rising expectations and changing demands, IT leaders at these top enterprises are doubling down on these critical skills.

[ Do you make thoughtful decisions? Read also: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader's guide. ]

I’ve heard CIOs suggest calling these skills as “critical,” “essential,” or “must have.” But so far, the top vote-getter has been “core.” Thus, starting today, here and now, let’s rebrand soft skills as “core skills.”

A CIO makes a soft but firm change

Labeling these skills as “soft” has led us to undervalue them. Technical competencies are “hard” because they’re more clearly defined. If you can program in SQL and I can’t, then you have the skill, and I don’t. But we can all talk, right? So how do we measure whether we are fully competent in “communication” or “leadership”?

It’s art rather than science. We’re lucky they weren’t called “fuzzy skills.” But in fact, these competencies are not hard to measure or improve. And as CIOs are learning, they’re essential to moving IT from dutiful IT supplier to strategic partner and beyond.

This CIO has invested significantly in helping his people develop the skills to be consultative influencers.

Exhibit A is the CTO of a Fortune 5 company whom I’ve worked closely with. In the past five years, this leader has sponsored no tech-oriented, hard-skills training. None. However, he has invested significantly in helping his people develop the skills to be consultative influencers across the organization. He has provided training in negotiation, marketing, leadership, and more. 

He tells me that he knows his people are keeping up their technical skills on their own: They understand the value, and they understand how to do it. But what he needs is an organization that can do more than deliver technical excellence. He needs a mature IT organization that elevates its game to become a trusted partner — turning IT into what I call an Innovative Anticipator.

Skills that suit the future of work

The stakes are high in today’s winner-take-all digital age. And if IT is not delivering value at these more strategic levels, our companies are taking on immense risk. Those equipped with core skills are able to look across their enterprise and beyond to see opportunities to drive new sources of revenue, to orchestrate a new frictionless customer experience, and to position their company to be a disruptor.

The future of work, and the future of IT success, is rooted in our ability to build a workforce that can adapt to change just as easily as writing a line of code.

We know the future of work, for IT teams in particular, will involve artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotic process automation. Every assessment of that future says our roles will become less focused on hard technology and more focused on interpreting data, communicating across teams, and collaborating to understand the challenges our technology should address.

In LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report, 80 percent of respondents agreed that “soft skills are increasingly important to company success.” The future of work, and the future of IT success, is rooted in our ability to build a workforce that can adapt to change just as easily as writing a line of code.

How to instill the core skills

The half-life of a skill is shrinking. Deloitte pegged it at five years in 2017, and the numbers I hear now range from three years to as little as 18 months. To future-proof an IT career, you must be continually updating your technical skills. But as our Fortune 5 CTO proves, that’s table stakes. The real differentiator is in the new core skills. 

The game can be changed, but it takes an investment. 

I can always, and instantly, spot CIOs who have a consulting background. They show up differently. They display more empathy, which makes them better listeners, more effective communicators, and more persuasive leaders. One such CIO told me, “If I could, I’d send my full staff into the consulting world for two years, then bring them back. It would be a complete game changer.”

The game can be changed, but it takes an investment, a programmatic approach that includes training in core competencies, and opportunities to develop these skills and practice them in the workplace. Organizational understanding, client orientation, and good communication skills are important starting points. They let your team enter the room ready to understand the challenges as more than a technical problem. Strategic focus is the ability to rise above tactical considerations and engage in a more meaningful discussion. And the ability to lead change helps you understand how to move consensus, and your organization, in the most positive direction.

Work your core: Not optional

It takes courage to lead this transformation talent, and I ask CIOs — and anyone reading this post — do you have the courage? Are you prepared to stay the course when your more cynical, traditional-minded staffers want to stay in their technical comfort zones? When some wiseacre wonders whether you’re running an IT department or a charm school?


Great leaders realize you don’t reach new plateaus with a business-as-usual mentality. If IT is going to support and lead business conversations, it needs more than “hard” technical skills. And if we’re going to keep the new core competencies from being watered down as “soft” and fuzzy, we need to adopt a new language — a new narrative.

We’re telling a new story about an IT role that’s much more than coding in the dark and avoiding human contact. It’s about understanding business goals and customer needs, and applying technology to collaborate and lead on essential business initiatives. And the skills that get you there are not “soft,” and they’re not optional.

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

Dan Roberts
Dan Roberts is CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting. In this role, Dan leads the firm that has been known since 1984 for “Developing the Human Side of Technology.” His team has helped more than 3,500 IT organizations build a world class culture, a high-performing workforce and a differentiated talent brand.