Soft Skills: The Secret of Developing IT Leaders

Tuesday Jul 25th 2017 by Guest Author
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Why we need to develop people – not just code.

What is a company’s most valuable asset? Its people.

It’s not just some cliché, it’s a fact. According to a 2016 economic analysis report by Korn Ferry, human capital is worth roughly 2.33 times as much as physical capital, such as property, inventory, and technology. Unlike a skyscraper or a computer, a person’s productive value appreciates over time. As workers accumulate professional and interpersonal experience, they learn priceless life lessons that make them better at their jobs.

Cultivating soft skills is a continual process, and it doesn’t happen by accident. However, developers often don’t realize the importance of having those skills until they need them. Lacking soft skills can be what prevents them from growing their careers. They’re likely to flounder when thrust into situations that expose that gap.

I’ve seen this happen. It’s common that developers who are identified as “product experts” are pulled into customer meetings to share product insights. They need to listen to customers and understand their needs and requirements. Developers can talk “tech,” but when it comes to interacting with the customer, the conversation often breaks down because they aren’t prepared.

Which soft skills should developers and other IT professionals pursue? Here's a short list:

Listening Skills

Listening is a learned skill, and listening well is harder than you think. Developers who spend most of their time working on their own, heads-down coding, don’t have as many opportunities to practice and develop this skill.

Being a good listener is critical for developers when collaborating with peers, stakeholders and customers. One of my favorite quotes says, “The biggest communication problem is that we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” That’s the real skill: listening to understand. That means setting aside your own agenda to absorb what the other party is saying. It takes emotional intelligence to exercise that self-awareness, and it takes practice to break bad listening habits.

Developers who truly listen are better equipped to understand a customer’s needs, recognize innovative ideas, collaborate and negotiate internally and externally more effectively.

Communication Skills

A developer with keen communication skills is a rare, but highly sought after, find for IT managers. Strong communicators know how to adjust their language to match their audience – for example, omitting jargon when talking with a non-technical person. They read body language and verbal cues to gauge everyone’s understanding of what they’re saying to clarify where there’s confusion or disagreement. They phrase questions as a means to solve problems, gain understanding, and strengthen relationships.

Communication skills also extend into writing, whether that means knowing how to send a succinct business email, compose clear requirements or develop a tutorial guide to explain new features.

Public Speaking

What happens when a developer is invited to present a webinar on the latest version of a product? Or asked to give an overview of the development team’s progress at the quarterly company-wide meeting? That’s a lot of pressure, especially if you aren’t trained for it.

I recently saw a statistic from the National Institute of Mental Health that 74 percent of people suffer from speech anxiety. A lot of that anxiety stems from lack of practice.

Rockstar IT professionals can talk about their work in a comfortable, authoritative and relatable way to any group. They’ve overcome their anxiety by practicing good posture, eye contact, articulation and projection. Their ability to present technical content to a group is insanely valuable. If a developer can effectively present to the team, what’s stopping them from speaking at board meetings and conferences?

In today's dynamic workforce, the next generation of tech leaders can’t emerge without some level of both technical and soft skills. For both companies and IT professionals, developing the right soft skills should be a priority.

Author: Kyle Gingrich, vice president, IT and Certification at Skillsoft.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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