IT Pro Panel: Why IT leaders need soft skills

Technical skills are all well and good, but human-centric skills are the real differentiators

IT Pro Panel: Why IT leaders need soft skills

If you ask someone to picture an IT professional, many will immediately land on the stereotypical image of a bespectacled nerd in a dingy basement, who’s more comfortable around code and computers than other people. As outdated as that notion is, the core of this idea – that IT as a discipline is driven more by technical skills than by interpersonal ones – is still surprisingly common.

In contrast to this preconception, however, research has indicated that so-called ‘soft skills’, like listening and storytelling, are increasingly vital for IT leaders. In a business environment where technology is a central element of long-term success, it’s simply no longer enough for IT chiefs to be technical wizards with poor communication skills.

This is a development that has not gone unacknowledged, and CIOs, CTOs and CISOs are making a concerted effort to equip themselves with capabilities beyond their technical certifications. In this month’s IT Pro Panel discussion, we asked our panellists what non-technical skills are most important to them, how they develop these skills, and how to instill them in their teams.

Communications breakdown

As defined by our panellists, ‘soft skills’ are based on communication and emotional intelligence, and are informed more by personality traits than learned behaviours. Many of them flagged empathy as their strongest proficiency in this area.

“For me, this means placing yourself in someone else's shoes when interacting with them,” says Studio Graphene founder Ritam Gandhi. “Every individual has good days and bad days, you need to give folks you work with the opportunity to have bad days and pick themselves up. I am generally very close to my team and I can sense when they are uncomfortable or something is wrong. If I think it's something to do with work, I'll ask them directly, but if it's personal, I'll give them space without probing as it’s up to them if they want to talk about it.”

Another key ability identified by Newcastle Building Society CIO Manila McLean is the ability to be “bilingual” within the organisation: “Being able to put stakeholders at ease with language they understand and is meaningful for them”, while still being able to talk to technical teams at their own level.

The idea of technical leaders being the bridge between IT and the rest of the business is a popular one among our panellists, and it’s here, they say, that communication skills become invaluable.

“To be an effective IT leader, you have to possess the ability to articulate both the design and justification of any proposition, without over-explanation or excessive detail,” explains TempCover CTO, Marc Pell. “It’s important to remember to present the business case, as opposed to simply assuming that everyone sees the value in reducing technical debt or building for the future. Likewise, it’s critical to hold yourself accountable for making the right decision at the right time, balancing the business need with the technical need.”

RoosterMoney CTO, Jonathan Smart, has been tackling this challenge by bringing product, engineering and marketing teams together, and says making sure information flows in both directions has been crucial for facilitating this. 

Peter Donlon, CTO of Moonpig, takes this idea a step further, arguing that for IT leaders, technical skills are secondary in terms of importance. 

“As an IT leader, you hire people who are great technically and enable them to solve business problems,” he says. “To do that effectively, you need to have those strong soft skills. That's not to say there's no place for technical skills; I think understanding your craft is important, I just personally think it's second place to soft skills.”

For Kantar CISO Paul Watts, cyber security is one of the areas that is suffering most acutely from a soft skills deficit. Security is being increasingly called on to actively support the business as an important ally, he says, but years of being confined to a siloed technical environment has left them lacking the ability to effectively engage with the rest of the organisation.

“Now CISOs are being thrust into the business limelight, they are looking tired and disengaged in a world where tech and business need to be hand-in-hand,” he says. “I started my career as a consultant and it has really helped me build core skills that help me engage better with tech and non-tech stakeholders, but others have started in a tech role and never left a tech role which leaves them with some skills gaps.” 

“The next generation of CISOs have to recognise their role has changed and adapt accordingly. The current generation of CISOs needs to be honest with their soft skills deficits and upskill, or be left behind … the business wants technology to integrate with them now and not just be the order-taking, tin-shuffling, basement-residing 'IT Crowd' of the past.”

“I think that's a really interesting observation, Paul,” Donlon says. “I can believe that and see why that's even more challenging within security. I do think in general that's a pattern I've seen, as tech is coming out of its box and engaging with the business a lot more directly. In my opinion, the days of the software engineer who can lock themselves in a room and just write code are past us. The ability to work and communicate with others is key.”

Keep it simple, stupid

Looking at IT staff in particular, Smart suggests one of the most important non-technical skills IT teams need to possess is the ability to think like their customers (both internal and external), balancing their own views and priorities with what the business needs.

“It’s not about how amazing the technical solution is from a code perspective, but the bigger picture,” he says. “This can be difficult to achieve for one person, which is why it’s good to have smaller squads that are made up of cross-disciplined team members, which further emphasises the need for good listening and communication skills.”

This DevOps-style team structure can help give staff more insight into how their decisions affect other business units, he adds, and can give them a deeper level of responsibility and understanding. 

“I absolutely think it helps,” agrees McLean. “I encourage our teams to think of their product as their own business – the performance and the continuous improvement are just as important as the initial creation. I also encourage engineers to participate in customer research such as usability testing, where they see first hand how real end users will interact with their products. It really helps them empathise.”

“I’d agree with that,” says Watts. “In fact, the devs who are working in squads in a DevOps style definitely get better business engagement and ultimately, better outcomes than the ones who don't.”

“We took this a step further recently and performed a role reversal for all members outside of our customer ops team,” Smart adds, “where the customer ops team pretended to be the customers (using a mix of real and fake scenarios) and then had teams respond to the scenarios with points awarded for responsibility quality, speed of response, tone of voice et cetera. Everyone got some real value from this exercise and learnt a lot. It definitely improved empathy for another teams core role.”

Hethinks this kind of exercise could be effectively transplanted to core IT teams to achieve similar results, and Watts notes it could have a major impact on digital workplace programmes such as the rollout of tools like Microsoft 365, which need to be business-led and technologically-enabled in order to be successful.

Our panellists also highlighted other tactics for improving soft skills within their teams, including mentorship schemes, as well as engaging with broader learning and development programmes within the organisation. As Donlon points out, soft skills don’t just apply to IT, and there are many resources available to help progress them.

While there are ways to boost soft skills within a team, many of our panellists opt to seek out these skills at the recruitment stage. Hiring candidates who already have strong empathy and communication skills is easier than training for these abilities after the fact, they say.

“We're always on the lookout for strong technical talent that holds an equally strong set of soft skills,” explains Pell. “This is often difficult to find though. We've learnt that soft skills are arguably harder to teach, given they're linked to a person's personality in many cases. Teaching technical skills, on the other hand, is relatively simple if you find the right person.”

“Completely agreed”, adds Donlon. “We hire people with strong interpersonal skills and lots of empathy; basically good team workers. It may sound obvious but given how we set ourselves up and how collaborative our way of working is, it's crucial we get people in who can do this. That means not everyone has to be the best at presenting and so on, but they do need to be able to work well with others.”

“I always say this to hiring managers: ‘we can teach people technical skills, but we can't teach them not to be an arsehole!’”

Part of the problem, according to Watts, is an over-reliance on technical expertise when building out job requirements for new hires. He believes that recruiters – including internal HR staff as well as external agencies – need to focus on soft skills rather than ticking certification boxes. 

“Have you read a tech role spec recently? It’s all about the creds, less about the business outcomes. It’s shocking, and demonstrates that they too are disconnected from the realities of running technology in modern business.”

One potential solution, he says, is to look for candidates from non-technical backgrounds where these kinds of skills are more commonplace, including fields like the humanities

“CISOs should now be looking for non-technical resources to complement their technical teams and bridge the divide. Never mind the CISSP qualified propeller-head, go looking for the marketeers, the creatives, the English students, the business development managers, and so on.”

The more you know

The same is also true for leaders, as well as general IT staff. Deep platform knowledge and technical competency does not always make someone the best fit to lead an IT team. For many of the reasons outlined above, Pell argues, it can often be better to look for more general leadership qualities.

“I'm sure we've all witnessed the situation where the person with the best technical skill gets promoted to manage the team,” he explains. “The two skillsets differ wildly though; identifying potentially brilliant IT leaders is all about spotting the presence of soft skills and business awareness, on top of the obvious requirement of technical ability.”

With this in mind, our panellists call on a range of techniques for improving their own soft skills. As with our discussion in January around New Year’s resolutions, this remains more of a focus for our panellists’ learning and development than technical abilities. 

Watts, for example, has started listening to audiobooks during lockdown as a way to continue learning while minimising screen time. His top recommendations include Simon Sinek’s books Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last, as well as anything by business management writer Tom Peters.

“I also like reading biographies of people like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, et cetera, to get ideas,” he says, “and also learn from their mistakes!”

“I'm a big podcast listener,” Pell adds. “Common listens for me (other than the obviously brilliant IT Pro Podcast) are Secret Leaders, Scott Hanselman's podcast and a couple in my field too, such as InsTech London and Insurtech Insiders.”

In the spirit of learning from others, though, the most popular method for boosting interpersonal skills was talking to peers within the industry. Our panellists highlighted networking and mentoring as essential methods that they relied on for this aspect of their personal growth.

“I've been going out of my way to network virtually in the absence of in-person meetups,” says Pell. “Learning from others is always useful.”

“I agree,” adds Gandhi. “Having a mentor to bounce ideas off and discuss personal challenges at work is really helpful. It provides a completely different external perspective.”

“It’s tough to find the time, but important,” Watts concurs. “Sometimes just having someone to bounce ideas and situations off can be just as valuable, so I do agree with Marc. Getting a good coach or mentor, or just having a safe network of like-minded people, can go a long way.”

These tactics can be employed to further many specific proficiencies under the overall umbrella of ‘soft skills’, but there are a few particular areas that our panellists are seeking to concentrate their attention on. 

“I think my own skill that I'd like to improve is the ability to create clear goals for individuals that I lead, which are in turn clearly aligned to broader business goals,” Gandhi muses. “In essence, the ability to provide more structure to those reporting into me in terms of what is expected of them and why. At the moment, I have a great ‘understanding’ with my team, which works really well – but I do feel that as one scales, one needs to also have the ability to set objective and measurable goals.”

Watts, meanwhile, is seeking to spend more time understanding his business and thinking more deeply about how to align his security programme with the business strategy, utilising some of the principles Sinek outlines in Start With Why.

“I find myself in a similar position to those above,” Smart offers. “I do find that I am constantly learning and evolving, there is always a new challenge or something I can learn from.”

For Pell, the thing he’s most concerned with is long-term planning and vision, making sure that he’s clearly defining the wider roadmap for his teams.

“We’re doing so many exciting things right now that it’s sometimes difficult to find the time. I know where I want us to get to in terms of long term direction, but it needs documenting to better aid the team as they make day-to-day decisions that walk us in that direction.”

“If any of my team are reading, watch this space!”

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