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Why you need soft skills to excel in your tech career

With deliberate practice you can hone your soft skills, increase the impact of your work and grow your influence in an organisation

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Popular culture encourages us to believe you’ve either got soft skills, or you’ve not. It also stereotypes those in tech as inept with people and incapable of being otherwise. Ideas like these are both untrue and insidious.

“Soft” skills are the capabilities required to work effectively with others. They include listening, influencing, managing and leading. The adjective “soft” implies they’re wishy-washy and nebulous.

By contrast, “hard” skills, which are required to work with technology, seem rigorous, tangible and therefore admirable. These old-fashioned mindsets and prejudices contribute to keeping technology functions marginalised in organisations and away from their proper place at the top table.

While hard skills are undeniably vital when working in technology, stellar tech careers are built on sophisticated soft skills.

Increasingly, technology is – or should be – at the heart of business transformation. If you want to play your proper part in that, not merely have it done to you, hard skills are not sufficient.

All too often, technology professionals find that they’re the only person in the room who truly gets the technological implications of what is being discussed, but fail to land their message. This is not the fault of those (not) hearing the message. The onus is on the messenger to deploy soft skills sufficiently dextrously to influence business transformation and decision-making.

The happy truth is that, with the appropriate approach, sophisticated soft skills are eminently learnable, and deliver spectacular return on investment. A national-level chief technology officer who rose to a global role with a major tech company credits his success to his soft skills, particularly what he calls “empathetic listening”.  He continues to work on that to this day. Here’s why.

How to boost soft skills

You’ve probably heard it said that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. This idea is a misrepresentation – indeed, is almost the opposite – of what Anders Ericsson outlined in his book, Peak.

Ericsson identified that it actually takes 10,000 hours of what he calls deliberate practice to reach mastery. You don’t just do more of what comes “naturally” (i.e. what you learned early in life). That merely burnishes suboptimal technique.

Deliberate practice requires that you work with the support of someone who understands deeply how to do whatever it is you are attempting to upgrade, and challenge yourself constantly. If you want to become a competitive cyclist, instead of cycling more with the same technique you learned when the stabilisers first came off, you need to upgrade how you cycle with the assistance of expert input.

It’s the same with soft skills. Take listening: most of us picked this up as toddlers. But few of us have re-examined how to do it since. With deliberate practice, listening skills are readily upgradeable and drive better interactions with all.

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During one workshop on listening skills, as a preparatory exercise, we asked a technical team to consider the question “how might more skilled listening benefit you?” This stumped one engineer. He objected that you either listened, or didn’t. Skill was irrelevant.

At the start of the workshop, we examined how different people hear completely different things when simultaneously listening to the same speaker. The engineer got it. Not only would upgrading his listening improve his working life, it would save his marriage.

A technique outlined in the box below shows one way to start upgrading your listening skills today.

If you do decide to hone your soft skills, focus first on your individual functioning. We call this the airline oxygen mask principle. Improve how you set goals, learn and listen: prioritise and schedule to increase traction, and decrease error rate; delegate in order to engage and enthuse, and so on.

The next level is to boost your teamworking soft skills. We have identified a novel mindset for how to work with others (we call this Rock and Star). In short, the Rock provides the stability that is essential if the Star is to shine. Those who function as Rock need to hone their ability to not obscure their Stars. Those who are Stars need to become skilful at using Rocks. Both need to develop the capacity to switch roles.

Happily, most people in tech are avid and experienced learners. By applying yourself diligently to the project of upgrading soft skills, those in tech can reap huge rewards, personally and professionally. Another happy truth is that once you’ve done so, you won’t forget or lose them. Much like riding a bicycle.

Solution-focused listening

This upgrade to the way you listen will help you get more out of meetings.

At some time towards the start, bring up the subject of what sort of takeaway the person you’re meeting, and you, would like as a result of getting together. Would they – and you – appreciate a plan? An action? A strategy? Perhaps you’d like one thing, and they another? Discuss this until you reach some level of mutual understanding.

During the meeting, bear in mind whatever came up, and listen carefully for delivery against that. Check in towards the end with the person you are meeting about how they feel in terms of their takeaway. Volunteer how you feel. Note how this changes interactions.

How to implement this discipline? Start with easy meetings with a single friendly colleague. Ask them how it felt and seek advice about how to improve your technique. Listen to their feedback and flex how you deploy your skill. If it feels clunky at first, that’s as it should be. Deliberate practice requires you challenge your existing technique.

When you can deploy the skill slickly in a low-challenge environment, step up and experiment with the technique when there’s more than two of you in the meeting. Again, start with friendly colleagues, and seek feedback. Practice until it comes “naturally”.

To take it to the next level, do it when the person you’re meeting with is potentially hostile. Again, note how it changes interactions. Once you’re skilled at that, try it in a meeting where there are more people, and many agendas.

Step-by-step, using deliberate practice, you hone your skills.

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