Soft skills are becoming increasingly vital for tech leaders and, in the current environment, are one of the key factors differentiating managing from tech leadership. While hard skills have long been the focus in the tech sector, the rise of AI and intelligent machines is quickly changing this focus.
According to recent McKinsey research, “social, emotional, and technological skills are becoming more crucial as intelligent machines take over more physical, repetitive, and basic cognitive tasks.” In fact, in a recent survey asking about 25 specific skills that companies have prioritized to address through reskilling, over half of the companies surveyed were focused on “developing leadership, critical-thinking and decision-making, and project management skills.” Notably, the number of companies prioritizing soft skills has nearly doubled since last year.
Soft skills are often thought of as inherent traits, but the reality is that they can be learned and developed. Soft skills encompass skills like communication, humility, problem-solving, collaboration, interpersonal skills, empathy, and social intelligence.
For tech leaders to be successful, they need a combination of both hard and soft skills. Those leaders with the right soft skill sets are better able to communicate with stakeholders, motivate their teams, develop their employees, improve retention, increase productivity, and achieve better outcomes.
Top Skills That Leaders Need
While developing soft skills is not an easy process, it can be done. With that in mind, tech leaders should prioritize a few key areas of growth and work on developing in those areas. Here’s an overview of what industry leaders see as the key soft skills for tech leaders.
Emotional intelligence is a relatively new term, and it’s one that’s often poorly defined and misunderstood. Yet, high emotional intelligence is key for leaders and can lead to a better understanding of organizational needs, increased team productivity, improved decision-making, and more effective prioritization.
Emotional intelligence is defined as “the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.” Having high emotional intelligence helps leaders to better navigate the social complexities of company culture, leads to better relational skills, and results in an improved ability to lead and manage.
A key component of emotional intelligence is empathy. Those with higher levels of empathy have a better understanding of individuals’ needs throughout the organization – this means understanding what customers, other teams, and their own teams need.
According to Alexander Kharlamov of Madison Square Garden Company, “To be an effective leader, you need to always put yourself in the other person’s shoes — think about what they feel, want, and are dealing with. Only then it is possible to make decisions that will be good for everyone, and not result in discord, mistrust, and resentment.”
Communication skills are regularly at the top of the list when leaders and their teams are surveyed about important soft skills. Good communication skills impact a lot of different areas and should be considered a necessary foundation for all other soft skills.
Good communication skills lead to clear expectations, strong relationships, and fewer frustrations over misunderstandings. Leaders need to be able to communicate with their teams and with stakeholders throughout the organization, including non-tech stakeholders.
“Make sure everyone understands what you say and that what you say is what you mean.”Robert Smith of Infofree.com
As part of being a good communicator, it’s also key that leaders are good listeners. Sharon Moore MBE of IBM warns, “We often attach much value to those who have a voice and are shaping our futures with that voice (on stage, in media, etc.) but without listening first their messages might not hit the mark.”
Being a good listener ensures that you understand what your organization, customers, and employees need. This leads to making more informed decisions, proactively addressing any red flags, empowering employees to step up, encouraging curiosity throughout your team, and fostering a healthy organizational culture.
Gone are the days when tech leaders can focus solely on issues dealing with their teams and new tech. In today’s environment, leaders need to be able to understand the entire business, and they need to be focused on how technology can be used to solve key problems for the business to better meet customers’ needs.
Nicholas Thompson of Grit believes that “today’s fast pace of innovation necessitates a leader who can wade through the technology with a focus on how it can be used to solve real business problems faced by the organization.”
Self-awareness is a part of emotional intelligence, but important enough to discuss on its own. A big part of self-awareness is recognizing your own weaknesses and being thoughtful about how to address those weaknesses. “We can’t fundamentally change who we are,” Marcin Kleczynski says, “but if we recognize our weaknesses, there is no reason that they have to stand in the way of our success.”
Doing this involves a good bit of humility, which is often hard for leaders, many of whom think that they should give off the impression of knowing everything and having the best hard skills on their team. Yet, it’s much more effective – although not always easy – for leaders to find a balance of confidence and humility, where they acknowledge individual areas of weakness.
Critical thinking skills enable leaders to assess a problem and come up with a productive solution, no matter how complex the issue. Critical thinkers are flexible and creative. They don’t have a fixed mindset but instead are able to tackle difficult issues and come up with unexpected solutions.
It’s key for leaders to have strong critical thinking skills and the mindset that accompanies them. Leaders with these skills are not overwhelmed by problems or obstacles, but instead are creative and proactive about leading their team through whatever issues arise.
Soft Skills are More Important Now Than Ever Before
Right now the tech sector is seeing high levels of turnover and organizations are asking more and more of their tech teams. At the same time, CEOs and Boards are expecting their CIO and tech leaders to generate more revenue through digital transformation.
These pressures, combined with the rise of AI and ML initiatives, have meant a shift in the skill sets required for effective tech leaders. The focus is increasingly on soft skills, which can determine whether a leader will thrive in this environment.
Thankfully, soft skills can be learned and developed. Leaders that are strategic about addressing soft skills will see personal growth that results in better personal and organizational outcomes.