Why IT Should Focus on Soft Skills

Soft skills are as important to a Project Manager as are skills in process and technologySo what are “soft skills” and why are they given such short shrift in IT circles? I mean, aren’t we IT practitioners already stereotyped as having poor social skills and low emotional intelligence?

In my previous article, “How to Make IT Training More Useful”, I referenced an August 10, 2019 Seth Godin blog post which, in my mind, thoroughly defines what is meant by soft skills:

“Discipline, rigor, patience, self-control, dignity, respect, knowledge, curiosity, wisdom, ethics, honor, empathy, resilience, honesty, long-term, possibility, bravery, kindness and awareness. All of these are real skills, soft skills, learnable skills.”

In that article, I criticized IT organizations that do not place enough focus on these skills. These skills are critical to developing the people aspects of project management within our project leadership. As Mr. Godin points out in the article, these skills are in short supply and that makes them more valuable.

What are these skills that are valuable assets for Project Managers to have, and to focus on developing?

  • Public speaking – the ability to present in front of a group clearly, succinctly, and tailored to the audience and purpose. Most Project Managers lack effective public speaking skills. They typically do not understand the nuances in presenting to their executive, the client’s executive, their project staff, or the client staff. They are not aware of techniques to be used in different situations such as stakeholder briefings, status updates, requirements gathering, delivering difficult messages, celebrations, and the myriad of other opportunities for public speaking.

    Most Project Managers are unaware of how poorly they present. This is a make-or-break skill, and project success depends on it.

  • Writing skills – the ability to clearly and succinctly present information and ideas in writing; the ability to tailor written communication to the audience and to the purpose for the writing. At one time it was acceptable for IT Project Managers not to have good writing skills, but in today’s world it is as important as any technical or process skill. Most Project Managers do not write well whether in formal status reports, formal or informal memos, text messaging or instant messaging, or other forms of written communication.

    I have witnessed staff removed from a project for inappropriate wording in a PowerPoint presentation. I have seen an entire project terminated following a harsh formal memo. I have seen relationships damaged because of emails edited for accuracy but not for tone.

    Most Project Managers are unaware of how poorly they write. Writing skills are as important for technically oriented managers as they are for any professional staff.

  • Meeting facilitation – the ability to lead discussions, keep the participants engaged, and effectively reach the conclusions for which the meeting was intended. Like public speaking and writing skills, few Project Managers have mastered the nuances of this skill, especially given the frequency and variety of project meetings: status meetings, executive briefings, requirements gathering workshops, software testing sessions, implementation training, project celebrations, and others.

    I have been involved in a project that was delayed for several months at the cost of several million dollars a month – not because of poorly implemented technology or inadequate process – but because of poorly facilitated, poorly managed requirements gathering sessions. I have seen a Project Manager’s credibility and reputation tarnished (and thereby his effectiveness diminished) when he was unprepared for inevitable questions in a status meeting. I have seen relationships damaged when a Project Manager continually presented one-sided status reports, effectively blaming his client for project issues.

    Meeting facilitation for IT Project Managers is not easily satisfied by generic, out-of-the-box meeting facilitation skills training. The uniqueness and demands of IT project management require specialized training in meeting facilitation.

  • Ability to read people – the art of understanding body language, facial expressions, gestures, cultural norms, and other such non-verbal communication. The stereotypical view of IT professionals is that they are dominated by logic and have little natural emotional intelligence. There is some truth in this; project success depends on their logic capabilities.

    However, projects are not all technology and process and logic. Projects rely first and foremost on people – IT staff and end-users. The ability to communicate well with project and client staff is paramount to project success, and the ability of Project Managers to intuitively read people is a critical skill that can be learned.

Additional skills to those depicted above include such topics as time management, ethical conduct and honesty, negotiation skills and give-and-take, work ethic and discipline, client interaction, listening skills, empathy, and others. These skills are as vital to the successful implementation of IT projects as are technology and process skills. While they are not necessarily innate in Project Managers, they can and must be learned to help ensure project success and profitability.

These necessary skills for IT practitioners are typically not taught well by training firms or in-house trainers. If they are taught at all, they are farmed out to training companies that offer generic instruction in these areas. The specialized requirements of the IT industry demand deeper, more specialized instruction by persons who are steeped in the demands of IT project work.

I have a colleague (not in the IT field) who conducts an annual training in dining etiquette for college football players. Why? Because generic “Emily Post” instruction is inadequate for this population and requires a more customized approach. She understands college athletes and tailors her training specifically to them and the situations they will find themselves in.

IT organizations must step up in developing their project leadership beyond technology and process. The soft skills are the hard skills, but oh so necessary for personal and project success.

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