There is a lot of emphasis today on STEM over soft skills. The media tells you that technical abilities, are the key to success in many professions. Many employers downplay soft skills such as personal interaction and communication, until they need them of course.
Tony Safoian, CEO of SADA Systems strongly believes in having all employees develop strong interpersonal skills. Every few weeks, he conducts career discussions with his top technical talent. He likes to tell them, “If you become 5% to 10% better engineers than you are today, you will add incremental value to our organization. However, if you learn to become true leaders – either in title or just how you approach your job – the impact to the organization, and to you, the individual, can be exponential. That’s because ‘A Players’ have a way of making those around them better.”
Safoian, a member of YPO, understands that while expanding an engineer’s soft skills will help them achieve rock star status, it isn’t always easy. What works for one may not work for another, so each individual has to try different methods. “Let me give you a basketball analogy,” he explains. “If Michael Jordan says to a teammate, I want you to dribble the ball around the opposing team, take off from the free throw line and dunk the ball, well, that might work for some teammates but certainly not for everyone.”
Safoian’s point is that leaders must help even the best engineers to become open-minded when it comes to developing new skills. Doing so can be extremely difficult. But those who make this adjustment command tremendous respect and the best career opportunities.
Here is how Safoian believes technical people can become soft-skill rockstars.
1. Use the soft skill resources for technical people that already exist.
“There are an abundance of courses (online and in-person) that can help. A few I’ve recommended to my engineers include those that focus on problem solving, public speaking, professionalism, work ethics and leadership.”
2. Volunteer to take the lead in developing a new process or system.
“I always encourage our employees (technical and otherwise) that stepping into a leadership role can be daunting, but it’s also empowering. It forces people to think about how a decision they make will impact not just themselves, but those around them.”
3. Volunteer to run a seminar or speak at a marketing event.
“Anything that puts them in front of an audience will do the trick. The key is engagement: being front-and-center forces the speaker to see, listen and respond to his or her audience. Nothing gets a person out of his/her comfort zone faster, and helps them relate to their colleagues better.”
4. Ask for communication feedback from salespeople and project delivery personnel.
“Great salespeople have an inherent understanding of how to connect with colleagues, customers, managers, etc. No one gets communication and collaboration as well as a salesperson. Following their lead can fast-track a technical worker’s soft skills development.”
5. Be a giver.
“Data shows that people who support colleagues by giving their time freely yet conscientiously are more likely to experience career satisfaction and improve their job performance. As such, giving is a great way for technical workers to improve their soft skills. We encourage our most technical (and often introverted) team members to invite new colleagues out for a drink or offer to help on a project. Doing so can enhance work relationships and career opportunities.”
6. Welcome questions from colleagues.
“Engineers in particular have a tendency to be curt, and to provide strict, by-the-book answers to questions. Even if being rude wasn’t their intention, a quick, clipped reply can give a colleague the impression that you’re not interested in engaging. If it’s a request for help, take the time to ask “Why do you need this done?” and “Who is this for?” That will let the asker know you’re truly interested in helping, and being a supportive colleague.”
7. Make your ambitions clear to management.
“Make clear to your manager or managers your ambition. They won’t automatically assume you want to develop soft, non-technical skills unless you’re explicit about it. As they say, closed mouths don’t get fed.”
Each week Kevin explores exclusive stories inside YPO, the world’s premiere peer-to-peer organization for chief executives, eligible at age 45 or younger.
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