Soft Skills: The Sign of a Savvy IT Pro

By Katherine Spencer Lee

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The best managers are defined by their ability to motivate teams and work and communicate effectively with other departments. And never has this been more important than in today’s business world, where technology is integrated into all aspects of a company’s operations. Firms seek IT leaders who can serve as business partners and true leaders. This need translates into a significant opportunity for managers who have strong business and interpersonal skills.

First Stop: Business Boot Camp

Perhaps more than anything, IT managers must understand a company’s core processes and customers. The following suggestions can help get you up to speed:

Go back to school. One way to increase your business acumen is to enroll in relevant educational courses. It’s not unusual for today’s IT leaders to earn master’s degrees of business administration, but even a weeklong seminar or single-session class targeting non-business managers can prove beneficial.

Know your field. A clothing retailer and a food distributor may rely on similar technology, but these businesses use it in different ways, based on the unique challenges and demands of their industries. That’s why it’s key to know your market. Who are your firm’s main competitors? What trends are impacting the field? How will the industry be different five years from now?

You can find the answers to these types of questions by reading the business press, networking with other IT professionals, and participating in industry associations and events. Learn on the job. Many companies have programs designed to rotate promising managers through key departments and processes, providing a well-rounded view of the firm and a deep grounding in business skills. Even if your firm does not offer a formal program, you can gain a similar understanding by volunteering for committees, task forces and special initiatives. For example, you could offer to assist with the evaluation of a potential acquisition or expansion efforts into a new market.

Step Two: Polishing Your Social Skills

Just as important as knowing how to read a balance sheet, plan a budget or plot a five-year plan is being able to communicate and collaborate with colleagues throughout the company, including those to whom IT is foreign.

Strengthen your soft skills with these strategies:

Make the first move. Rather than waiting for other managers to come to you with requests, contact them for briefings on their department’s goals, processes and challenges. Touching base can often reveal needs and technical solutions that were not immediately apparent. For example, the sales team may be having trouble tracking leads gained at industry conferences, and the group’s manager may not realize a more robust CRM program could rectify this issue.

In short, the deeper your understanding of each business unit, the better positioned you’ll be to generate increased value from existing processes or data and develop new tools that make the company more competitive. In addition, by talking to people outside your department, you’ll begin to form valuable relationships and remain informed about new developments within the firm and industry.

Reverse the flow of information. At the same time, you must educate your business peers as to the value IT can bring. Tackle any lingering, negative stereotypes about your group. Also, reinforce the fact that IT can and does partner with business units to provide creative solutions by highlighting the strategic nature of your team’s work and how it benefits the entire firm.

Talk the talk. Often, getting an idea across successfully has less to do with the idea itself than how it is presented. You may be convinced that the use of AJAX could make your company’s website more user friendly. But if you talk to other executives about XML and Java, you’re likely to lose your audience. Instead, speak in a language they understand—that interactive menus enhance the stickiness of the site and the number of inquires the business will receive about its services. Learning the lingo of the company, industry and business in general can help you position your ideas so they are understood and accepted by peers outside IT.

Mastering the basics of business thinking and relationship building make you a more active participant in your company’s success. In addition, these skills can broaden your horizons. Learning about business can help you advance to a more senior position or even jump to a non-technical role. Knowing how to communicate your ideas and work with other managers to implement them enables you to keep pace with the changing nature of IT. And knowing both paves the way for your long-term success.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multi-platform systems integration to network engineering and technical support. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the North America and Europe, and offers online job search services at www.rht.com.