Soft Skills for Technical Hires: What Matters & What Doesn’t
| it careers - Josh Burnett

Soft Skills for Technical Hires: What Matters & What Doesn't

There’s an axiom in the business world: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” That may come from the stopwatch-wielding Taylorists, but it still deserves merit. Profitable businesses can’t be established without specific metrics, and expansion and growth would be mere pipe dreams without SMART goals and tangible measuring points.

However, our tendency as business leaders—and particularly in the technological realm—can sometimes be to rely too heavily on numbers. The other side of the story is found in another proverb: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.”

What Do Employers Want?

It wouldn’t be a logical leap to assume that employers look for hard skills to determine a good fit within a company or organization. According to LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, however, that isn’t necessarily the case.

After conducting an extensive analysis comparing how candidates were promoting themselves and what employers were looking for on the business-focused social media site, Weiner said, “Somewhat surprisingly, interpersonal skills is where we’re seeing the biggest imbalance. Communications is the number one skills gap.”

A survey on hiring and skills by Computerworld indicated that IT executives are increasingly looking for staff who are both technically qualified and demonstrate a broad range of soft skills. Gone are the days of the genius programmer, sitting alone and hammering out code that revolutionizes an industry. The vast majority of tech development occurs in a team-based environment, where hard skills are required to do one’s job, but soft skills are crucial to ensuring the project itself succeeds.

An ideal candidate would be technically qualified and possess qualities like communication, leadership, a strong work ethic, and the ability to work well within a team. Individuals who are balanced on both sides of the spectrum are highly sought after, but they tend to be the exception. When a hiring manager has to evaluate candidates who are weak in one area and strong in another, their preference is shockingly one-sided.

According to a recent survey, 67 percent of human resource managers would hire a candidate who was lacking in technical skills, but had strong interpersonal skills. Conversely, a mere nine percent indicated they would hire someone who was technically competent, but weak in soft skills. The Wall Street Journal discovered that, according to 900 executives interviewed in a comprehensive study, 92 percent said soft skills were equally important or more important than technical skills.

Why Does Emotional IQ Matter?

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence at Work, records that when IQ and technical skills are equal between two people, soft skills counts for 90 percent of what makes someone successful in a long-term career. Hard skills and emotional IQ are rarely that balanced, however. Research from more than 200 companies worldwide indicated that soft skills were twice as critical as technical skills in determining top performers; when those indicators were limited to senior leadership roles, emotional IQ became four times as valuable.

Think about it this way: is it easier to teach someone a new coding language or a strong work ethic? Would you prefer to have an employee who had zero experience with your primary OS or an individual who can’t work in a team environment? Is it easier to develop a person who has never worked in a QA role or someone who doesn’t seem to have a sense of personal accountability?

In today’s economy, with record low unemployment for qualified programmers, developers, and IT security managers, it can be tempting to jump on candidates who are technically qualified without giving so much as a glance at something as abstract as leadership.

It helps to think of a hire as an investment: when you take factors such as hiring, onboarding, training, development, loss of momentum due to turnover, and cultural impact into account, the actual dollars and cents cost of losing a highly-skilled employee can be as high as twice their annual salary. Adopting the mindset that you’re hiring for the long-term can result in a fundamental perspective shift.

Goleman interviewed more than 500 executives for his book, and they overwhelmingly reported that emotional IQ was a better predictor of success than either relevant previous experience or raw IQ. These effects aren’t limited to individual engagement, however. LinkedIn surveyed more than 300 hiring managers and more than half stated that the lack of soft skills among candidates was limiting their companies’ productivity.

Even among the lowest-paid, least-skilled workers, soft skills make a critical difference. Shahi Exports, a textiles manufacturer based in India, invested in a 12-month soft skills training program that targeted 1,000 assembly-line employees and measured their subsequent productivity. Within eight months of the program’s conclusion, they recorded a 250 percent return on investment.

Which Soft Skills are Most Important?

To determine what kind of emotional IQ you’re looking for in an employee, it’s helpful to reverse the scenario. Rather than asking yourself, “What kind of skills do I need?” ask, “Which skill sets would cause me to fire someone if they were lacking in that area?”

As Weiner indicated earlier in this article, communication skills tend to be the most common denominator across all jobs, and for good reason. Customer-facing IT personnel need to be able to infer what someone’s needs are from what are often vague descriptions. Programmers must have the capability to communicate problems they encounter and push status updates to team and company leadership in such a way that a project is kept on track without any unnecessary surprises.

Another critical skill is drive or ambition. Technical hiring managers consistently indicate that one of the things they want to see in a top candidate is consistent self-improvement. Even if a particular language, certification, or IDE isn’t directly related to someone’s job at the moment, it shows that an individual wants to improve and keep learning. Since the vast majority of developers (87 percent, according to Stack Overlow’s Developer Survey) are at least partially self-taught, the willingness to continue learning is a crucial cornerstone of an competent tech employee.

How Can You Measure Soft Skills?

Adopting interview questions that focus on emotional IQ is paramount to understanding the makeup of soft skills a job applicant brings to the table. The STAR approach (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to interviewing asks questions that typically begin with “tell me about a time when…” and can be incredibly beneficial. It focuses less on queries that are closed-ended and invite monosyllabic, almost robotic responses (e.g., “Have you ever stolen more than a pen from your employer?” “No.”) in favor of more open-ended invitations to share (e.g., “Tell me about a time when you saw a teammate doing something you knew was wrong—how did you handle that?”).

Some employers utilize work-based personality tests that focus less on “good” and “bad” traits and more on how someone’s individual temperament will determine their default role. One example of this is the DiSC test, which typically gives a candidate a primary and secondary ranking among four traits: Dominant, Inspiring, Supportive, and Cautious. We’ve encountered some companies that go so far as to create a DiSC profile as part of each job description to guide their candidate evaluation and hiring processes.

How Do You Develop Soft Skills?

Your current team isn’t perfect, but that’s no reason to write them off and begin hiring an entirely new bank of employees. Mentorship and consistent development can go a long way toward improving not only specific skill sets, but also fostering a positive work environment focused on constant self-improvement.

It’s essential to keep in mind that while technical skills are taught, soft skills are cultivated. You can’t transform someone by getting them to develop comprehensive, effective communication skills at a week-long conference. However, a mentorship program designed around short training bursts (perhaps 10 minutes long) gives employees the ability to grasp a simple concept and put it into practice throughout the day or week.

Begin by identifying the types of skills you wish your employees had, or at least where they could improve. Dedicate a few minutes at each staff meeting, project review, and individual feedback session to discuss a single, particular trait—then send each employee off with an assignment. For example, “This week, every time you present a problem to a teammate or supervisor, I want you to propose a solution.”

If someone has the capacity to learn new technical skills, your hiring focus for new employees and mentorship emphasis for current team members should be soft skills. You might be surprised at how much of a performance (and profit) improvement you see in a relatively short period.

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