IT’s role in an organization has changed over the last 5 or 10 years, but has HR kept up? Today I am joined by Casey Foss, CMO at West Monroe Partners about the role that soft skills have to play when it comes to IT.
The interview is based on a recent study conducted by West Monroe Partners concerning IT and soft skills. You can view the report here.
Daily Advisor: Clearly (based on your study), HR leaders think that soft skills are important for getting a technology position. So why is leadership such a low priority for hiring managers when it comes to IT hires?
Foss: It’s likely that many HR professionals could have an outdated view of IT’s role in their organization, which could cause them to put leadership at a lower priority for IT candidates. The truth is that IT’s role in an organization has completely transformed from what it was 10 or even 5 years ago; IT is no longer simply a help desk for employees to ask about computer issues. These individuals are conceptualizing and delivering digital transformation strategies that help drive the entire business forward, and all industries turn to technological innovations to keep up with the competition. Our study revealed that HR professionals must update their perspective of IT’s role in order to break down barriers between technology departments and business leaders.
Daily Advisor: According to your report, very few companies provide soft skills training to their technology workers. What do you think is the reason behind the gap between the perceived importance of and then lack of training in soft skills for technology workers?
Foss: For many organizations whose IT and technology employees are largely internal-facing, the ROI of providing soft skills training for these individuals might not be quite as obvious as it is for employees in other departments. For example, because sales is a client-facing department that traditionally relies on soft skills and relationship management to generate revenue, enterprise leaders understand that investing in salespeople’s soft skills training will directly lead to increased revenue. But when it comes to training for technology professionals, this correlation is often less clear. In reality, soft skills training is critical across all departments. Because our study found that leadership, written communication, and conflict management are IT’s top shortcomings (as ranked by their coworkers), enterprises should focus on these areas first.
Daily Advisor: You mention that a lack of soft skills leads to all kinds of trouble. Do you have an example, or could you elaborate?
Foss: Our study found that technologists’ lack of soft skills causes complications across departments. Seventy-one percent of employees said that they have had to delay or prolong projects due to issues when working with their company’s technology team, and 33% have even missed deadlines due to this lack of communication. It’s clear that quality of work is actually suffering because of organizational silos between line-of-business employees and IT.
More broadly, if technologists lack leadership soft skills, their coworkers might not consider them to be a driving force in the organization. Therefore, their superiors may neglect to give them a seat at the table when it comes to making important company-wide decisions. Considering that technology is becoming a critical part of business strategy across industries, this could hinder an organization from meeting its potential when it comes to applying technology to streamline processes, expand its core offerings, and better reach customers.
Daily Advisor: Your survey shows that only 39% of companies even have a technology background in their C-suite. What is being prioritized instead?
Foss: For many enterprises, the C-suite is limited to traditional roles such as chief executive officer (CEO), chief operations officer (COO), and chief financial officer (CFO). While roles such as chief information officer (CIO), chief technology officer (CTO), and chief security officer (CSO) have become increasingly important and popular over the last decade, our study revealed that some organizations (likely those with more traditional mind-sets) are still neglecting to represent technology in the C-suite and likely restrict it solely to the IT or technology department, which could be holding back the entire organization. However, the environment in which we do business is changing–we are being forced to adapt our pace and progressiveness in responding to the new digital economy that comes with increased expectations of technologists. Therefore, an organization’s C-suite should reflect that.
Daily Advisor: How can employers address this issue from a hiring standpoint? What about from a training standpoint?
Foss: To address this, HR professionals and other company leaders should reevaluate their current hiring processes. The first step here could be as simple as including leadership-focused hypotheticals in technologists’ behavioral interviews and looking for leadership experience on these individuals’ resumes. Hiring managers should consider interviews that evaluate a technologist’s ability to communicate in ways that achieve business outcomes. For example, case interviews create an opportunity for the hiring manager to tee up a challenge people may face as part of their job and give candidates an opportunity to role-play their response. How adept are they at communicating? Can they think on their feet and identify solutions? Then, follow up with a writing sample to test their ability to provide solutions in the written form.
HR professionals can incorporate continuous soft skills training into performance reviews on a company-wide scale. Additionally, organizations can include soft skill criteria and benchmarks into career models for technology professionals. Expectations like efficient cross-team communication and positive conflict management should be directly stated in these career models, along with their other day-to-day tasks, so employees know what is expected of them.
Daily Advisor: Are educational institutions failing their IT students by not exposing them to leadership and communication training?
Foss: The issue might not be whether educational institutions are failing IT students but the way prospective IT professionals view career requirements in their industry in general. For those in technical industries, hard skills like knowledge of specific software programs are (and always will be) key. But as technology becomes more ingrained across organizations and in the C-suite, IT students must realize that the expectations of their future roles are changing; so, they should seek adequate leadership and communication experiences to fulfill this, whether that be through courses or extracurricular opportunities.
Daily Advisor: What is something that most hiring managers don’t know about technology hires or something you wished that every hiring manager knew about technology hires?
Foss: As our study stated, hiring managers need to remember the importance of general soft skills when evaluating prospective technology hires. While many are already doing this (as our study found that a whopping 98% of HR professionals look for soft skills when evaluating tech candidates), this is especially important to keep in mind at recruiting events. IT recruiting, like other areas of recruiting, can be siloed—–for instance, through campus recruiting programs limited to technology majors or a recruiting happy hour with a technology association. Everyone is a technologist at these events, which limits a recruiter’s ability to see how they interact with key business partners. Instead of focusing your IT recruiting in siloed zones, encourage recruiting tactics that get technologists and businesspeople in the same room. Then, observe. Can they speak each other’s languages? Do they carry themselves with confidence or, better yet, authority or perspective? Are they inquisitive? All of these are ways that we evaluate businesspeople but sometimes deprioritize when hiring deep technical folks.
Daily Advisor: Is the difficulty with soft skills and technology workers growing?
Foss: While we don’t have evidence that the soft skills gap is growing, we do know that it is becoming increasingly difficult for organizations to acquire enough skilled tech talent, which could limit their choices. Our study found that 61% of recruiters said technology roles are more difficult to hire than other positions. We know first and foremost that there’s not enough talent—–the difficulty to hire for these roles stems from the limited supply of technologists who have the deep technical capabilities required to operate efficiently and drive value into their organizations. Couple that with the need for soft skills—–such as communication, leadership, and collaboration—–and it becomes even harder. This aligns not only with what we hear from our clients but also survey participants, who are challenged with the growing need for technology talent that drives toward business outcomes. And this balance doesn’t come easy: Organizations need to be sure they have the hard skills to deliver but the soft skills to drive impact and efficiency.
Casey Foss is the CMO at West Monroe Partners.