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Sharpening up your soft skills

Soft skills training is the latest addition to the list of things that can save an organization money and make its employees more desireable.

In the fast moving IT world, most IT professionals recognize the importance of keeping technical skills up to date. If you don't stay abreast of latest developments, you probably won't succeed in IT. Companies obviously don't want to hire workers with outdated skills, so IT pros put a lot of time and effort into keeping their programming and other relevant skills current.

However, if you want to rise in the ranks, you have to do more than just know how to write a mean C++ program or configure a spiffy network. You also have to be able to work well with people and know how to lead a team. These so-called "soft" skills are just as important as the factual knowledge you've been studying in all those certification programs.

IT professionals who recognize the importance of soft skills will be miles ahead of their peers, according to business advisor/author Patti Hathaway of The Change Agent in Columbus, Ohio. "In management, it is all about the people skills," she says.



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For some people, leadership skills come naturally. Others need practice. Either way, your career can only benefit if you take the time to learn how to network and interface with people. This holds true whether you're the CIO of a major corporation or the manager of tech support in an office of 15.

"Leadership has to exist in all parts of an IT organization, not just the top job," says Bart Bolton, Facilitator for the Northeast Regional Leadership Forum (RLF) program, an intensive series of IT leadership seminars offered by the Society for Information Management (SIM).

Andrea Nierenberg agrees. Nierenberg is the founder and principal of The Nierenberg Group in New York City, and she is author of the book, Nonstop Networking: How to Improve Your Life, Luck and Career.

"Everybody in the company touches the customer in a way," she says. "No matter what your job is, you interact with other people, collectively and cohesively."

Do you need soft skills training?

Sometimes, you may not even be aware that your people skills could use some improvement until you take an active, uncritical look at them and put some new techniques into practice, as Molly Mahoney discovered.

"You always think you're a good listener until you study listening and practice what you study," she says. Mahoney is a senior manager for Attorneys' Title Insurance Fund, Inc., in Orlando, Fla. She is currently attending the RLF program to boost her skills after a recent promotion.

Hathaway is a strong believer in the importance of training for the entire organization. In many cases, managers may not realize that they themselves have room for improvement, and full participation can drive home the point for all members of an organization's staff. She requires that all top management attend her programs, even if they're designed for employees.

Ways to improve soft skills

Clearly, improving your soft skills can only benefit your career and help your organization. So what are some effective ways that you can practice your people skills and increase your overall competency in this area?

One obvious way is to bring in a consultant with a proven track record. Experienced trainers such as Nierenberg, Hathaway and Mindy Gewirtz, Ph.D, of Brookline, Mass.-based GLS Consulting can do wonders for companies' awareness and practice of efficient people skills. In most cases, they can go in and create programs that are tailored to an individual company's needs.

"If we're able to go into an organization and assess what everyone needs, that creates a bridge and we're much more able to help," Gewirtz says.

If you're an individual IT professional who wants to improve your interpersonal skills, you can pitch the idea of a full-scale training program to your upper management, or you can attend a seminar series outside the company, such as RLF. You can also consider hiring a personal coach. Gewirtz has worked individually with newly promoted IT managers looking to hone their leadership skills. While natural leadership skills are good, few can claim they have nothing to gain from some extra coaching.

ROI of soft skills training

Not convinced it's worth the money to spend on an expensive consultant or training seminar?

True, it may take some time to see return on investment. However, in almost all cases, soft skills' training is well worth the time and money in the long run. As Nierenberg points out, the results may not be immediate but improving interaction and people skills leads to better assignments down the road.

Just like you won't be able to show off your technical expertise if you can't pass the initial job interview, bad interpersonal skills will hamper your ability to climb the corporate ladder.

"Your most important element is your human capital," she says. "Unless you have the soft skills, you can't get to the hard skills."

Krissi Danielsson is a freelance writer and former TechTarget editor. You can reach her at kdd at danielssonarts dot com. 

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