Everything seems to be going well at work, you're earning good money, and you know your job like the back of your hand. So why should you worry about developing your interpersonal skills, such as teamworking, leadership and communication?
If you believe the world is standing still while you go through the rigmarole of your nine-to-five, it's easy to think that it's not worth the bother. But IT is changing so quickly that only those who adapt and take advantage of the changes impacting the role of IT professionals will survive. IT bosses want to employ individuals who are comfortable working in teams: they recognise that pulling together and pooling ideas gives them a competitive edge.
Take Ben Knox, managing director of ISP Direct Connection. As the head of a growing company, he's constantly on the lookout for skilled people. In fact, the issue is at the top of his list of priorities, and yet he's hit a brick wall. Knox's main problem isn't lack of talent - it's easy enough to train staff in technical skills - but in finding people who know how to play in teams. This is the biggest business issue, he says.
Your drive and ambition will certainly help you move up the career ladder, but if you want to shine, it's your relationships with your colleagues that will really make the difference. The best way to get what you want from others, in the light of today's flat organisational structures, is through your ability to influence them; by treating them as colleagues rather than subordinates, and by recognising their point of view and individuality.
"What derails top executives is their arrogance, volatility and insensitivity," says Alison Bourne, consultant manager at training consultants Development Dimensions International (DDI). "If you want to develop your career, the higher up the organisation you go, the more you need those interpersonal skills."
Bourne's company has spent many years researching the personal attributes that produce an outstanding performance in knowledge-based industries such as IT. As a result of that research, DDI has developed an expert model of what distinguishes the star performers from Joe Bloggs or Mr Average, which highlights the characteristics that come up time and time again in the personal profiles of successful individuals.
"Technical skills figure at the centre of that model," says Bourne. "You have to have good technical skills and a good cognitive ability. But that doesn't distinguish the star performers from the average. What distinguishes them is their interpersonal skills, their ability to demonstrate initiative, teamwork and how far they influence their peers, or their boss."
So you know where you need to be, but the question is, how do you get there? The DDI expert model is a fascinating intellectual exercise, you may say, but morphing into a technical whizzkid with highly-tuned interpersonal skills demands that you take new lessons on board - including emotional ones. Commitment to change, particularly of the personal variety, doesn't come easily, especially when times are good. If you have invested in technical skills and you are happiest when putting those technical skills to the test, interpersonal skills are probably pretty low on your list of priorities.
"IT specialists are bound to say they don't need interpersonal skills because that's not where their talents lie", Bourne says. "It's probably the area in which they feel most uncomfortable. It's difficult to be good at everything."
Under those circumstances, the only motivation for developing new, interpersonal skills is only likely to be driven out of a crisis, such as the threat of losing your job, or an opportunity, like the promise of promotion.
The Talent Foundation is an organisation, whose sponsors include Andersen Consulting, BT, and Investors in People, was set up in March to encourage the development of latent talent in companies with a particular focus on human skills.
"It's like decorating - what sticks on the wall depends on preparation," explains chief executive Javier Bajer. If you're serious about improving your career prospects, your preparation should focus less on rubbing down the grey matter as brushing up on the self-esteem and confidence. Work on these, he says, and you will reveal the natural appetite for learning.
Developing 'emotional intelligence'
Don't be fobbed off by those who say that interpersonal skills are something you either have or don't. The combination of confidence, motivation and self-esteem - the prerequisites for successful learning, and the key to what some people are calling 'emotional intelligence' - is something you can develop. It's precisely this part of The Talent Foundation's crusade that faces the biggest challenge, Bajer admits.
"Traditionally, people thought that either you had confidence, self-esteem and motivation because you were born like that, or had the right upbringing, or you didn't have them - more like a condition of being human," says Bajer. The Talent Foundation has evidence - "very strong evidence" - Bajer says, that these are in fact skills and can be developed like any other.
"Developing self-esteem is as practical and tangible as developing an IT skill," Bajer claims. "Take an IT programmer. When they fail or when something crashes, it's their self-esteem and confidence that's going to help them look for an answer. Otherwise they either give up and say, 'I can't do this', or cheat and hide their problem under the carpet."
Self confidence and willingness to learn comes from trusting your own skills and judgement. It's about the importance of having a good relationship with yourself, as a foundation for developing relationships with others.
The more you discover a core of trust and confidence in yourself, the more effective your interaction with others will be, and the more likely that the motivation to learn will come from within.
The emotional intelligence graduateName:
Company: Breakthrough Technology
Position: Founder and managing director
Interpersonal skills training: Landmark Education Business Development
Vip Vyas' eye-opening introduction to the potential of interpersonal skills came about almost by chance. "My boss invited everybody to a Landmark Forum evening session," he says. "I went along and it opened my eyes up. I was impressed by what people were saying. They seemed to be pretty authentic and were grappling with real life stuff."
The Landmark Forum is designed to challenge conventional thinking about how people can move forward with their careers, and stresses the importance of effective communication and teamworking. The course was a decisive point in Vyas's life.
"I established a new relationship with myself," he says. "You get to see what's in the background, what's really running your life. That leaves you with a choice of designing your life the way you want it."
Vyas met a delegate on the course who worked for Hewlett Packard (HP) and wanted to set up his own company. They joined forces and set up a new business, focused on wide area networking technology, with HP as their first customer. Vyas also decided to do an MBA to broaden his skills.
"The course opened me up to looking at things in different ways," Vyas explains. "The coaching helps you see your blind spots. Mine were around focusing on being technically great, rather than on what really makes a difference to an organisation."
The skills he values today are more people-oriented than before. "If I look at it in terms of running the business, it's things such as the ability to get on with other people, developing a rapport, dealing with difficult situations and ambiguity that make the greatest difference - all those things you're not taught in traditional education."
People skills are key
The importance of people skills has played a major role in defining his own company's business model. "We saw a market for integrating technology with people, rather than doing the technology bit and then landing the people with it. It's not enough to have the technical know-how. You need to be able to communicate what you're doing in an effective way."
This integrated approach is central to their work with clients on management consultancy and training projects. In one technical workshop that Vyas ran, a delegate presented a challenge.
"We began by asking people to introduce themselves," explains Vyas. "This guy was from first-level technical support in a large car leasing company. He said: 'My name's Tony, I've no ******* idea why I'm on this course. My boss sent me. He's a ******. I'm supposed to be doing communication skills. I don't see anything wrong with my communication skills, do you?' - that's how he introduced himself, literally.
"As leader of this programme, it would have been easy for me to be phased by it all. But I found I could take it in my stride and not feel as if I had to fix him. Over the two-day period of the course, he started to see the way he came across to other people." It's partly as a result of his new self-awareness, that Tony was promoted within his company to manage a team of five people.
"I felt like I'd made a difference", Vyas says. "You see how you connect with other people and you become much more aware of the impact you have in your community. For me, that is very exciting."
- Being technically proficient is fine, but technical skills allied to interpersonal skills will benefit you and your organisation more
- Use training to help you understand your blind spots, what interferes with your interactions with other people
- Try to gauge how other people perceive you to learn how you can influence them more effectively.
The hothouse hybrid personal solution
Company: Orbian - business-to-business finance and payment specialist
Position: Head of business analysts
Interpersonal skills training: Meeting management, presentation skills, working in teams
After spending six years with German enterprise resource planning giant SAP, and now head of the business analysts team at business-to-business finance and payment specialists Orbian, 33-year-old Alison Rich believes she's in a strong position to know what makes or breaks a successful technical project.
"Most work issues are people-related," she points out. "If you have someone who is very technically able, but can't communicate with anybody, you'll probably find that they won't last very long in an organisation, before they're shunted off into a back room."
It's her job to liaise with the developers and the technical specialists within Orbian, a startup which launched in June of this year. "You don't have to be part of a team, but if you are a team-worker you need to be able to communicate, and to work together."
Since starting out as an IT graduate trainee in a chemical company back in 1990, the importance of good interpersonal skills has been drummed home through numerous training courses. "A lot of my training as a graduate trainee focused on interpersonal skills and ways of working to help make the transition from the academic to the working world," says Rich. "I've had all the meeting management, presentation skills, report writing, team management, problem solving training - all those sort of things." A stint with Big Five management consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, also exposed her to training in consultancy skills, all of which have helped her move up the career ladder.
More recently, however, her interpersonal skills have been put to the test in the development hothouse of her current startup venture. "We sometimes have conflict," Rich admits. "Everybody brings in a different culture and has their own way of working, particularly at the start of a new business."
Rich and her team spend a lot of time sitting at their PCs working on development projects, using the Visio business process package and the UML methodology for documenting functional specifications, as well as Microsoft Office productivity tools. "When something needs doing, we all just get on with it," says Rich. "We learned that if we just wrote functional specs and lobbed them over the wall to the technical guys - because of the time pressure - they came straight back to us. It was obvious they didn't understand the business proposition." The plan now is to work more closely together.
"Although we're writing the functional spec, they'll be on the team, too," explains Rich. "They'll be co-authors, which will ensure they fully understand what is required for the business, and can design the system accordingly. It's really about working as a team, breaking down those walls." Extra training sessions where everyone at Orbian had a chance to air views helped find this solution.
"Some guys in the development team are mathematical experts and mathematical purists. You'll be trying to work out an algorithm, and they revise it and revise it and revise it. You have to hit a delivery date, and it gets to a point where you think 'never mind if it's mathematically pure or not, we just need to come up with a deliverable'."
Some rapid on-the-job learning sorted this problem. "We all had a session with a team trainer," explains Rich. "It was a chance for us all to stop and stand back, see the wood from the trees, discuss what we do now and what we can do to improve. It was useful to see what people perceive as the difficulties or the stumbling blocks in the company - they're often surprisingly similar to your own views."
But she thinks there has to be something to build on. "With all these things, you can train somebody, but if they haven't got these skills, they're not going to use them in the workplace. A lot of it comes from experience and learning from your mistakes - learning to understand yourself and trust yourself - learning what works and what doesn't."
- Recognise the need to bring technical people out of their ivory tower, into the mainstream of the business, by involving them at very stage
- Appreciate the value of someone who can fulfil the role of liaising between technical specialists and business managers
- Address communication issues openly. A session where everyone gets the chance to air their views can come up with surprising solutions.
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