In the professional workforce in general, and particularly in the fields of IT and technology services, you hear a great deal about the importance of developing “soft skills” as a means of increasing one’s organizational value and accelerating career advancement.

What exactly are “soft skills”?  Many a definition exists but I think the simplest and most effective examples are the ability to listen effectively and comprehensively, hold meaningful dialogues and have difficult conversations when required. Historically, these skills may not have been not broadly taught by employers, but there is growing evidence that this is changing. This is a good thing because we all learn at a different pace and in different ways.

Back when this type of training was less pervasive, I became an IT leader at a fairly young age thanks largely to my strong technical skills and experience.  However, despite these advantages, the honest truth is that I lacked those “softer” skills required to be a successful business leader within an organization.

The biggest surprise for me was that building strong relationships with stakeholders within and outside of my organization was a key factor to success.  At that point, I naively assumed that my technical knowledge and ability to solve complex technical problems were the only requirements for achieving success in IT. Looking back now, that was extremely presumptuous. Working within the constraints of that “self-imposed bubble” created more inefficiencies and turbulence than I would have ever thought.

To identify why some IT initiatives and projects were more successful than others, I took a deep dive into the intricacies of all of our engagements.  I quickly identified a common theme among my IT teams’ most successful projects; they all had a strong and trustworthy relationship between IT and business unit(s) stakeholders.

Deeper analysis revealed that these initiatives were profoundly more effective in success criteria like user satisfaction, on time and on budget projects, defect counts, change orders amounts, higher levels of user adoption, and more.   This convinced me that it was time to migrate from a model of success driven by chance to a model of success driven by design. This required I take a step back and begin sharpening the softer skills needed to ensure that we could duplicate these high probabilities of success across all IT initiatives.  And the first step was to build those strong relationships across the entire business.

There are decades worth of research that proves trustworthiness is the foundation of the strongest relationships.  To gain trust, the people around us must view us as competent and emotionally warm. This validated for me that competence, the ability that was prevalent for me and my team, was only half the battle.  Being technically skilled showed that we could meet technology goals, but the ability to collaborate to build common goals and purpose across the organization was lacking.

My suggestion to new IT leaders is to work hard to sharpen your leadership and soft skills to build strong, long-term, trusted relationships. In starting this journey, I recommend that IT professionals strengthen their skills in emotional intelligence and build a personal brand as a trusted advisor to the business.

Emotional Intelligence allows individuals to be deeply in tune with their emotions, colleagues’ emotions, the environment, and to best manage those relationships. Developing a brand as a trusted advisor allows IT leaders to become a more strategic voice to the business, in turn building trust across the organization.

By nurturing strong relationships across the organization, focusing on emotional intelligence, and becoming a trusted advisor, IT leaders and their teams can become more successful strategic influencers and contributors to the business.