By Lila Ibrahim
I’ve been working in the tech industry for 25 years, and I’ve noticed a trend recently that leaves me scratching my head: We seem to value technical skills much more than the core people skills that actually make people effective at work.
While technical competence and expertise are certainly important, I like working with people who know how to communicate their ideas, use their influence to move important projects through potential roadblocks, and who get me excited about our work together.
We call people skills “soft” skills, but I think it’s time to reframe that conversation, to make sure we’re giving these foundational skills the emphasis they deserve. Let’s commit to calling them what they are — power skills. Here’s why they’re so important, and what you can do to promote power skills at your organization.
Power Skills Separate Leaders from the Pack
If you’ve worked with technical teams, you’ve probably know this scene all too well: Most people sit in front of their computers all day, dutifully working on the problems they’re tasked with solving.
But there are always a few who take a different approach: they get up and walk around, talk to the people whose business challenges they’re working on, and find out who has the different pieces of information they need. They say ‘yes’ a lot. They take on work that falls outside of their core responsibilities. They learn how to talk in front of groups of people. They follow their natural curiosity. They deliver on their work, while building something bigger than the original task.
Getting up from their desks and developing new relationship muscles leads these people on a unique path and pushes them into management positions sooner than their peers.
Being an expert in one technical area is great, but it leaves you with a limited scope of influence. On the other hand, if you’re an expert who can apply your knowledge to different industries and problems, and coach others on what you’ve learned, you increase your influence, your network, and the opportunities that come your way.
Power Skills Create Business Opportunities
But power skills aren’t just about individual success. Developing power skills in employees can create tangible business results.
Imagine you work with a razor-sharp engineer — let’s call him Fred — whose expertise is online security. But unlike many technical experts, he has very well-developed people skills. He speaks and writes about pressing security problems, and he quickly rises to prominence as a respected thought leader in the industry. Because of his growing network and prestige, he is able to get the company’s technology into new industries, creating business growth.
Now imagine if you had hundreds of Freds. Investing in your experts’ power skills could alter the course of your business. When you’re looking for business results, power skills aren’t nice to have. They’re everything.
Power Skills Bring People Together
Investing in power skills can also turn team dynamics around. I was working overseas several years ago, and I inherited a team that was facing serious challenges.
While tactically talented, the team of engineers didn’t know how to provide context or communicate what was important. They weren’t solving problems from a business perspective, and they weren’t focused on customer needs. We were told we had one year to improve or our project would be shut down.
The problem: No one had ever invested in these engineers’ power skills. So, we doubled down on their development: we started bringing them on customer visits to help them develop empathy for customers. We put them in charge of meetings with salespeople. We coached them on written communication and reviewed important emails before they sent them. They learned to zero in on the problems that most needed to be solved, and directed their energy to that meaningful work. Instead of just engineers behind the scenes, they became leaders.
Before the year was up, the team was on a completely different path. We started showing business results and we built an example that others throughout the company could follow.
When you’re working with stakeholders all around the world, core communication skills are vital. As the global economy has shifted, we’re not talking to colleagues across a conference room table. We’re emailing and video conferencing across sites, time zones, and national borders. There’s an even greater need to find a way to connect, influence, and align with a much broader audience.
I’m still working on my own skills as a leader, listener, and communicator. I try to remember this leadership gem from the late coach Bill Campbell: “Your title makes you a manager, but your people make you a leader.” To be a leader, you can’t just execute on your tactical priorities. You have to listen, inspire, and engage the people around you.
So let’s reframe the conversation about “soft” skills. Instead, let’s talk about how we’re all supercharging our power skills.15