Leadership

The 7 most important communication skills an IT leader should have

Everyone wants to tell IT pros that they need to develop people skills, but no one really tells what those skills are. Here are the most important skills an IT leader should have and how to develop them.

You hear the advice everywhere: IT pros need to learn how to communicate in order to become leaders in their fields. What so many of the sources of that advice fail to do is define the magnitude of what is meant by the word communicate and how one goes about learning how to do it.

I found a book that does a pretty good job in breaking down the different aspects of communication. The book, Leading IT Transformation: The Roadmap for Success, actually refers to communication as "human interaction skills," a term I'm not exactly fond of because it sounds like the person who is doing the learning isn't exactly human to start with. But the points the book makes therein are valid.

Here are the most important communication skills IT leaders and their staff need to have or develop:

Audience profile

The book stresses how important it is to know the history your IT department has with its end-users. They may be enthusiastic about new initiatives or they may be leery because they feel they've been burned in the past. The expectations of your clients color how you will enter into a situation.

Listening

The book makes a great statement on this topic: "Incorrect assumptions are the bane of any listener." I'd go further and say incorrect assumptions are the bane of the speaker too. Do you know how many opportunities there are in the average conversation for meaning to be misconstrued? Seemingly unimportant words can put a sentence's meaning in a totally different light. Let's take the word up. If you had a client who said he wanted a system up in two weeks, would he mean up and tested and ready for prime time? Or would he mean live but with the understanding there would be bugs to be worked out? You have to clarify or else you'll run the chance of having a dissatisfied client.

Empathy

I think if everyone had the innate ability to automatically put themselves into someone else's shoes, the world would be a better place. You don't have to agree with everyone, but you have to be able to understand why they feel like they do. The book says this is the IT pro's Achilles Heel: "Too often, the IT pro's gut instinct is to defend himself or herself, cut off the other person or flat out make them wrong. But being effective isn't about the right answer. IT others can't hear what you have to say because of how you deliver the message, you've lost your ability to influence."

You can demonstrate empathy by simply paraphrasing what the speaker has said or acknowledging the idea before you add your two cents worth.

Diplomacy

Let's face it, sometimes your clients are just out and out wrong. But if you come barging in with that attitude, you're not going to get anywhere. You have to learn how to disagree in a way that makes the person you're talking to not be defensive. And sometimes you have to help that person save face. Say something like, "I completely understand why we gave that impression but..." or "You make good points, but if you look at it this way..."

Avoiding emotional hooks

Now what do you do if the person you're dealing with isn't diplomatic and refuses to validate your side of the issue? Your first reaction is probably going to be to push back with the same obstinacy and that will get you absolutely nowhere fast. Try to step back and not take the other person's words personally.

Educating without arrogance

A common failing of IT pros is the perception that everyone is as technically knowledgeable as they are. This can develop into an arrogance toward those people who don't. You don't see the marketing staff rolling their eyes and sighing loudly because you don't know what an ansoff matrix is. The fact is, everyone has their own area of expertise. The IT leader is a valuable resource to have at the big table because you have knowledge that the others probably don't. But don't hold that against them.

It's not just about playing well with others. It's about developing communications styles that don't alienate the very people you'll need to have in your corner when you want new initiatives to pass. It may be your knee-jerk reaction of yours to lose patience when one of your colleagues just "doesn't get it." But know that it may eventually be a knee-jerk reaction on the part of that same colleague when asked to reject one of your proposals. This brings us to the last communication skill...

Rapport building

From the book: "The bottom line is that people are much more willing to give others the benefit of the doubt if they feel a mutual connection." Understand that the users of the technology you implement and maintain are people. If you go out of your way not to speak to these people or develop some kind of rapport, then you're losing out on a good opportunity. I'm not asking you to take everyone to lunch, but don't be afraid or averse to just shooting the breeze with someone.

Before I got into IT publishing, I worked at two separate companies where I was almost afraid of the IT pros. In both places the IT pros in charge of the service desk seemed to be surrounded by au aura of hostility. They would practically snap my head off if I couldn't adequately explain an issue I was having with my computer.

If you want to succeed as an IT leader you have to shed this tendency. The rapport you build with the other departments in your comp will go a long way toward the goal of success.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

35 comments
Photogenic Memory
Photogenic Memory

If I'm ever thrown into a management position ( I don;t care for them ); I think this is a good recipe to follow. Thanks for posting.

stephen.egan
stephen.egan

My focus is Project Management, inside and outside of IT. Whether I am recruiting experienced Program Managers or coaching new Project Managers, I find these 7 communication skills are key attributes of a successful Project Manager in the same way they apply to an IT leader.

cmaritz
cmaritz

A skill which seems to be more and more 'conspicuous by it's absence'. I'm used to seeing education WITH arrogance, and that's even WITHIN departments, never mind BETWEEN departments. The rapport building can be a real tough job, but so necessary if you want to get anything sane done eventually. You have to foster the non-hostile vibe that everyone's working 'on the same side' at the end of the day. PS: Reminds me of The No A$$hole Rule at http://www.bnet.com/2422-13724_23-166752.html ... love it!

avgoustinosc
avgoustinosc

Very good points at this report. IT managers and CIOs are following these techniques regularly and on a day-to-day basis. However, from my personal experience, the IT leader has to "convice" also the IT staff to follow some of these techniques since it is very important to have an IT team which is "friendly" and helps the users without any problems. Educating with arrogance and Rapport building are some of the techniques which need to be addressed to the IT staff from the IT leader. Avgoustinos Constantinides IT Manager Andreas Neocleous & Co LLC http://www.neocleous.com

mark.silvia
mark.silvia

One important point in communicating with your users is to match your vocabulary and lingo with your audience. For example, if you are communicating with non-technical people, terms such as DNS, DHCP, polymorphism, RAM, switch-case, boolean logic, phishing and VoIP will be gibberish or a foreign language to them. I learned this the hard way one time when I was teaching a sales team on filtering their contact in Goldmine, a CRM product. I should never have used terms such a boolean logic and associated terms. I got nothing but blank stares. So I tried again using terms that make sense to them and used visual aids and the concept of kitchen strainers to demonstrate how using AND and OR operators affect the outcome and had to reiterate order-of-operation when using parenthesis "()" as a teacher would in a beginning algebra course. Another important point of vocabulary usage is only use slang and jargon when appropriate. For example, you should not tell Mother Theresa that you will "pimp her ride" when you actually mean you will be fixing or enhancing her car.

rtillotson
rtillotson

1. Listen for the fact, but don't ignore the emotions. Emotions -- controlled and uncontrolled -- drive the conversation. 2. Begin verbal communication with a courteous greeting, give the feeling of approachability and total devotion to the talker, follow with business and issue resolution, and be sure to end with a personal closing statement. For example, based on the contents of the communication, say "I'm glad we discussed this and I hope you get your car problems resolved (if that was the personal issue -- people like to vent to a good listener). 3. Never say "YOU better, YOU must, or stay away from using YOU statements. Never say "I'll try." That's always interepreted to mean "I promise." 4. Remember, customers are not always right, but they are always "the customer."

JSPJP
JSPJP

Very well said, at the end of the day, the man who follow or maintain the skills continue to be accepted by the organization he works for. In short it is to say that, an IT person should be a meek person instead of a Geek. IT persons are turning out to be secretaries of those User Clients, with all the communication skills in place all User requirements are done without any question, diplomatically, the User does not know what he wants. Time after time changing the requirement, in the end when nothing works blame it on IT. User clients are always right as the saying goes. We must also see that User Clients should also posess those Communication skills.

LarryMartel
LarryMartel

While I fully agree with these points I'd have to ask what about the reverse perspective? Why are IT folks are viewed as arrogant or hostile? Well in this day & age of "do more with less" we are constantly under the gun. Every user problem is the end-of-the-world that needs to be fixed yesterday. While we probably should be more conscientious, the stress often overtakes what we should do. We just don't always have time to be "nice" and "understanding". It also might help if our help desks were filled with compitent people instead of outsourced to someone reading a script (and mangling the language at that).

reisen55
reisen55

I always remember that my clients have another job at hand; THEIR JOB and it my responsibility, and by the way, delight to work with them (not for them) in computer support. Technicians often complain about users not being educated, but people (not users) have their own world, tasks, and daily chores that WE know little about as well. So when I communicate with my clients, I do so as I was and am part of their staff (which is true) and often have to engage in social conversation. I bring food when warranted and explain details without using the CURSE OF OUR TRADE: ACRONYMS. Treat your customers as people instead of users and relationships become much better. Remember the old IBM rules of a bygone era: Respect for the individual. Go the extra mile to do a thing right. Spend alot of time making the client happy. Good rules, long forgotten by the IBM of today.

pboylan
pboylan

Great article / interesting book . . . these skills are so important to REALLY being successful. I also think some folks might be interested in PeoplePM (www.peoplepm.com)

jhartzell
jhartzell

These are all great points to keep in mind and need to be included within the header of all task lists assigned to IT support staff. From experience in working through a lengthy list of tasks that carries a defined completion deadline, that the first thing thrown away is civility in the work place. As IT pros we are somewhat humbled to have to call for vendor tech support to replace failed hardware. In this scenario the table is turned as we become the end user that often tries to explain technical issues to someone that may not exactly understand the same language. This is often true when we are attempting to listen to an end user that does not converse in our universal language of "Geek Speak". Great article, Thank you!

zywint
zywint

Nice article !!!!!!!!

drowningnotwaving
drowningnotwaving

* The ability to tell the truth. If it ain't going to happen at all, or in a time-frame requested, SAY that upfront. Saying "you'll do your best" when you KNOW it ain't going to happen isn't actually doing anyone any good. Obviously if this can be done in conjucntion with empathy and diplomacy, that's good too !! * The ability to say "No". Clearly and concisely. "F... off" may be invoked when necessary.

DadsPad
DadsPad

Patience. All the others are important too, but you will need a lot of Patience.

bdk712
bdk712

As a "greenhorn" in the IT Field, but with experience and this being a second career, I wholeheartedly agree with this article. In the couple of years I have been in IT, having these skills developed from my first career has paid dividends. My networking and personal respect gained from co-workers and end-users shows that this issues are real and needed by the new generation of IT Personnel.

prosenjit11
prosenjit11

Frantically, these are some of the very important points,& when it comes to Empathy and Diplomacy, well!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! these are very important. Yeh, everyone is with knowledge and we are here to work on it and gather the experience to work with it day by day. Sometimes, education leads to arrogance and this is with everyone, people who are from the best institutions in the world and the Elite Mass and have flourished, but everyone is Human and sometimes there are times when common sense fails leading to Blunders. Same aspect is on the Patience factor when it comes to a Power struggle where knowledge with arrogance backfires and this is always internal in an organisation between departments, colleagues and so on. Who knows a colleague who has been your Room Mate for a month speaks Nonsense about you to your Boss and you are not aware of it. Come to Know Of it when it is too late and the Patience Factor has lost control with drastic decisions taken to come out of the situation.

svasani
svasani

I can definitely relate to your pt #3. Can't remember how many times I have been dragged into an issue and held solely responsible for delivering the solution. I wish there was a better way of saying "Look, I am not sure if it is possible to generate such a report. Let me see what can be done but I don't promise to provide it. So, please don't come to me in 1 hour asking if the report is ready."

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

Why can't a person be both meek and geek?

Young_Jedi
Young_Jedi

I find trying to use "I" instead of "you" is very effective. In the second example, sentence could be changed to, "I see your point, but if looked at this way?? No reference at all to other person.

svasani
svasani

Apparently, nobody likes to hear a NO from IT. They have a perception that everything is possible and infact super-easy.

santeewelding
santeewelding

You said all that without a word about IT. This means, then, that yours is a General Solution to all human enterprise? Same question to Toni. And, I remember you.

chris
chris

You need to be patient, not have patience. The difference is that you put the onus on yourself to think and act properly. If you are going to have patience, you are assuming your customer is going to require you to.

yossi
yossi

Great article Just to add my two cents? Whenever I meet a new user after a few minutes of introduction I make a point of communicating to them my two rules, this gets their attention and as they are tentative to what I am about to say I lay the RULES down (I try to make it dramatic) 1. Always blame the programmer. ( that?s me) 2. My job is to spoil the user. (that?s you) The smile that I get from the user and the relief that I sense from them breaks the ice every time.

Blutonium Boy
Blutonium Boy

What's with all the misscapitilized words? I get the fact that English is not your native language, however, I think it's important to proof read and edit your statements prior to posting them. I'm also taking into consideration that you are a programmer and it comes natural to type in the manor of, myNameSpace, but please, for the love of god, correct this because it's hard on my eyes :) Take care,

zdnet
zdnet

When you choose the word "but" in a sentence when being diplomatic, everything before the "but" is negated. Especially in hostile situations, it is much better to think about how to rephrase "I see your point, but if you looked at it this way ..." to something like "I understand that you have problem x, and I think y might help us get there"

drowningnotwaving
drowningnotwaving

We'll think about it. We'll put it on the agenda. I'll see if we can resource it. And 2,000 variants. In my experience, the User interprets all of these as YES. Not maybe, not iffy, not depends, but yes. Because people hear what they want to hear, I guess. I agree with you, it isn't always easy.

drowningnotwaving
drowningnotwaving

... but since you ask, and since the topic was communications in a corporate world, I'd say yes. More simply just my suggestions than a General Solution to all Human Enterprise, but the latter makes for a better t-shirt, I guess.

chilipepperwoman
chilipepperwoman

I am willing to bet that he speaks and writes English much better than you speak or write Hindi or Bengali (or any other language for that matter). In addition, you have numerous typographic and punctuation errors in your post. How about we all ease up and focus on the message and not nitpick this stuff?

santeewelding
santeewelding

...would have done for, "manor". Unless you are far more elevated than I think you are, reaching down to touch the rest of us with a dirty hand.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

Seems to me you spoke to common courtesy (as my mother would have said). General signals of respect for the other as human being. Goes a long way towards providing a General Solution to all Human Enterprise. Two cents.