IT and network security education has always emphasized the technical and academic. But in a world increasingly defined by change, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 found soft skills are suddenly in high demand. Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education says employers want a host of new abilities in their IT leaders, like creativity, critical thinking and emotional intelligence.
“The skills an IT leader needed in the past are different from what’s needed to manage an organization running in the Cloud,” Clyde Seepersad, Senior Vice President and General Manager for Training and Certification at the Linux Foundation, told me. “Things move faster today than they did a few years ago. People who have high flexibility, adaptability and resilience will be best positioned to help their organizations succeed.”
Let’s look at the 9 new skills insiders believe are critical for IT success in today’s world and how to develop them.
1. Adaptability: Broadening your skillset
IT and computer security move so fast that global management consultancy McKinsey says the business world recently leaped forward technologically by 10 years in just 90 days in response to COVID-19 challenges. Technology leaders’ adaptability, or in other words, the capacity to get familiar with and adjust to new scenarios and technologies, will only become more important.
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A recent Deloitte survey of 2860 executives at leading organizations found having digital transformation as a central pillar of its business strategy is key to enterprise success. Executives must regularly and routinely transform their skills, and even their way of thinking, to match that mission-critical shift. “Tomorrow’s leaders will need to apply more business acumen across a wider variety of disciplines,” Bhushan Sethi, Joint Global Lead for People and Organization at consulting firm PwC told me. He names the ability to analyze new business models, design more compelling experiences and read and visualize data more effectively when making decisions as just some of those disciplines.
2. Agility: Switching strategies, embracing change
Senior executives at technology leader Oracle say, “Businesses that fall behind trends can quickly lose market position and competitive advantage.” This means IT leaders must become more willing to take action, switch strategies and get their workforce embracing regular and pronounced change.
University of Chicago Booth School of Business reports customer trends and habits are shifting faster. So, technology executives must find ways to become more agile as individuals and support their organizations to increase agility. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation tools are now critical to staying ahead.
3. Collaboration: Learning from others
Linux Foundation’s Seepersad points to the need to master communications, teamwork and people skills. “The stereotype of the programmer in a basement has never been accurate, but even less so now,” he says. “There are tasks that should be handled by one person alone, but generally, it’s helpful to collaborate with others, if only to get outside perspectives on what you’re building.”
4. Courage: Speaking up and acting
In my book Make Change Work for You: 10 Ways to Future-Proof Yourself, Fearlessly Innovate and Succeed Despite Uncertainty, I define professional courage as the willingness to speak up, act and take smart chances. Courage has become more important because, as PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel once famously told Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, “In a world changing so quickly, the biggest risk you can take is not taking any risk.”
Getting ahead in a rapidly evolving environment means learning through small, smart, cost-effective experimentation and making quick, pronounced pivots to respond to market feedback along the way.
It also helps to get in the habit of having strong but weakly-held opinions. Do your homework and make firm decisions, but be able to change tack as new (even contradictory) business intelligence comes along.
5. Emotional intelligence: Empathy, listening and understanding
Defined as the ability to empathize, see others’ points of view and be more self-aware, emotional intelligence lets us successfully interact with and influence others. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin studied top performers in their organization and found science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills weren’t the skills most needed for success. Rather, the top performers could stay ahead because of empathy for colleagues and appreciating coworkers’ values and points of view.
We can cultivate emotional intelligence by working on our active listening, empathy and situational awareness. PwC’s Sethi thinks emotional intelligence has many facets. “Increasing your emotional intelligence also means getting better at understanding mental health, recognizing the toll of burnout on workers and knowing when teams need a break. We should also think about how we can redesign and automate workflows to get things done most effectively.”
6. Futurism: Seeing what’s coming next
In my 2020 book Think Like a Futurist: How to Plan Around Uncertainty and Future-proof Your Business, I define futurism as your ability to anticipate and plan for future events and happenings. It’s an exercise in critical thinking and forethought. Get in the habit of asking questions like, Which new technologies and consumer trends will most impact our business, when, and how much? To practice futurism, use role-playing exercises where IT teams work through sample scenarios based on real-world events such as cyberattacks.
You can also boost your ability to see what’s coming next by practicing four things: Focus on trends rather than fads, stay alert to signals in the market, tie signals together to spot larger patterns and build communities of expert advisers with different perspectives.
7. Ingenuity: Finding the answers
Ingenuity is your capacity to use talents like creativity and innovation and to learn and intuit answers from scenarios quickly. While incremental innovation and experimentation are powerful for business growth, flashes of insight make game-changing leaps forward.
Senior Research Scientist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence Dr. Zorana Ivcevic Pringle published research showing ingenuity is something we can teach and learn, although perhaps not in the ways we think. IT leaders can spark more “A-ha!” moments among their team by, for example, asking workers to devise new solutions, collaborate with customers on new concepts or imagining unforeseen future events that might impact business and how they’d handle them.
Organizations can boost overall ingenuity with outside-in innovation: Seeking input from external sources like the academic or start-up community, or inside-out innovation: Letting others use your tools and technologies in new ways.
8. Problem-solving: Breaking it down
Focusing on productivity, not process, and outcomes over approaches is essential for getting better at solving problems. Learn to break complex tasks down into a series of smaller milestones, apply different strategies and use insight from your efforts to evolve your tactics.
IT leaders need to think more like computer programmers and approach challenges like solving puzzles. In Forbes magazine, tech skills writer Laurence Bradford proposes computer scientists have a lens on the world that’s great for leadership. They’re often more open to tinkering with variables and better at spotting options for changing or improving things that others see as fixed.
“One of the most relevant skills for IT leaders of tomorrow is the ability to diagnose and discern the root cause of issues and separate these from the symptoms they produce,” notes Sethi. “If you can tell whether it’s user-facing challenges, system design or unclear business rules causing problems, you’ve got an important skill.”
9. Resilience: Bouncing back (again)
Resilience is your capacity to bounce back from adversity. By studying many groups – from grade school students to military cadets – University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth worked out resilience better predicts success than IQ or talent. Being smart helps technology leaders with technical competence, but your ability to work through setbacks has more influence on getting ahead.
Next time you have a bad day at work or a project starts going sideways, remember you can overcome these challenges and be better for it.
Soft and hard skills are must-haves for IT leaders. “It’s a great time to be a learner,” says Seepersad. “There are many options to explore, such as online services that provide thousands of courses in hard and soft skills, many at no cost. It’s important to remember improving soft skills will always help you in the workplace, but it’s important to stay up to speed on evolutions in technology as well.”