At one time, if a corporation hired an IT manager, it made sure the new hire had the technical skills necessary for the job. These days, however, corporations are looking for IT and data center managers with more than just technical skills; they're looking for someone with a capacity for nontechnical skills, as well. We spoke with a few industry experts who can point you down the nontechnical road to corporate success.
Donna Cates Sphar, president of CSI Executive Search (http://www.csi-executivesearch.com/), says since 1997 she has consistently witnessed the need for technical professionals to excel in key nontechnical performance skills. She says, "Those who are able to do so find more satisfaction in their daily work through increased levels of engagement and opportunity resulting from professional development outside their technical skill set."
Can You Hear Me Now?
Most experts will agree that the big list-topper is communication. You may know how to replace a SCSI hard drive, but can you communicate effectively with your co-workers?
Lynda Leonard, senior vice president of ITAC (Information Technology Association of Canada), says employers are looking for technical resources with the capacity to listen effectively, find solutions, and communicate the elegance of these solutions back to end users. Leonard says, "The image of the Dilbert-like, hermetically sealed-off cubicle-dweller is thankfully becoming a thing of the past. If your communications capacity does not measure up to your technical chops, take some remedial action. This is particularly true for those working in midsized companies. The chances are good that in a smaller company there will be no buffer between you and users you're serving."
Leonard says to work effectively in a midsized company, in a discipline that "laypeople already find bewildering," you have to be able to communicate effectively. Cates Sphar says the ability to communicate effectively and thoughtfully with nontechnical (and technical) professionals is a much sought-after skill.
When communicating verbally, Cates Sphar says it's important to prepare for a conversation. "Organize your thoughts," she says. "Make an outline of key points. Speak clearly. Cover the outline point by point, noting appropriate feedback, paying attention as to whether the other party understands each point. Clarify points as needed; be approachable; be willing to take time needed to teach non-techies, in language they understand, what they need to know."
As far as email goes, Cates Sphar offers the following quality control tips: "Set your email to send every 10 minutes rather than immediately. Do not fill in the To: line until the message is complete-including proofreading and spell check. These practices can prove vital should you unintentionally hit Send or should you shortly realize the need to modify the email message in any way. Communicating effectively with non-techies requires this extra care." She adds that it's always good to brush up on your writing skills.
Leonard says if you are in the job market, make communication your top priority when job hunting. She says, "Whenever we release any new data about the shortage of skilled workers in IT, it provokes a storm of protest from recent graduates who have been trying to find work without success for some time. I've received many of these over the years, and I'm sympathetic to the difficulties new graduates face. But I would observe that these emails are generally as ungrammatical as they are vitriolic."
Business Is Business
Another area that most experts would agree is crucial is understanding the business needs of the enterprise. Leonard says it is important to demonstrate a "going-in comprehension" of the business your employer or prospective employer pursues (and be able to situate IT needs in the context of the fulfillment of the business objectives). Leonard notes, "If all you're doing is solving the IT problems that come through the door and failing to communicate the role IT can play strategically in the company's growth, you probably won't survive any reversal in your employer's fortunes. So the capacity for strategic, integrative thinking and an ability to communicate are key."
Cates Sphar agrees. She says having an ability to grasp business-based objectives underlying IT projects and positions is paramount, and it's also important to understand the company's mission statement. She says, "Decide whether you're ready to contribute to the success of the mission. If you are, read on. If you are not, stop here and think about this fact seriously. Study the company's organizational chart. Internalize its structure. Stay abreast of your company's overall business initiatives." She says you are ahead of the game if you understand that your livelihood is directly connected to your ability to assist your company in accomplishing its mission statement, working in tandem with appropriate business units by completing business objectives.
Working as a team member is also critical if you want to survive (and thrive) in today's small to midsized enterprise. Cates Sphar says having the ability to "play well with others" is a necessary component for business success. She explains, "Contribute to the overall success of your organization through effective engagement and communication with non-techie, as well as techie, team members. Focus on the fact that business objectives are accomplished through your company's most valuable resource-its people. Treat all team members with respect. Approach each project with flexibility and resourcefulness-a 'can do' attitude."
Cates Sphar doesn't stop there with team playing. She adds, "Seek information revealing the experience base of the key members of each business unit that your project overlaps. Learn the preferred communication method of key members on projects. Listen, listen, and listen. Absorb any data provided by the non-techies regarding their IT skill set, technical capacities, business unit objectives, and their specific role within their business unit."
In Cates Sphar's opinion, earning the respect of non-IT business units is key. She says their buy-in to IT's value within the company's business unit is essential for highly successful results. "To accomplish this," she says, "you will need to get to know the members of these business units, and you will have to meet or exceed requirements and expectations-on time, every time."
by Chris A. MacKinnon Reprinted with Permission: Processor Magazine February 1, 2008 * Vol.30 Issue 5