A communications gap exists between technical teams and the nontechnical decision-makers they support. Those who advance to IT leadership roles probably find themselves communicating more frequently with business managers, stakeholders, product owners and budgetary teams who need a nontechnical summary of the company's technology initiatives. Soft skills are essential for career development and leadership opportunities.
For example, suppose a network engineer is asked to explain the company's hybrid cloud migration in a presentation to middle and upper management teams. It might be tempting to discuss the technical aspects, such as virtual private clouds, failover regions or software-defined networking. But that would likely lose the audience, because they don't know the technical details. They need different information.
So, how do network pros discover what the audience needs? These business roles decide on budget, so their buy-in and comprehension are crucial. They also manage the company's approach to IT. An unhealthy view of technology can be disastrous for any organization.
Soft skills are the attributes that enable network professionals to work well with others. This article uses a fictional hybrid cloud migration scenario to identify soft skills that network pros can adopt to improve communication and provide decision-makers with useful information.
Here is a summary of the soft skills discussed below:
- Active listening.
- Using feedback.
How to begin
Start by understanding the needed information. In this scenario, a network engineer needs to speak about the company's move to a hybrid cloud. Why exactly has that person been asked to speak? What kind of information does the audience need? Who is the audience? Empathy and active listening enable someone to prepare an effective presentation for the audience.
For example, the network engineer might be speaking to inform these business leaders about upcoming changes their teams need to know about. Or perhaps the engineer needs to explain changes to budgetary processes or update them on new additions to the service catalog their groups can use. One tip is to think of fellow employees as team members to integrate their perspectives into any interactions with them.
Ask good questions about the presentation and understand the answers to help build communication.
Empathy. Understand the audience's level and empathize. Their goal isn't to become network engineers but to understand the company's direction and how it affects them. Keep this in mind when developing the presentation.
Active listening. Identify what's being asked for to better understand the perspective. Use active listening to understand the goal and audience level. Repeat the information back to the person asking for clarity.
Teamwork. Think of all employees as team members to subconsciously enhance effective communication with them.
Generate useful information
Most business leaders need accurate but digestible information. They need actionable data that enables them to make decisions and steer the company. Examples include costs, Opex and Capex. They also use results as predictors of future success. Creative use of visuals can make a difference here.
Develop dashboards for easy monitoring and reporting. Such dashboards are useful for IT teams to analyze and maintain services, but they also help groups such as the accounting department, which needs to understand and predict costs. It can be helpful to adapt these dashboards to provide nontechnical information.
For example, it's necessary to explain the cost changes around the company's hybrid cloud initiative so the audience understands how it affects them. The best way to communicate such information is often visually.
Creativity. IT professionals create visual representations of many IT concepts, from the seven layers of the OSI model to the TCP/IP suite to network diagrams created by Nmap. The same is true for nontechnical people. Creatively simplify the visuals.
Resourcefulness. Adapting dashboards, reports, logs and other data to provide actionable information requires a resourceful analytic approach.
Consider using the same kinds of visual cues the technical team relies on to provide graphics for the hybrid cloud presentation. Such creativity helps bridge the gap between disparate groups.
After the presentation
Reflect on questions asked in meetings and discussions, especially during test runs of the hybrid cloud presentation. Learn to anticipate what's important to the audience by using feedback from other discussions. Depending on the participants, that might include finances, security, availability or specific services.
In the case of a hybrid cloud discussion, questions might include some of the following:
- How will this migration affect the sales team?
- How will this migration affect monthly expenses?
- How will this migration move the organization closer to its annual goals?
Use feedback. Feedback and questions help network pros understand what the participants prioritize and need. Learn from the questions and responses, as this information helps pinpoint what to emphasize and provide in the next presentation.
Problem-solving. Feedback enables network engineers to identify specific problems encountered by stakeholders, giving them a chance to address the issues.
Other ways to build soft skills
Practice is the best way to learn communication. Here are a few specific ideas for cultivating interpersonal skills, which can translate into other forms of communication, such as verbal or presentation:
- Volunteer for leadership opportunities. Nothing enhances the skill of working with people more than leadership roles. Watch for opportunities to step up and lead.
- Write for the company newsletter. Many organizations publish a regular internal newsletter. Consider contributing a summary of the team's work and objectives. Don't forget to mention the team's major wins.
- Write for the company blog. Many companies maintain a public-facing blog site. Some might welcome internal contributions.
- Publish articles on mediums like LinkedIn or industry sites. Pursue opportunities to write for industry publications.
- Maintain training. Attend an effective email and writing training session to supplement any technical training skills.
- Join group projects. Joining teams helps build relationships with other groups and practice communication skills. It also provides perspective on various parts of the company.
- Ask for feedback. Specific feedback requests help pinpoint strengths and growth opportunities for future consideration.
Encourage team members to take advantage of similar opportunities to sharpen their soft skills.
Empathy, active listening, visualization and reflection all lead to better communication between an organization's technical and nontechnical groups. These soft skills are essential but are usually neglected by IT teams. Consider supplementing technical training with courses that strengthen a team's soft skills. Encourage IT staff to contribute to the organization's newsletters and blogs and watch for industry publications interested in articles around the company's products.
Damon Garn owns Cogspinner Coaction and provides freelance IT writing and editing services. He has written multiple CompTIA study guides including the Linux+, Cloud Essentials+ and Server+ guides, and contributes extensively to TechTarget Editorial and CompTIA Blogs.