The Soft Skills for Hard Core Technical Professionals blog is maintained by Profitable Growth Partners, LLC. It provides a venue for the exchange of ideas on the topic of skill-sets that are required for today's technical professional.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Listening for Better Leadership

From CIO Magazine
– Diann Daniel, CIO
September 04, 2007

The ability to listen well is a crucial soft skill, especially for a leader. It's easy to realize its absence in others but perhaps not as easy when it comes to ourselves. Consider the following two scenarios for insight into your own opinion on the subject.

Scenario 1: You've gone into your boss's office hoping to talk about something that's troubling you. When you begin to speak, your boss looks toward his BlackBerry, picks it up, then starts to compose a message. You slow your talking, not sure if he's hearing anything you're saying until he motions you to continue. When he's done e-mailing he jerks his chin up a few times in a "let's get on with this" move and before you can finish talking, cuts you off by going into his advice mode. Instead of hearing what you have to say, he gives you a long speech about all the things you need to do to fix the situation, which he gets wrong because he has not understood the situation. Then he tells you abruptly he has another appointment.

Scenario 2: You've been worried about some staff issues. Your boss is just back from out-of-town meetings and then vacation (you haven't seen each other for a while), and he has asked to meet with you to catch up and see how things are going. When you begin to talk, he notices almost immediately that something is troubling you, and says, "Why don't you get the door?" Shortly after you begin speaking, his BlackBerry buzzes. "Excuse me," he says, then puts it into silent mode. He urges you to go on, and while you speak, he leans forward slightly, quietly nodding at times, encouraging you to continue at others. By the time you get to the end of your story, you realize you now know how to solve the problem. You tell him so, and he smiles. After you catch up on some other work details, you leave his office and go back to yours to start correcting your problem.

You've likely experienced some version of each scenario. What was the effect each had on your motivation? Your morale? The sense of your value to the company? Your desire to seek out new solutions?

In the business best seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, listening is one of Stephen Covey's crucial seven habits. He writes, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." It's no coincidence that many leading companies, especially leading innovators, are noted for their ability to listen to customers (see IBM and Apple for two examples). Prominent figures do as well. Former Chrysler Corporation CEO Lee Iacocca is credited with saying, "Businesspeople need to listen at least as much as they talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions." Listening well may help you discover new markets or find new ways to innovate, but you must first listen well to your staff. Ineffective listening leaves staff feeling unappreciated, and research shows it can result in low morale, absenteeism, turnover and other ill effects. On the other hand, improving one's ability to listen can improve your leadership skills and, in turn, the skills of those you lead.

The Respect of Listening
At heart, listening well is about respect, and because of that it has a powerful effect on whether someone feels valued, and subsequently their motivation and morale. "[Peter] Drucker talked about a leader as the conductor; he brings out the best in his team," says Richard Anstruther, CEO of HighGain, a listening consultancy. "You do that by tapping into the creativity, joy of working and pride by listening to people," he says. "It doesn't mean agreeing or being a doormat, and it's not psychotherapy. It means confirming to a speaker's satisfaction that you've understood their message."

"People remember and respond to how others make them feel, and an executive who listens effectively makes people feel part of the operation," says Greg Mulhauser, whose website and consultancy work has heightened his awareness of listening and its effects. An executive who doesn't listen, and merely tells others what to do, makes people feel devalued and less motivated, he says.

"Even when you want an employee to do things one way (like in manufacturing), you still want them to use their brain (and discover efficiencies). And if they feel freedom, they're more motivated," says Bruce Wilson, VP of strategic alliances for iLink Systems ( and editor and founder of "Especially at the CIO level, leaders are not good leaders because they impart decisions; instead, they are good at empowering other people," he says. A good leader can do 10 times as much as another person because he has 10 people motivated to work at their best. "A poor leader only gets what he personally directs."

More Than Going Through the Motions"Listening is not about acting," says Mulhauser. "It is not about nodding your head, or selecting from a set of phrases designed to convince the other person you're listening to them. It is about making every effort to grasp what someone is articulating from their point of view." Anstruther points out that by listening to people without regard to official status or position, and without getting caught up on style, or grammar and such, you can help people solve their own problems. In essence, you can teach people to fish so they can do it themselves. People on the front line know more than you do, so it follows that you need to learn what they don't, he says. Anstruther points to Land's End as an example of a company that does well because it treats the frontline staff well, respecting that they are the contact for the customers and have the ability to glean important competitive information: what the customers want. And then there is Feargal Quinn, CEO of Superquinn Supermarkets, a leading chain in Ireland, who says that listening is the only true form of competitive advantage. He practices what he preaches—for example, "He makes all his own execs stock shelves once a month," says Anstruther.

So the question is: How do you become a better listener? Below are some tips to help, based on Anstruther's experience.

Choose to listen.
First things first, in order to hear, you need to give your full attention. Put the phone on hold, turn off your smartphone, bring yourself present to conversation. Come with respect and openness for the person you are speaking to, and concentrate on the message, not the style. In other words, if you're thinking about your speaker's fumbling way with words, you're not listening well.

Open the lines of communication.
Make sure the speaker or speakers have said all they have to say. This means making sure people feel welcome to speak up. This is especially important in a multicultural setting or in situations where junior staffers may feel uncomfortable speaking. Anstruther says that ironically, many people fear doing this because they're afraid they have not understood. But this sort of misunderstanding can account for a number of ill effects in the workplace, including missed deadlines, projects that don't match specification and a host of other problems. "The meaning of the message resides in the interpreter—that has the greatest power," Anstruther says, "so we have to agree that the message you sent to me is the one I heard."

Reflect, or restate, the message back to the speaker.
Echo back and paraphrase what the speaker has said to make sure you understand.

Empathize to build a bridge.
Where there is emotion in the message, notice it—for example, "It seems like that upset you. Do you want to talk about it?" Notice not only words, but body language and facial expressions.

All that said, it's important to remember that listening is not passive. You might completely disagree with what the other person is saying, but you will know exactly what it is you disagree with. But listening gives you something in common with another person and can make him feel valued. Says Wilson, "Listening is the ultimate way to show someone respect."

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Soft Skills for CIOs and Aspiring CIOs: Four Ways to Boost Your Emotional Intelligence

June 25, 2007 — CIO — Emotional intelligence and "soft" skills are musts for today's CIOs and other IT workers. From entry-level coders to those in the C-suite, few people have the luxury of a lone wolf mentality. Research shows it's your soft skills and emotional intelligence (EI) that determines everything from whether you get promoted to how happy you are at work. Luckily, with knowledge, awareness and practice, you can boost your EI.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

What's Your Technology Topology?

I'm an omnivore.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, I am in the 8 percent of the population that enthusiastically embraces new technology and maintains nearly constant interconnectivity. I recently took the assessment, and was not at all surprised where I ranked. I think my 2 laptops, blackberry, two iPods, digital camera, and 2 blogs gave me away…

Find out where you fit (if you are reading this at 3 am or from a handheld Internet device, you probably already have a clue) by taking Pew Internet Project's quick quiz.

Friday, May 25, 2007

CIOs Are Looking for Soft Skills

In a new survey by technology recruiters Robert Half, they poled 1,400 CIOs. CIOs were asked, “In which of the following areas do you think your IT staff could most use improvement?”

  • Technical abilities............................................................ 25%
  • Project management skills.................................................. 23%
  • Verbal and written communication abilities............................... 15%
  • Organizational skills.......................................................... 14%
  • Interpersonal skills............................................................ 12%
  • None/no improvements needed.............................................. 3%
  • Other/don't know.............................................................. 8%

While “technical abilities” were ranked first as a single classification, the combination of verbal and written abilities, organizational skills, and interpersonal skills, in other words those abilities that are typically thought of as “soft skills,” accounted for 41% of the areas that need improvement.

“Technology changes rapidly, making it crucial for IT staff to constantly learn new skills to keep pace with industry advancements,” said Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology. “While it’s ultimately up to the individual to keep his or her technical abilities current, the best employers invest in ongoing professional development for employees at all levels.” Lee continued, “Professional development programs also can aid a company’s recruitment and retention efforts. In today’s competitive IT hiring market, employees want to work for firms that encourage them to build new skills and assume more challenging responsibilities.”

We all know that technical professionals need solid technical skills, and most organizations budget for training programs that help technical pros keep pace with industry advancement. However, in order to take advantage of the technical skills, CIOs are beginning to recognize that they need to upgrade the soft skills of their teams as well.

Randy Bancino

Profitable Growth Partners, LLC.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

How Important are Soft Skills?

According to a recent study by Robert Half:

The Most Valuable Qualifications for Technical Professionals
· 43% Industry specific knowledge
· 32% Soft Skills
· 15% Certification in Relevant Technology
· 8% IT Related undergrad degree
· 1% MBA
· 1% Don’t Know

The Most Important soft skills for Technical Professionals
· 37% Interpersonal Skills
· 20% Written or verbal communication
· 17% Ability to work under pressure
· 11% Overall business acumen
· 7% Professional demeanor
· 8% Other/Don’t Know

Who invests in Soft Skills Training for Technical People?
· 53 % of all companies surveyed
· 62% of companies with more than 1000 employees
· 70% of business services firms

Increasingly, companies are improving the productivity of individual technical staff, increasing the project success rates for the technical team, and improving the bottom line of their companies by paying attention to the soft skills of their technical teams. While many believe that they MUST invest in continuing to develop the technical skills of their teams, the REAL ROI comes from leveraging those technical skills with upgrades to soft skills such as communication, emotional intelligence, teamwork, and leadership.

Do you believe it? How have you improved the service levels of your technical team? We invite you to comment, and share your experience and thoughts with other technical leaders...

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Profitable Growth Partners Published in Techniques Magazine

By Randy Bancino and Claire Zevalkink
In many technical professions the complete focus of education and training is on technical topics either directly or indirectly related to the technical discipline. Students are generally required to master various mathematics skills, science skills, and detailed technical skills directly related to the specific discipline they are planning to enter. However, increasingly technical professionals in various disciplines such as information technology, engineering, research and development, etc. are required to broaden their skill sets to master what have traditionally been called “soft skills.” Soft skills, as defined by Wikipedia, are “the cluster of personality traits, social graces, facility with language, personal habits, friendliness, and optimism that mark people to varying degrees. Soft skills complement hard skills, which are the technical requirements of a job.”
Read the Full Article

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Words That Work

“Communication” is one of the central themes in both our Profitable Growth Partners Boot Camp for Managers™ program and our Soft Skills for Hard Core Technical Professionals™ series. Recently I was reading an excellent book (there are many) on the subject. Words That Work, by Dr. Frank Luntz provides an insightful look into the way we use words. The book contains excellent stories about how changing the words we use can re-frame an entire conversation, and he also provides practical tips on how to use the right words to make your point clearly and effectively.

Dr. Luntz also provides the “10 rules of successful communication:”

1. Simplicity: Use small words. Avoid words that might force someone to reach for the dictionary, because most Americans won’t.

2. Brevity: Use short sentences. Be brief as possible. Never us a sentence when a phrase will do.

3. Credibility Is as Important as Philosophy. People have to believe it to buy it. If your words lack sincerity or if they contradict accepted facts, circumstances or perceptions, they will lack impact.

4. Consistency Matters. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.

5. Novelty: Offer something new. Words that work often involve a new definition of an old idea.

6. Sound and Texture Matter. A string of words that have the same first letter, the same sound or the same syllabic cadence is more memorable than a random collection of sounds.

7. Speak Aspirationally. The key to successful aspirational language is to personalize and humanize the message to trigger an emotional remembrance.

8. Visualize. Paint a vivid picture.

9. Ask a Question. A statement put in the form of a rhetorical question can have much greater impact than a plain assertion.

10. Provide Context and Explain Relevance. You have to give people the “why” of a message before you tell them the “therefore” and the “so what.”

Often the book comes from the advertising or political perspective, but there are great insights for all of us who have to communication, and persuade, and inspire.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Did you miss your Blackberry?

Well, it appears we all survived last week’s Blackberry outage. I only found it a minor inconvenience as I was trying to set up a last minute breakfast meeting late in the evening of the outage. But I resorted to the good “old fashioned” cell phone to get it done. The outage certainly got a lot of press last week. As a matter of fact, USA Today called me the morning after the outage and interviewed me for an article they were doing (BlackBerry outage exposes RIM's 'soft underbelly'.)

The article called me a “self described Blackberry Addict” though I certainly don’t recall describing myself that way. Anyway, the whole flap got me to thinking about the divide between people who feel the need to stay in constant contact, and those who don’t. There appears to be some animosity between the two groups. I have already admitted (as reported last week in USA Today) that I am a member of the staying connected group. However, even though I stay pretty much connected, I have never taken a call or answered an E-Mail during dinner, or during church, or in the middle of a conversation. I check my messages every now and then just to keep on top of what’s going on with my business associates, clients, and friends.

I suspect part of the animosity aimed directly at the perpetually connected comes from a pattern of semi-rude behavior. I bet it comes from spouses, significant others, friends, and family who have been interrupted mid-sentence by a ringing cell phone, or a newly arrived instant message, and I certainly can’t say that I blame them,

So as a member of the perpetually connected contingent (sometimes known as the “Crackberry Addicts”) I would like to rally my compatriots to IM politely, to E-Mail appropriately, and talk tactfully on your cells. It is possible to stay connected to your network AND stay connected to the people in the room with you….

Randy Bancino
Profitable Growth Partners, LLC.

Friday, March 23, 2007

IT Priorities - 2007

I was recently catching up on some reading, and was able to spend some time reviewing the results of CIO Insight’s annual survey of CIOs and their priorities. One of the things I found most interesting was the section where they asked CIOs “What are your IT organization’s three most important management priorities for 2007?” It wasn’t even a horse race. The top three priorities came through loud and clear:

(1) Improving alignment with business objectives
(2) Improving the performance and capabilities of IT management and staff
(3) Reducing IT costs

If you would have asked me same question during most of my career in IT management, I would likely have answered exactly the same. Well, maybe during 1998/1999 I might have added “recruiting staff with web skills.” But what I came to learn over all those years is that as much as I sought out better alignment of IT with the business, it was actually by investing in the skills of our staff that we were able to move the needle on alignment. Alignment is a noble goal, but until IT staff are more able to relate to, and interact with their general business counterparts, real alignment will continue to be difficult to attain. Oddly enough, when organizations begin to invest in the non-technical skills of their teams, they not only achieve better business alignment, but costs can actually be driven down as projects are delivered more effectively. So priority #2 from the list can often be the lynch pin that drives and delivers priorities #1 and #3.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

How are Your Soft Skills?

Want to have a little fun? My daughter sent me a link the other day to a little test posted on the web site. It is a self assessment of your soft skills. If you want to give it a try, click here.

Since we launched our Soft Skills for Hard Core Technical Professionals series, the response has been overwhelming. The genesis of the idea came a number of years ago when I was leading IT for a large company, and we found ourselves working more closely with a number of people from disciplines such as Marketing, Communications, etc. The VP of Marketing, now a Partner with our firm, and I started talking about the difficulties our teams were having in communicating and working as a team.

As we actively worked with our teams to improve their soft skills, we found the teams working more effectively together, and the solutions being delivered were better than ever. For talented professionals, especially in the technical fields, soft skills can make all the difference. So, how are your soft skills?

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Formula to Measure Business Agility

A post from the CIO Magazine Blog with a comment from Profitable Growth Partners, Managing Partner, Randy Bancino:

By Michael Hugos

March 12, 2007

This weekend I spent an afternoon sitting in a coffee house in my downtown Chicago neighborhood pondering what it means to be agile and how to measure it. The place was busy but I got lucky and snagged the cushy armchair next to the plate glass window in front that looks out on the sidewalk and the apartment building across the street. Watching the other patrons, looking at the people who pass by, and enjoying that burst of mental energy induced by a fine café au lait is often a good way to get inspired and be creative.
I started with the definition of agility in business as: the ability to consistently earn profits that are 2 – 4% (and sometimes more) higher than the market average. Agility enables companies to earn an additional 2 – 4 % because they can make a hundred small adjustments every day to reduce operating costs and increase revenues. And sometimes agility enables you to earn even more by sensing and responding quickly to opportunities for new products or services, that for a while, have terrific profit margins.
I decided to use this results oriented definition of agility instead of attempting to describe what agility is because we have a lot yet to discover about being agile (agility “best practices” as they say) so any description I offer now will only change later. Also, I figured that unless agility actually delivers additional profits then why go to all the trouble of being agile in the first place?
There is one caveat to this definition of agility though - true agility is self-sustaining, not self-consuming. By this I mean companies can always get a short-term boost to profit margins by cutting headcount, reducing customer service, squeezing suppliers for lower prices, and deferring repairs and improvements to infrastructure. But that is self-consuming, like spending down your bank account. It’s not agile because it isn’t sustainable; it does not create or renew; it only uses up.
So if business agility is the ability to consistently earn an additional 2-4% (and sometimes more) then what is the combination of factors that delivers this delightful state of affaires? At this point I ordered another café au lait. And as I sipped that hot, foamy, milky coffee, I looked out the plate glass window and saw a woman walking by with two big dogs; the dogs were so happy to be outside they pulled at their leashes and wanted to charge off down the street. She worked hard to keep them out of trouble.
Then I eavesdropped on a conversation going on at the table next to me. A couple of college students were discussing an upcoming organic chemistry test; one student was showing the other how to read a formula and draw out the molecular structure implied by the formula. Good coffee houses serve up a stimulating mix of impressions like this to go along with their fine fare and the resulting blend is often the source of interesting ideas.
Here’s the idea that emerged from the blend of that second café-au-lait and the impressions I just described. First of all, I think agility happens when we see something we want and when we are highly motivated to go after it. But we can’t just go charging off down the street; we have to focus on what’s important and act effectively. Secondly, I think there’s a formula to measure agility and it goes like this:
Business Agility = (Visibility + Motivation) x Training
What this means is that companies will consistently earn an additional 2-4% profit if their people can clearly see what’s going on in their area of operation and if they have the motivation to respond appropriately. The effect of this visibility and motivation will be multiplied and magnified by the training people get. The better people are trained, the greater the results will be.
This formula identifies the main factors that promote agility and it shows how they interact with each other to produce different levels of agility. It points out what factors to measure when we’re trying to assess the level of business agility possessed by a company. Visibility can be measured by the technology and procedures a company uses to collect, store, disseminate and display information. Motivation can be measured by the incentives and authority people are given to make decisions and act to achieve company objectives. Training builds peoples’ skills for using visibility, for making good decisions, and acting effectively to achieve objectives. So training can be measured as well.
Wow. Now we can start to discuss agility best practices using a common and measurable framework to compare one practice to another (did I leave out something important?). This formula is either a very useful insight or it's the result of too much caffeine.

Business Agility = (Visibility + Motivation) x Training
This is truly an interesting formula and hypothesis. I am especially interested in training as the multiplier. Considering that training is often the first expense to be cut, and least often measured productivity enhancer, this would suggest that most companies are missing out on what may be the biggest factor in “business agility.” I would also point out that training needs to be aligned with the strategic drivers in the business. As technical professionals we often get so caught up in training for the next new technology, that we neglect the equally important soft skills that can be used to leverage our technical skills in ways that harness synergy to deliver optimal solutions.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Grooming the 2010 CIO

Developing and expanding personal productivity is a key driving force of the Soft Skills for Hard Core Technical Professionals series, however an additional reason that many companies invest in the soft skills training of their technical professionals is to groom key people for future leadership roles. In the information technology world, the top leadership position is typically the Chief Information Officer, or CIO. This week, “CIO Insight” magazine published the results of a report entitled “Grooming the 2010 CIO.” Respondents to the survey listed personal characteristics that they regarded as essential for a technology leader. They used terms such as “edge,” “energy,” “execution,” “passion,” “ability to take criticism,” “negotiating, influencing,” “selling and visioning skills” as the abilities and traits that were required.

These are the skills that many technical professionals don’t receive formal training in as they prepare for their careers, or as they advance their careers. Yet, these are the skills that move technical professionals up the value chain within an organization, and the skills that are required of technology leaders.

Randy Bancino
Profitable Growth Partners, LLC.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


Grand Rapids, MI (PRWeb), MARCH 12, 2007: Profitable Growth Partners, LLC., a Grand Rapids-based business strategy and training firm, announced the national launch of its highly acclaimed Soft Skills for Hard Core Technical Professionals Series. The training series, which is intended for technical professions in such fields as information technology, engineering, research, etc., strengthens the skill-set of professionals in areas such as communication, interpersonal relationships, customer focus, leadership, and teamwork.

“Serving as the Chief Information Officer for a large global company, and then later as the V.P. of Sales and Marketing for a national firm, I was able to see first hand how these skills contributed to successful projects, and successful implementations of technology,” said Randy Bancino, Managing Partner with Profitable Growth Partners, LLC. “Rarely did projects fail because the technology didn’t work; because the staff didn’t understand the technology; or because we hired the wrong consultants. A lack of soft skills was almost always the culprit.”

Profitable Growth Partners worked with the Center for Organizational Design and other top organizations to put together a comprehensive program that measurably improves the skill sets of today’s technical professional. The end result is a team that implements more successful projects, improves customer focus, and elevates their contribution to the success of the organization.

About Profitable Growth Partners, LLC.
Profitable Growth Partners, LLC. works directly with the leadership of companies and organizations to help them harness their potential to accelerate growth and enhance profitability. Through their exclusive Business Acceleration Process and their Top Gun for Business People TM series, the experienced business growth experts with Profitable Growth Partners deliver improvements to a business’s strategy, processes, structure, systems, and culture, resulting in measurable improvements in both the top line and bottom line.