[Today’s post comes from David Batcheller, President and COO at Fargo-based electronic manufacturing company Appareo Systems. He also started The Speaker’s Bureau, which brings professionals into classrooms. Recently, David spoke about the importance of soft skills in the tech community to a class of Minnesota State University Moorhead students. We asked if he could share his wisdom on our site, as well. He graciously agreed. Nerds, listen up; here’s why holing up and knowing code isn’t the only thing you need for a job.]
Let the wookie win.
Once upon a time we hired someone that showed up to his interview in a thread-bare t-shirt that said “Let the wookie win.”
Typically for interviews, you’re told to dress nice, bring a copy of your resume, look your interviewer in the eye, and a laundry list of other little tidbits that can make or break a first impression
Unfortunately, for many in the technical community, these little tidbits comprise the entirety of our education in the “soft skills,” – so named because by their very nature they are impossible to measure quantitatively. This presents a devilish little quandary; the scientific and engineering community is wont to measure everything.
Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, once said, “How well we communicate is determined not by how well we say things, but by how well we are understood.”
Herein lies the mystery of our t-shirt wearing candidate; he was exceptionally talented at taking very complex topics and communicating them simply. Taking the extraordinarily nuanced and distilling it into something a middle school student could understand is a skill that can make or break sales pitches, architecture meetings, interviews, and a myriad of other interactions that everyone in the scientific and technical community is exposed to on a regular basis.
One of the biggest misconceptions of technical industries is that you can get by solely on technical gift – that ultimately, so long as the talent is there, soft skills are unnecessary. But even in a purely technical career path you still need the ability to communicate your ideas and their importance. Albert Einstein, who made a career out of the theoretical and complex, put it well when he said, “If you cannot explain it simply, you do not understand it well enough.”
4 tips for building soft skills
Soft skills are vital to any professional in the work field, but can be intimidating because they’re so hard to measure. Never fear! Here’s my 4 points of advice:
1. Make it more than “a” talk.
With amazing regularity I’ve seen people at Appareo walk out of meetings in agreement, having each interpreted the agreement differently. In fact, there really wasn’t agreement at all and the two people are headed in different directions. You can combat this by recapping conversations with a short follow-up e-mail or phone conversation regarding direction / agreement and articulating specifically where you understand everyone is headed.
Seems obvious, but there is a big difference between hearing what someone says and really listening. When you are really listening you should be able to relate back to a speaker to confirm you can see the world through their lens. Saying things like “I heard you say that…,” or “The way I understand you’d like this to work is…” and confirming with the speaker that you not only have heard what they had to say, but you can see the problem from their position. As you present your view of the world, this breaks down barriers as you work to fit your technical solution to be well represented through their “lens.”
3. Be sincere, smile, be unafraid.
Do not be afraid to disagree. Be sincere, and unapologetic in the way you present your information. If someone disagrees or, ultimately, your idea does not win the day, that is not necessarily a big deal. Customers, co-workers, and supervisors will quickly come to respect your opinion because of its honesty and sincerity. Most importantly, work hard not to adopt a defensive posture.
4. Do a retrospective on critical conversations.
There are many critical conversations in the life of any workplace. When those conversations happen, be they critical to a project, a performance review, or winning new business, etc, it is important to reconsider the conversation shortly after it happened. What went well? What went poorly? What was unexpected? Did you respond as you would have liked? What was left unsaid or where did you fail to step into the discussion when needed? Etc.
Communication, just like any scientific or technical discipline, is built from a series of mistakes and lessons learned. Though soft skills can be difficult to develop, it is important that you focus on their development in order to reach your full professional potential.
Thanks for sharing, David! Now get out there and be a softie.
Photos courtesy of David Batcheller.