Soft Skills Prevail

Soft Skills are Key To Move from Engineer or Tech Expert to Leader

by | Jan 23, 2018

When I started to work after engineering school, I was confused. Why did my high-end technical skills not seem as important as all the other things? Why did the people making the decisions seem either low on tech skills or like they had moved past them? All that time in engineering classes learning complex systems and design – and it is not really appreciated on the job. How frustrating.
Worse – and I mean really worse – was that the people in positions of power all seemed like they were “people people” – you know, the kind who like to network and be friendly to everyone. Yuck!!
Not only did I not want to do that, I also thought it was for wimps. But the truth also is, I was afraid to even try. Networking was not my thing. All those “soft skills” were not for me – or so I thought.
If you are like me, and see something on the other side and want to add more value to your company (translated to – I want to make more money) then you might want to take another look at those “soft skills”.
“Soft skills are the engineer’s path to a higher salary.”]

Soft Skills are More Important than Technical Skills

First, you have to admit – and I know it is hard – soft skills are more critical to your career growth than technical skills. There – I said it. Let it sink in. Send me hate-mail. Does not matter – it is just true.
I will even go further – even if you want to be your own boss and head for the entrepreneur’s journey where you can skip all the corporate garbage and games – soft skills are even more important there.
Why would I say this? For this simple reason. All money that will ever come into your pocket, all jobs you will ever get, promotions you will receive, all the sales of your products and services, they all involve one thing – people. And – dealing with people is the most complex system you will ever have to work with.
So let me restate – every opportunity in life will come through people.

“Every opportunity that comes to you is through people.”]

Not robots or machines – but people. Deals are made by people – and people are who will recognize and use your talents.

People are the Problem – and the Solution

Be honest – where do your work challenges come from? Is it people or machines?
For the past few years, I have been running a Masters in Engineering Management program – where we teach students who have between 1 and 30+ years of industry experience. They range from technical first line employees to executives. I have a regular coaching call with every one of them where I ask “What is your greatest struggle?” 
I wish I could say they were having a challenge mastering some tech skill, but in almost every case their problem has been about people.

Do not believe me – here are the questions from my last calls:
“My boss does not recognize my value and will not raise my pay to the level of others.” – PEOPLE
“My coworkers will hardly work with me. We are measured competitively and then asked to work together.” – PEOPLE
“We have poor leadership – and no one knows what we are supposed to do or what matters.” – PEOPLE 

“I want to grow into a new role or leadership position – but not sure how.”  – PEOPLE 

“Working on the executive team is cut-throat and I cannot trust my coworkers or other leadership” – PEOPLE 
“We are measured on one thing and told another is most important. How am I supposed to be successful?” – PEOPLE 
“I am bored and want more responsibility – but my boss just ignores me.” – PEOPLE 
“We have way too many meetings that are pointless – and no way to get out of them.” – PEOPLE 
“What tools or resources would you recommend for a team that has a lot of moving parts and needs better communication?” – PEOPLE 
You are the PEOPLE

I could go on and on about their issues. But sometimes the PEOPLE is you. Another common issue related to soft skills is self-management.

Just yesterday a student told me “Thank You for being honest.” Previously I had told him that the issue was him – he was blaming others for his problem and not controlling what he had the power to control. He got mad – but later saw the light. The person giving him the most grief was himself.
Another one I often hear is time management (one of the biggest common issues). Most are overwhelmed and overworked and feel like a ton is coming at them.
So, many of the greatest challenges you will have at work will be related to those soft skills. Become a ninja master at these, and life gets easier. Fail to master them, and frustration gets bigger.

You Can Learn Soft Skills – and Even Enjoy Using Them

OK – so you get it – people and soft skills matter. (Or perhaps you are getting ready to write me a nasty email  – but that also involves dealing with people – so there!)
If you are breaking out in hives over this – then join the crowd. I certainly had a panic attack. OK – so maybe you are not as OCD and freaked out about people as I was – or maybe you are. We might call this being an Introvert – but I think that is not quite accurate.
So instead of labeling ourselves, just be aware that you can learn these skills, be great at them, and even enjoy doing them. (No – I am not speaking heresy here!)
I Hated Those Soft Skills
When I was in engineering school, the faculty brought all of the engineering seniors into a room to talk about careers. (A great idea that I do not see happen very often in engineering schools).
One of the speakers really hit me. He said, something like….
No one cares about your resumes – everything comes to you through your network. You need to network. People are the key. Your network, your teamwork, your leadership. That is where success comes from.
On hearing these words I literally broke out in a cold sweat. I had envisioned my career as sitting in a lab where they would slide pizza under the door to feed me. I would work alone and be brilliant. That was my dream job.
Teamwork, networking, being with people – yuck.
Perhaps I was extreme (and perhaps you are also) – but now I can tell you that it was a great blessing that I heard – and later understood – those words.
Fact is – I was not that great in the lab. And, I have found working with people is easier and much more profitable than working in the lab. I still hate networking events – but I know how to do them. But more importantly, I learned to network on my terms. I learned to be in control of my soft skills – and so can you.

You Do Not Have to Change Your Personality

If you are thinking that you need to turn into a soft wimp who walks around with a big smile shaking hands and slapping people on the back – you are wrong. You do not need to change who you are!
You do not even always have to enjoy it. Some of the best people I know in networking and other soft skills are highly introverted and quiet, analytical, and even brilliant engineers. But, they are awesome with people. They have mastered people like they mastered their technology. But – they do it their way being themselves. You can too.

You Will Love It

Engineers and technology experts love complex systems. They love to figure out how to make things work. Good thing.
People are the most complex system you can find. If you start taking a systems engineering viewpoint toward all the people you work with, you will learn to work the levers and turn the knobs to get what you need.

Where to Get Started Learning Soft Skills

Learning anything new is hard and overwhelming – especially if it is out of your comfort zone. Where do you start?
Here are some ideas:
First, accept that you need them – and then take a deep breath and say “I have a lot to learn.” That is all you need. You do not have to be an expert on day 1, or even on day 1000.
Second, perhaps the biggest and most powerful skill is to develop a positive attitude. If you are a complainer or someone who always beats yourself up, start by trying to change your language – mostly to yourself. When you catch yourself being negative, stop and remind yourself you are learning and it will be OK. A friend of mine had posted on his computer screen “I am getting better and better every day.” As cheesy as that seemed at the time, he told me it was his reminder to stop kicking himself and make simple steps daily.
Thirdly, start where you are. You do not have to be perfect – just start with the awareness. Look over the list of soft skills I have mentioned. Start taking notice of what leaders around you do well. You might think it is just their personality – but you could learn. Just spend some time being aware.
In the next few weeks, I will be sharing some details about how leaders grow. I will be teaching you how to evaluate your plan for leadership, how to find and connect with mentors, how to network, and many other things you will need. But all on your own terms – without needing a personality change. So keep watch.

About the Author

Dale Callahan

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