The Most Important Skill You’re Not Hiring For
Anyone who’s hired for a technical team can understand this scenario.
You’re hiring for “X” positions, so of course you receive “X” times infinity applications. Just because you’re looking for the next whizbang engineer, it doesn’t mean you get to neglect your day job. There are still meetings to attend and emails to write, never mind looking after the team and the thing you’re hiring for anyway! So, what do you do? Most people want to be as efficient as possible, so they jump right to the experience and skills section of the resume. That’s what you’re hiring for, right? Technical teams require technical skills. All the rest is fluff.
If you’ve done this, and I bet you have if you listen to the little voice in the back of your head, then you may be doing a disservice to your team, the candidate, and ultimately yourself. What the heck am I talking about? Yup, the “soft skills,” and today I’d like to talk primarily about communication skills.
I can hear the eyerolls from here, so let’s spend a few minutes talking about why they’re so important.
I’m a <insert technologist label here>. Why do I care about communications?
In 2019, continuous deployment pushes code around the clock; security event managers stop bad guys before we realize they’re there; and even help desk solutions where tickets can manage themselves. Yet even with these technological and automative advances, people want relationships. If you think about it, when you really need to get anything complex done, do you ask your digital personal assistant, or do you work with another human? We’re out for human interaction. By building relationships, we can move IT further away from the reputation of “the Department of No” and toward frameworks and cultures to enable things like DevOps and becoming a true business partner. Our ability to communicate builds bridges and becomes the foundation for our relationships.
Still skeptical? Let’s walk through another scenario.
Assume you’re an architect in a large organization and you’ve got an idea to revolutionize your business. You manage to get time with the person who controls the purse strings and you launch right into what this widget is and what you need for resources. You wow them with your technical knowledge and assure them this widget is necessary for the organization to succeed. Is this a recipe for success? Probably not. You might even get bounced out of the office on your ear.
Let’s replay the same scenario a little bit differently. You get time on the decisionmaker’s calendar; but you do a little homework first. You ask your colleagues about the decisionmaker and what type of leader they are. You dig into what their organizational goals are and how they might be measured against said goals. Armed with this information, you frame the conversation in terms of the benefits delivered both to the organization and the purse holder. And you can speak their language, which they’ll most likely appreciate and will make your conversation go that much smoother. Due to your excellent communication skills, your project is approved, you have a new BFF, and you both go get tacos to celebrate your impending world domination.
Neither the world domination nor the tacos would be possible without the ability to convey benefits to the recipient in a language they understand. The only difference between world domination and coming across like a self-righteous nerd who cares more about their knobs than the organization is the ability to clearly and succinctly communicate with the business in a language they understand.
So now that we’ve talked a bit about why…
Let’s circle back to the original premise for a moment: you should be building communication skills into your teams. Obviously if you’re hiring a technical writer, communication is the skill, but chances are you’re looking for someone who has an attention to detail and can write some form of prose. The ability to craft a narrative will be vital if you’re looking for a technical marketing person. Anyone who’s in a help desk role needs to build rapport, so communicating with empathy and understanding becomes vital. If you’re hiring for an upper level staff position, the ability to distill highly technical concepts down to fundamentals and convey them in language that makes sense to the recipient is paramount. In my experience, this last example can be a bit of a rarity; if you find someone either within or outside your ranks who exudes it, you should think about how you can keep them on your hook.
How do you achieve this unicorn dream of hiring for communication skills? Classic geek answer, “it depends.” We can’t possibly diagnose all the permutations in my wee little blog post. Rather than try to give you a recipe, I think you’ll find by shifting your approach slightly, to be more mindful of what you’d like to achieve via your communications, you’ll inherently be more successful.
One last point before I bid you adieu. Here, we’ve focused on why you need to hire for these skills. This isn’t to say for one second that you shouldn’t also build them within your existing organizations. This, however, requires looking at the topic from some different angles and a whole other set of techniques, so we’ll leave it for another day.