There’s a cruel irony that too many technical professionals confront at some point in their career. They’ve spent years of hard work acquiring technical certifications and advanced technical degrees only to realize later in their career that technical skills alone will only get you so far, and arguably, as they ascend hierarchically and begin managing broader, more diverse teams, relationship skills become much more important. Indeed, the inconvenient truth is that the hard core technical skills that got them there may in fact be of little utility to propel them forward into higher levels of leadership responsibility.
We’ve all seen the nightmare situation where the best developer gets promoted into the team lead role and is an absolute disaster because leading the team requires a fundamentally different skill set than coding, right? While the technical skills are still important, on a daily basis that developer must now must rely on relationship skills and emotional intelligence to help her connect with team members, negotiate conflicts, coach and support direct reports, etc. In fact, she will likely need to draw on her relationship skills more than her technical skills because she’s now managing a team of people who are focused on doing the technical work.
So what are seasoned technical professionals to do?
Too often as seasoned technical professionals, we label ourselves – not a “people person” just as others may insist they’re “not technical,” and that’s a mistake. Technical skills and relationship skills aren’t mutually exclusive and savvy technical professionals know that one of the best ways to enhance their overall competitiveness and accelerate their career trajectory is by enhancing their relationship skills. That said, as someone who has trained project managers and technical professionals for decades, I recognize that that’s easier said than done.
Having worked primarily in technical environments and having a technical academic background myself, I’ve confronted this challenge myself most of my professional life. For years as a corporate trainer, I shared very practical tips and techniques that had become part of my personal secret arsenal helping me slowly but surely build the relationship skills muscle that for me felt as unnatural as it was necessary for my career success and advancement. Here are five of my top suggestions.
#1 Assess your strengths and weaknesses
Growth and personal development don’t happen over time by osmosis. The critical first step is truly assessing and better understanding how we’re each wired (e.g. personality or work style) so we can determine the specific work required in order to develop a more balanced, well rounded leadership style. The DiSC Profile and StrengthsFinder are two (of many) popular assessment tools that can help professionals better undersstand their individual style so they can figure out where and how they may need intentional development.
#2 Find a relationship skills “mentor”
Reading books and attending training can certainly be helpful, but one of the best ways to improve your relationship skills is to watch a master in action. Most of us know someone who is naturally gifted with strong social/relationship skills. Proactively, seek out someone like that to “mentor” you not necessarily in a formal way but informally. Let them know that you’re actively working on your relationship skills and ask to tag along to team meetings or professional events that are relevant to you both. In my case, I consciously teamed up with someone with really strong relationship skills to help me co-lead a project. That ended up being one of my most impactful developmental experiences as I learned from him (and he learned from my naturally strong task skills) on a daily basis.
#3 Include a relationship building component in meeting agendas
Meetings are how teams regularly connect and collaborate. These provide amazing opportunities for consistent relationship building…if you take advantage of the opportunity. While some participants automatically socialize at the beginning of a meeting, others who aren’t naturally as social may tend to dive right into business, missing a valuable opportunity to build or sustain authentic connection. As someone who lives and dies by an agenda, it served me well to include a relationship building component into the actual agenda as a reminder to not just focus on tasks. One of my favorite ways to do this was starting meetings with creative introductions. During introductions, each attendee would share an interesting personal fact with the group (e.g. favorite band or television show during high school, something on their bucket list, proudest personal achievement, etc.). It doesn’t take much time but can create consistent opportunities for real connection.
#4 Develop a habit of listening to understand instead of listening to respond
One of our most basic social emotional needs is the need to feel heard and feeling heard tends to create real connection. Unfortunately, most of us don’t understand that there’s a big difference between listening and waiting to talk, and too often we’re guilty of substituting the latter for the former. When we’re focused on what we’re going to say in response to someone’s comments, we’re not really listening to their point of view and perspective. Oftentimes, we’re missing information completely because we’ve already skipped to the end of their commentary in our mind and are formulating a response based on our own preferences, priorities and perspective. When we listen actively and regularly dial into what others are saying, we create a solid foundation for authentic relationship building so develop a habit of listening as if you’d be quizzed on what they said afterwards.
#5 Conduct in-person kickoff meetings when possible
With limited budgets many hybrid and remote teams plan a celebratory in-person event at the end of a project or team experience when that money would be much better spent at the beginning. An in-person kickoff meeting (for a team or project) provides a valuable opportunity to spark connections and relationships that team members can leverage for months or even years to come. Be certain to incorporate several formal and informal team building elements into the kickoff meeting so that its engaging and interesting, not boring and dry. Done right, the kickoff meeting can surface authentic points of commonality that can make relationship building so much easier and less forced.
As workplaces focus more and more on creating more inclusive, supportive work environments, technical managers are increasingly expected to lean into their role as coach and cheerleader, and that requires strong relationship skills. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you’re technical, you can’t develop strong relationship skills as well. It may not happen overnight, and it may feel a bit unnatural at first, but using small, intentional strategies, you can indeed learn to build that relationship muscle.