Some of the warmest and most personable people I’ve ever met were technical co-founders, engineers, and software developers.
They were popular with their colleagues and respected as excellent managers and mentors.
Yet there’s a ubiquitous stereotype that correlates deep technical expertise with a lack of soft skills like empathy, skills that are vital to managers occupying senior executive positions.
Like most stereotypes, this is an over-generalization, but there’s a grain of truth at the heart of the “geek” stereotype, a truth often compounded by another myth that claims soft skills are innate — you’re either a great people person or you aren’t.
Soft skills are not innate any more than technical expertise is innate. We may have preferences in one direction or the other that influences the skills we choose to cultivate, but soft skills can be cultivated.
Executives that made their start in sales, marketing, and HR naturally hone soft skills as part of their day-to-day activity. For technical executives, the focus is different and more time is spent cultivating a deep understanding of technology. But if technical experts want to move up the ladder into C-Suite positions, including as CEO, it behoves them to make a concerted effort to cultivate soft skills.
It’s possible to segment soft skills into any number of different categories, but I’ve found that it’s useful to think about the required skills in terms of communication and persuasion.
Overcoming The Curse Of Knowledge
When you know a lot, it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who knows less. And if you can’t empathize with the cognitive standpoint of other executives and employees, communication is next to impossible.
What Steven Pinker has called the curse of knowledge is particularly prevalent among technically expert people. What seems obvious to them is opaque to those who don’t share their expertise. One of the causes of this problem is the drive to accuracy — technical experts want to be precise, accurate, and to cover potential edge-cases and complexities.
Addressing the problem at a higher level seems almost dishonest because experts are aware that what they’re saying isn’t entirely accurate. It’s almost right, but not quite and the gap between precision and approximation is hard to live with.
But technical executives have to understand the need to simplify and abstract if they’re to communicate effectively. This is a learned skill: think about how salespeople for technical products talk to non-expert leads. One of the key skills is the ability to tell a story that conveys, at a high level, the core concerns under discussion and why it matters. Not the deep implementation details, but the value behind a technical decision.
Persuasion Isn’t The Same As Being Right
You can be technically correct and logically sound, and still fail to persuade. This truth can be frustrating, but it’s true nevertheless. If you can’t persuade and inspire, you can’t lead or influence other executives, so the art of persuasion is crucial in senior executive roles. Successful technical CEOs and executives learn how to persuade.
Think about Tim Cook, an operations expert who managed Apple’s massive supply and manufacturing chain before becoming CEO. He’s an extremely intelligent man with a deep understanding of logistics and operations, but he talks about values, about why his products matter to people, about how they impact people’s lives.
Once again, this is a skill that can be learned. John Antonakis, a Professor of Organizational Behavior, has carried out an extensive research program focused on training executives to be persuasive and charismatic. He advocates techniques including the use of storytelling, the communication of confidence, shared values and sentiments, and so on. Antonakis has had considerable success training non-charismatic leaders and helping them become better able to present their ideas persuasively to their peers and employees.
Learning how to communicate effectively outside of a technical environment is an essential skill for all technical executives aiming for the C-Suite. I want to emphasize once again that there’s nothing magical or innate about soft skills. They can be learned, and the most successful executives make a concerted effort to cultivate both hard and soft skills.