The "Information Age" of the past half-century or so has changed the way we all live, and changed how most of us work, too. To keep all the other industries up and running with the new technologies of communications, media and computing, another industry was born, called Information Technology (IT). For a time, it seemed that the only requirement for success in IT was having technical knowledge to keep the computers virus-free and the databases operating for accounting, customer service and management. This is, of course, no longer the case, if it every really was.
Today, employers in every industry seek IT professionals who do more than simply repeat a set of maintenance tasks or man the soldering irons. College degrees and technical certifications are important, it is true, but there is a whole set of what are called "soft skills" that are part of a winning formula, for the employee as well as the company. Sometimes called "interpersonal" or "communications" skills, they are often hard to assess on paper alone. Today, however, new hires are being rated in terms of these skills, and continuing education and "soft skills development" for existing employees are a key focus for enlightened management.
The five vital keys
If you are an owner, manager or executive, in any industry, there are more skills required for success that simple mastery of technology, a knack for selling, inventive ability or organizational powers. The soft skills are key because they involve communication, morale, corporate culture, customer service provision and all the other "human" components. There may be many vital keys to getting the right soft skills training for all your management needs, but the following five are a good group to start with.
Key #1, Know Thyself (and Thy Interpersonal Skills, Too): Interpersonal skills are crucial in good management, and include the ability to speak clearly, motivate people, lead with confidence and delegate when appropriate. Regardless of the company's product or service, or your own areas of expertise, if you don't take an "inventory" of these skills, and ask for others' honest input, you won't know where you need to focus or what training you should even seek.
Key #2, Consider Your Teams: In your workplace there may be one team (small firms, for example), one in every department or even different ones across departments. Modern project management is less centralized than before, and ad hoc, temporary teams are even brought together on a case-by-case basis when appropriate. For you to know what skills training you should concentrate on, you must consider how, when, why, where and with whom you will deploy those new skills. You may also need some additional training in teamwork strategies, and mapping out your approach will help you to discover this.
Key #3, Negotiate the Need: If you are middle management or in the junior executive ranks, you may need to negotiate to get the training you need for your position. If you can make a case for soft skills training and demonstrate how it will positively affect productivity and profitability, chances are you will get the Powers That Be to invest in you.
Key #4, Learn to Listen: The ability to communicate effectively is absolutely essential today, particularly when technical and non-technical employees work from a base of shared, but differently interpreted, knowledge. If communication in your department or your company seems ineffective, it may be a good time to cultivate the talent of "creative listening." Listen closely enough, allow people the freedom to speak candidly, and you will learn a lot about what they need, as well as what other soft skills you may be lacking.
Key #5, Choose Wisely: When it comes time to actually take a course or workshop, or send your managers and supervisors for soft skills training, do not forget to take the time to properly assess the training firm. It is easy to throw up a website and write some copy on "building consensus" and "communicating effectively," but quite a bit more difficult to teach people entirely new ways to use their heads, hearts and, perhaps especially, their tongues. Make sure that the training firm and the individual instructors have the expertise that is appropriate to the courses they are leading. Check references and speak to others who have gone through the training. Don't be afraid to check with the Better Business Bureau and the local consumer affairs agencies, public and private, when you are assembling your list of possible training firms.
The sooner you start, the farther you'll go
As we become adults and get set in our ways, it is often difficult to overcome that lifetime of conditioning to learn new ways of speaking, listening and cooperating with others. Whether you know it or not, you never stop learning until you die. It is much better for you and those around you if you decide to participate in that learning process. This requires honesty and open-mindedness. If you cannot admit to needing help, and you have locked your mind shut, there are no keys in this article or anywhere else that are going to open it. You have to do that yourself. Just remember: The sooner you start, the farther you'll go.
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