Almost every open CIO and senior IT leadership position lists “outstanding communications and interpersonal abilities” as prerequisites. Most of us translate this into “people skills,” but what exactly do people skills mean?
Strengths that come to mind include the ability to collaborate, negotiate, be a team player, write, speak, and listen competently. However, in the end, it is the ability to connect with people that determines how strong a leader’s people skills really are.
To “connect” with someone implies “an intrinsic bond … often characterized by a sense of trust, respect and loyalty.” Those of us who have led IT projects understand the importance of these skills because we must communicate with many stakeholders, inside and outside of the business. Yet, even if we understand the importance of making connections, how do we know when we’ve really connected with someone?
For the IT project world, Suzanne Degges-White, a professor and chair of the Counseling and Higher Education department at Northern Illinois University, cites several signs of connection that are especially relevant:
- You feel a sense of rapport and connection and are “on the same wavelength.”
- You’re in a space in which you are overcoming challenges or adversity together.
- You’re willing to let down your guard enough to reach out to connect with someone.
I experienced this as a project manager in my first IT project.
This project was already millions of dollars over budget and more than one year late. The client was extremely angry. Frankly, he had been lied to by the previous project manager, who kept telling him for months that the project was nearly complete and ready to go live. Yet, it really wasn’t close.
The original project manager was relieved of duty, and I was asked to take his place. I soon saw how far behind the project really was. As a person new to project management, I wasn’t sure what to do. The only thing I could think of was to tell the client the truth about the project, and I had to tell him how much time and money it really was going to take to bring the project into production.
I was scared as we rode the elevator up to the client’s 46th floor office in lower Manhattan. I even told the two project leads who were with me that we could get fired.
The client was angry. He said he had heard enough, and he ended our meeting after 15 minutes. But the next day he called us back to his office. He told us that it was the first time he really felt he was hearing the truth about the project and that enough had been invested already, but that together, his staff and ours would see the project through.
I’m not sure if any of us knew what was transpiring just then, but when I later reflected on it, I believed that by leveling with the client, we were able to restore a modicum of trust and belief in the project that facilitated open communications. As Degges-White pointed out, when you both know you are finally on a common “wavelength” about a project or task, communications become more open. You also feel free to admit vulnerability, such as when a critical software test fails on your side of the project.
The fundamentals of people skills that universities teach, and HR departments look for are speaking, writing, communicating and collaborating, and contributing in a team environment. But when you try to connect with a user, a board member, a C-level executive, a vendor or an IT staff member, listening is equally important.
Listening and connecting go beyond just hearing what a person says or reading what he/she writes in an email. It is picking up on body language and your intuitive readings of the people with whom you work. These are hard skills for most of us to learn, and even tougher skills for companies to hire for, because such skills can’t be detected in an interview or a CV.
As a young and inexperienced project manager, I inadvertently stumbled into “listening” mode with this senior client executive, mostly because I didn’t know what else I could do beyond telling him the truth. What I didn’t know was that open communication and an honest assessment of where we were was all he ever wanted, and we connected.