Soft skills in a hard industry; the professional value of personal growth

Zuni Dierk
Consultant, Versent
With how rapidly modern technology is changing, we all understand the importance of keeping our technical skills up to date to stay relevant, whether that be by learning the latest Javascript framework or by familiarizing yourself with a new and innovative containerisation platform. What far fewer of us seem to understand is the importance of constantly evaluating and updating our softer skills.
June 23, 2017

It is often easy to identify our own technical inadequacies and what specifically is needed to remedy those inadequacies because they are readily apparent to us. If you can’t figure out how to write a piece of code in Java, then it’s obviously because you don’t know enough about the language and you probably need to do a bit of googling to remedy that. However, not only is it harder to identify our non-technical inadequacies and how to remedy them, but it is also far more uncomfortable and potentially confronting to come to terms with them in the first place. Admitting a technical inadequacy can make you feel like you aren’t very good at your job, but admitting a non-technical inadequacy can make you feel like you aren’t a very good person.

How many times in your career have you been in a situation or come up against a problem that can’t be overcome simply by increasing your technical knowledge in some area? Maybe you were dealing with a particularly stubborn client who remained adamant that you do something, even though you were convinced it was the wrong course of action. Or maybe you needed something from a client, but they didn’t seem to want to help you for some reason and you couldn’t figure out why. As consultants, we have to deal with clients every day, and just like every environment you develop in presents its own unique set of technical challenges, every client and every person you interact with presents their own unique set of political and social challenges.

In situations like those I mentioned above, some people might struggle, and with good reason. They are uncomfortable positions to be in and can be incredibly difficult to navigate effectively. What would you do in those situations? Let's assume for a minute, that you are the person in the second scenario. You need some assistance from a client but they aren’t being too helpful, and you suspect you might be facing some subconscious sexism since you are a woman working in a male-dominated field. What do you do? Unfortunately, you probably can’t figure this one out by just googling it.

In this scenario, you need to have a sufficient understanding of people (or at least this specific person) to be sure that they are actually bothered by the fact that you are a woman, and not for some other reason. You need to have the emotional intelligence to be able to deal with that realisation in a professional manner, rather than taking it as a personal insult. You also need to be able to evaluate the best course of action for you to take. Do you ignore it completely? Do you bring it up with them directly, or would they not respond well to you implying that they are being sexist? Do you ask a male colleague to approach the client and ask for the help in your place, so that you can complete your work? If you don’t already have these sorts of social and emotional skills, then you aren’t likely to be able to pick them up quickly enough to apply them in any immediate situation. However, if you recognise your own need for growth in areas like that, then you can work on them, and perhaps next time you are in a situation requiring more than just your technical acumen, you will be better prepared to handle it effectively.

So where does this road to personal growth begin, so to speak, and how can you foster the kind of mindset necessary to facilitate that self-improvement? Simple. With humility, and through mindfulness.

In this context, humility doesn’t necessarily have to mean admitting our own flaws, because in some situations we may not really be doing anything wrong. It would be more appropriate to think of it as a willingness to admit that even though we might not be doing anything wrong, maybe there is something we can be doing better, given the situation we find ourselves in. By referring to mindfulness, I simply mean the practice of paying particular attention to yourself, your actions/interactions, and their impact on those around you. It is incredibly important to understand why you react to things the way that you do, especially if you want to change those reactions and the effect that you have on others.

In short, to remain effective and in charge of all the new challenges, uncomfortable positions, and confronting situations that you will undoubtedly find yourself facing in the professional world, you need to constantly re-evaluate and refresh your soft skills, cultivating your emotional intelligence and not just your technical intelligence. 

I’ll end this with two pieces of advice I have found incredibly helpful during the relatively few years that I’ve been alive:

- Be nice to those around you, because you never know what someone else is going through, and you never know when you might need their help or support yourself.

- Don’t be afraid of admitting your own flaws and working on improving yourself; nobody is perfect and nobody expects you to be.

If you can do those two things, not only will you be a better person, but you will also be a far more effective and successful consultant.

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