As important as technology is, there is much more that CIOs need to know as they take an increasingly important role in the success of their enterprises.

In fact, technology may be the easy part. That comes almost naturally to many CIOs, who have typically spent their lives immersed in it. The harder part for them may be the “soft skills,” those traits that are needed to relate to and persuade both the executives around them and the people who work for them.

Why are these soft skills so important? To help clarify that, we spoke with executives from two technology recruiting organizations: John Reed, Senior Executive Director with Robert Half Technology, and Katie Ross, Executive Recruiting Partner at Heller Search Associates.

Why soft skills matter

“Today’s CIOs are more than technologists. They are visionaries, business partners, experts in helping employees and customers adapt to new environments, and mentors to the next wave of technologists,” says Ross.

“How a CIO talks to the CEO should be very different from talking to the chief architect.”

Reed agrees, noting that especially in the last several years, “Technology leadership for most companies has moved to the forefront in a lot of business decision making.” What used to be reactive – what technology do we need now that the strategy is in place – has become proactive, with technology driving an ever-increasing number of business decisions.

In that changing landscape, the CIO needs soft skills such as communication, collaboration, problem solving, empathy, and a customer-first attitude.

Become a great communicator

Reed ranks communication as the top soft skill, given the need for articulating not only a leadership vision, but for helping people understand the value proposition, the business case, and how technology can be the enabler.

His advice, if you want to do it right, is to seek professional training, with a focus on how to deliver a message concisely and particularly how to translate “tech-speak” into layman’s terms. It could be an educational course or one-on-one coaching, but it helps if the training involves you being videotaped and then critiqued.

After that, Reed says, remember that “Practice makes perfect, and you can look for opportunities to hone your skills, perhaps with co-workers, or in small groups, or in networking events at technology user group meetings or meet-ups.”

Ross adds to that by emphasizing the importance of a CIO being able to articulate his or her vision to various audiences. “How a CIO talks to the CEO should be very different from talking to the chief architect. A good CIO should be in tune with the CEO’s mission and be able to articulate the challenges and opportunities in operational metrics and financial terms, backed by data points that matter to the C-suite,” she insists.

Focus on these skills, too

Reed says these three soft skills rank at the top of the list:

  • Collaboration. “As a business leader you need to be able to gain consensus among groups of people with a variety of interests.”
  • Problem solving. “You need to analyze the business problems that your organization is trying to solve and determine how technology can solve those problems.”
  • Customer service. “You want to avoid getting hung up on procedures and instead focus on how to meet business objectives. For anyone struggling with technology, how can you make it easier for them?”

Ross adds one more to that list – the ability to adapt to new ideas and be open to new directions.

How to become skilled

 Soft skills don’t really come easily to anyone, Ross says, not just for technical types. But to become comfortable with them, it helps to “spend time in roles that require one foot in IT and another in a business function, ideally early in your career. Finding mentors in product development, finance, or operations is another good way to develop key soft skills.”

Reed says the key is being open to, and genuinely seeking, feedback. You must be willing to make changes and modifications, and then create opportunities to ask peers and superiors how well they feel you and they are working together and what feedback they have for you. “It all starts with open communications and that feedback channel,” he says.

Building the culture

Once a CIO has become soft-skilled, he or she will want people on their team with similar proficiency, to be sure that the communicative and collaborative culture gains a solid foothold. How do you accomplish that?

“Listen to your team members and peers,” Ross advises. “Those who are as interested in the strategy of the business as in the technology, and who can articulate why decisions are made from both a technology and a business standpoint, are the ones you develop as your leaders.”

Reed adds that when it comes to hiring, you should worry less about certifications and degrees and more about people skills.

“Use behavioral interview questions for candidates, moving away from a heavy technical interview to asking open-ended behavioral questions. Ask how they would handle specific situations and give them scenarios involving working with diverse personalities to find common ground,” he says.

One more idea is after an interview, ask the individual to send you a follow-up note about it, so you can gauge how effectively they communicate. Reed said that can even work for someone already on your team, where you ask them to send you a summary of a conversation you had with them, to see how well they communicate and how closely they listened.

These tips are ideal for anyone in IT that wants to make a positive difference in their tech career.