4 ways to hire for soft skills: Boston CIO of the Year winners share

This article originally appeared on The Enterprisers Project.

In this tight IT job market, candidates with strong technical skills would seem to have a leg up. But CIOs are increasingly prioritizing a whole set of soft skills to ensure their talent is capable of keeping pace with the change and collaboration needed to be effective in this new era of IT. As MIT Lincoln Laboratory CIO Robert Solis put it: “It is very refreshing to see the evolution and emphasis of soft skills for IT staff finally reaching maturity.

We caught up with winners of the 2019 Boston CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards to find out the role these skills play in their hiring decisions. The awards were presented by the Boston CIO Leadership Association, a professional community that annually recognizes CIOs for their excellence in technology leadership.

We asked the winners to share a few of the soft skills they prioritize when hiring for technical roles. We also asked them to explain why those skills are important to them, and offer some advice or examples on how to cultivate those skills. 

Their responses ranged from the need for customer service skills (increasingly important in this age of customer centricity) to a demonstrated desire to take initiative. 

One winner even shared an inspiring anecdote about how taking a chance on candidate with great customer service skills and a desire to learn, but no Salesforce experience, led to her now having a strategic role in the company. It just goes to show the power of hiring candidates who demonstrate skills that you can't necessarily learn in the classroom or read in a book. 

Read on to see what soft skills these award-winning CIOs are prioritizing when making hiring decisions.

1. In retail, it’s all about the customer service skills

Large Enterprise CIO of the Year

Charles Jarrett, CIO, Cumberland Farms: Broadly speaking, relevant soft skills really depend on the industry in which the organization operates, the role IT performs within the organization, and the role of the individual within the organization. In the retail space, I look for team members who treat their co-workers from other departments as if they were customers. I seek individuals who are service-oriented, empathetic, and curious. In other industries, the emphasis may be on compliance or strict adherence to literal instruction.

It is important we – IT in support of retail – view ourselves as serving those who serve our paying customers. The reality for Cumberland Farms is: If we don’t meet the needs of the customer, another company will. It is IT’s role to facilitate – empower if you will – the transaction between our internal and external customers.

I encourage the IT team to think like business owners. When interacting with customers and suppliers, think, act, and communicate like the organization and IT belong to you. It gives you the right perspective and, if taken seriously, helps develop skills which can greatly enhance your career.

2. Find great communicators and collaborators 

Enterprise CIO of the Year

Bernie Gracy, CDO, Agero: The ability to collaborate and communicate is absolutely critical. Anyone we hire within the IT organization is going to be a member of a cross-functional team. For these individuals to know machine learning or python or serverless – that’s table stakes. We can easily validate that they have the right tech skills. What goes beyond that is assessing how they can be effective within the organization.

The people we bring in need to raise the level of the organization. Technology is a team sport and requires a communicative and collaborative approach. Our tech teams work across multiple functions and tie into many aspects of the business, so to be successful, our team members must be able to communicate what they are doing and why, and be clear on how its aligned to larger goals. They have to be supportive team members, taking their raw technology skills and then partnering with product owners or QA leads or data science or finance – or whomever across the organization – to get work done.

We encourage our employees to scale their skills – communicating not just with the people they work with daily, but by also going out to speak at industry sessions, conferences, lead trainings, and more. I focus on driving my VPs and directors to engage in the Boston and broader U.S. tech community. Since the new year, members of my team have spoken at a MongoDB user meetup, mentored budding developers at CodeDay Boston, delivered a training on machine learning for Open Data Science, presented at the Cyara Xchange Roadshow, and participated in meetups for Auth0, among other events.

3. Look for true problem solvers

Corporate CIO of the Year

David Nuss, CIO, CresaEvery team member we hire has customer service as the core trait. I believe you can teach anyone technology, but you cannot teach customer service. Natural customer service will always be genuine and recognized by everyone around you. Our end users appreciate that we use each trouble ticket filed as a teaching moment for technology and that we are sincere in our desire to help them.

The second soft skill we focus on is problem solving. We look for individuals who can break down complex problems into solvable parts. With the complexity and interoperability of today’s systems, you need to understand both how they work together and on their own before you can troubleshoot an issue. 

Eight years ago, I hired an employee with no prior Salesforce experience to be a Salesforce administrator. She had a history of great customer service and a desire to learn new things. Her initial responsibilities included basic Salesforce administration and covering Cresa’s Salesforce help desk. With mentoring from the rest of the team, she quickly mastered her responsibilities. Through her excellent custom service abilities, she established solid relationships with our business managers, who passed on their positive experiences to the real estate professionals in their offices. By providing great customer service, this employee gave personnel at all levels of Cresa reason to trust that their experience with Salesforce would be a good one. She now regularly participates in high-level corporate technology adoption meetings, providing a critical link between technology strategy and implementation to ensure that the right decisions are made for the success of our employees. Her story illustrates how customer service, trust, problem-solving, and learning come together to make IT a valuable and welcome part of the business.

A technology professional who does not learn something new every week is not investing in themselves. I encourage my team to always grow and evolve through coursework, attending conferences, exploring technology topics of interest, and mentoring each other.

4. Look for true problem solvers

Nonprofit CIO of the Year

Robert Solis, CIO, MIT Lincoln LaboratoryFirst, let me say that it is very refreshing to see the evolution and emphasis of soft skills for IT staff finally reaching maturity. It has been a long time coming but critical for any organization to realize the full potential for technology to solve real-world challenges and adding value.

There are so many soft skills that come to mind, and I usually stress a portfolio of them when hiring staff and working with our managers. However, if I were to focus on just two skills, I would accentuate listening and taking initiative.

What is so interesting regarding soft skills is when you really stop and think about it, most skills that come to mind are necessary for almost any job – especially the ability to listen well and take initiative.

I like these two skills because, if done well and in concert, they together drive excellent service and results. Listening is how we learn what challenges our organization and customers face, and initiative is how we take what we learned and drive successful outcomes.

While some people exhibit these two skills naturally as part of their personalities, there is no doubt that one can learn to excel in these through deliberate practice. While that may sound obvious, it does not happen without thoughtful repetition, seeking out opportunities to use these skills, and refining them over time. Throughout my career I have sought out people who do this well. They are out there, you simply have to take the initiative to find them and … just listen to them.