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March - 2008 - issue > Management
Build Soft Skills for a Competitive Advantage
Utkarsh Rai
Sunday, March 2, 2008
I know for many years three people who graduated in computer science from India 20 years ago and are now working in the U.S. They chose the management ladder in the IT industry as their career path. I recently came to know that they all landed up in the same company as VP, Director, and Manager. The Manager reports to the Director who, in turn, reports to the VP.

I was surprised to see all three of them in the same company after 20 years. This excited me to conduct a study of this unique case to analyze how they shaped their careers.

The VP understood his strengths and weaknesses at a very early stage in his career. He knew that he had good technical skills but was not one of the best in the industry. He started investing his time and money in taking up short and long term courses (sometimes sponsored by his company) in soft skills, which he applied well in his team. He was always ready to learn from his mistakes and took feedback with the right attitude. He was promoted as a manager soon. During his management tenure, he started providing more space to technical people who had superior skills, to ensure that the product could be well architected, implemented, and tested. This earned him the tag of ‘great executioner’. His learning did not stop here, he went ahead to build his own library at home with a good collection of management books from which he drew management techniques regularly. The other important aspect was that he joined some social networking forums at an early stage in his career and became well connected in the industry.

The Director, had superb technical skills and was considered by many as an ‘one man army’ and was the most sought after by any manager. Given any problem, however complex it might be, he could solve it with ease. He solved others’ problems too and ensured that the product was of high quality and was released on time. He hardly spent anytime explaining things and grooming others. He was critical of those whom he thought were average performers and thus ultimately ended up building a wall between him and others. Over the years he realized that his soft skills were not good enough to motivate the team towards success were he to start his own startup; though I used to think that he would have been very successful. He decided to grow within the company where he could provide strategic and technical direction to the team and leave the resolution of people management issues to his manager.

The Manager had better technical skills than the VP and better team skills than the Director, but stayed put in the same role. Why? I have always known him as a person who confines his thought to the potentially unfavorable outcomes and was quick to blame others - his boss, peers, or any one in the works or his family - or his ill-luck. I hardly recollect him doing any introspection to understand how he could have done things differently and obtained the desired results. He never identified the aspects for self-improvement and his frustration hindered his growth.

So where does this all lead us to. It is important to assess ones own strengths and weaknesses periodically. Rather than finding faults in others, one needs to grow by developing soft skills in addition to sound technical skills to get the desired results. It is important to understand that soft skills start to play a significant role in one’s career, as one gains experience.

The author is Managing Director, Infinera India. He can be reached at urai@infinera.com

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