Aug 15 2023

How Agencies Can Help Employees Develop Soft Skills

The Texas Department of Information Resources’ chief people and culture officer is striving for well-rounded tech professionals.

At this year’s NASCIO Midyear conference, there was much talk about the cultural side of IT and how agencies must cultivate work environments that create a sense of belonging.

Some attendees also made the assertion that when it comes to training and professional development, IT deputy directors might be more interested in honing their soft skills than anything else; for example, they want to know how to communicate with legislators and stand in for CIOs.

A recent Deloitte study found something similar. In a report on its 2023 Global Technology Leadership Study, Deloitte noted that soft skills are more important than technical skills when it comes to a CIO’s long-term success.

The study found that the number of respondents who selected “soft” skills as most important for tech professionals was three times the number of those who chose “engineering capabilities.”

It’s up to agencies to provide opportunities for their IT professionals to develop more than just technical skills. The payoff is that agencies will have a more well-rounded workforce and can improve retention rates through professional development.

“We’re in a transformational stage as state agencies,” says Lisa Jammer, chief people and culture officer at the Texas Department of Information Resources. “At one time, we probably weren’t focusing on culture as much. But we’re in a place where we’re forced to focus on it because the war for talent is happening both in private and the public industry.”

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How State and Local Agencies Can Prioritize Soft Skills

State and local governments can help employees develop soft skills by offering training programs that focus on interpersonal expertise. At DIR, Jammer says, there are formal training programs on both technical and nontechnical skills.

The organization partners with local universities to offer on-demand online training sessions that allow employees to hone their soft skills. DIR also supports employees in getting certifications and offers management leadership programs for those looking to advance into leadership roles.

“What it really does is help employees have more of a strategic focus and helps them with critical thinking at a deeper level,” Jammer says. 

If internal training resources aren’t available, agencies also can support employees by encouraging them to enroll in local training programs offered by trusted organizations. In Texas, for example, agencies can nominate employees for the Governor’s Executive Development Program offered by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

No matter how organizations do it, offering training opportunities in soft skills must be a priority, Jammer says.

At DIR, soft skills development and upskilling are part of the organization’s yearly strategic plan, which ties into to the organization’s mission statement and core values.

Agencies Can Adopt a Growth Mindset and Prioritize Leadership Agility 

The state of IT and cybersecurity is constantly evolving. As a result, Jammer says, IT leaders should focus on developing their agility — their ability to change course quickly, problem-solve and manage high-pressure situations.

“The cyber world is changing every day. Someone will find a new way to hack or compromise your organization,” she says. “It’s about crisis management. If you’re in a room and someone’s panicking because of an incident, you’re there to either educate or help them through it. You have to be able to keep a cool head, think on the fly and deal with ambiguity.”

Jammer also recommends that agencies shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, in which employees are encouraged to seek out stretch opportunities to advance their careers. This kind of organizational shift needs to start at the leadership level and requires a change management strategy.

“We say, ‘Hey, go out and do these things. You can be successful in this area and we’re going to change together. Here’s the benefit to our customers and the state of Texas,’” Jammer says.

State CIOs and CISOs Must Lead with Emotional Intelligence 

Of course, IT leaders need strong technical backgrounds to be effective leaders. But a case can be made that elements such as emotional intelligence, effective communication and relationship-building are just as important. Jammer says presentation skills in particular are key for CIOs and CISOs.

“When you think about it, a lot of what our executives need to do is go out and sell. They're selling an idea, whether it be to employees or to customers. And if you cannot communicate effectively, you cannot get the buy-in that you need,” Jammer says.

DIR partners with the LBJ School of Public Affairs to create tech-specific leadership programs for IT leaders such as the Executive Leadership for Information Technology Excellence program, which focuses on increasing leadership skills for IT officers.

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