In a World of Data, Communication Skills are Key

By Rocky Subramanian

In today’s business environment, the best degrees are worth nothing if people can’t effectively communicate business outcomes. That absolutely goes for tech folks, salespeople, engineers and PR pros. Steve Jobs was not only an skilled coder, but he was an articulate spokesperson and master storyteller who could comfortably deliver a narrative about the human impact of his company’s technology.

Over the past decade, Chicago’s focus on technology and innovation has paid off. KPMG named the city an emerging tech hub in 2017 for its strong infrastructure, startup investment and pipeline of talent. And earlier this month, LinkedIn data showed tech skills are in high demand, with web programming and coding near the top of the list.

And yet, while proficiency in coding, product design or engineering are prerequisites, what is becoming essential for success in the Chicago market – and nationally – is that these skills must be accompanied by softer skills like an effective communication style, presentation skills, collaboration, and problem solving to drive business results. Startup founders know this well; strong pitching skills are essential to gaining customers, funding and recruiting the best talent. VCs/Angels invest in the potential of a team — not just the idea behind the startup. A team that works well together and communicates effectively is a better bet than a team that just has the technical qualifications.

For Job Seekers, Tech and Interpersonal Skills are a Winning Combination

This is particularly evident in the corporate world, which hires differently today. In the past, people could get by on their skill alone, and indeed many thrived on that archetype of the loner programmer. But in today’s business environment, being able to work efficiently as part of a larger team and to contribute collaborative, silo-breaking value is key. That was a common theme noted by employees in FORTUNE’s Best Workplaces in Chicago – a list SAP was excited to make this week. It’s clear that the best work isn’t just driven by technical knowhow; “group-think” is at the top as well.

The interview process now focuses on culture, the ability to articulate value, and the ability to “connect” culturally with customers and other employees. A lot of credence is given to the network that interviewees have built. Combining that with Tech skills is a sure-fire hit for an interview.

In my role at SAP, running a $1.6B Market Unit, I spend just as much time meeting with our employees as I do clients. Being able to empathetically listen to the challenges customers and employees are facing is one of the most importance skills I’ve had to develop. I ask a lot of questions. Translating what I hear and see into effective next steps is critical in my role, and how I communicate these actions is just as important to drive adoption or acceptance. I encourage my leaders to adopt a coaching-style when helping guide their direct reports, since a good coach knows to ask the right questions to help their mentees critically think and identify solutions. This style also encourages employees to become more effective communicators.

The Business Case for a Well-Rounded Workforce

Not only do soft skills benefit the job seeker, but they also make businesses more effective. A 2017 study from Boston College, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan showed one company’s addition of soft skills training – things like communication and teamwork – increased worker productivity and retention at a 250 percent return on investment.

At the same time, the way we work has evolved, particularly in the technology space. While information proliferates, and our mobile devices allow us to function untethered from any part of the world, remote work settings and fast-paced projects can often create more silos than ever before. Fostering a work environment that accentuates collaboration, listening, presenting ideas, and adapting to change pays off through a more engaged and efficient workforce.

What gets me excited as I look at the 1871 community – and beyond – is that Chicago is home to a thriving tech ecosystem, with deep talent and fresh ideas. I see a hotbed of innovation happening here. SAP is thrilled to play a role mentoring, facilitating customers, industry thought-leaders, students, startups, VCs, and SAP employees to innovate together. I have no doubt that if we all continue to focus on cultivating a well-rounded, diverse workforce — this market will set the standard for a long time to come.

 Rocky Subramanian is senior vice president & managing director of the Midwest for SAP, market leader in enterprise application software. Thanks to Rocky for allowing us to share this post which first appeared in the blog for 1871, home of more than 400 early-stage, high-growth digital startups.

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