Why STEM Professionals Need Leadership Skills


Today’s technological advancements and innovation, coupled with our knowledge-based economy, have accelerated demand for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs. But even in STEM professions, technical skills can only take you so far within an organization. Adept leadership skills are essential, and yet in many cases, developing the soft skills required in leadership often takes a back seat to refining STEM technical skills.

In a world where robotics, automation, machine leaning and artificial intelligence are enabling explosive levels of innovation and creating new job and business opportunities, the capacity to lead must innovate and adapt as quickly, the Harvard Business Review councils. Professionals looking to grow beyond their technical STEM skills and into organizational leadership roles must be equipped to understand human needs like affiliation, mastery, autonomy and purpose to motivate employees to achieve greatness. Additionally, they must develop their capacities for ethical decision making, compassion and effective communication to become the leader others want to follow.

Here, we examine the soft skills every STEM professional needs to develop for leadership and how to add these skills to your current technical skillset.

What is the Difference Between Soft Skills and Technical Skills?

STEM professionals spend years developing knowledge and acquiring the technical skills necessary in their disciplines. Increasingly, in addition to the extensive academic knowledge, research, and experience necessary to hone technical skills, STEM professionals need to invest time and effort in cultivating the critical soft skills for leading people.

Soft skills are personal competencies that can help improve performance, enable more effective human interactions and generally complement all the technical aspects of a professional’s credentials. For example, the savviest software developer in the world may struggle to maintain employment if they can’t communicate well with colleagues or translate challenging concepts to other departments with relative ease.

Further, these soft skills can be necessary for career progression. Often, people are promoted into leadership roles because they performed well in their previous position. But, they can’t suddenly be expected to be a good leader just because they had technical expertise. They must have the necessary soft skills to thrive in their new leadership roles, which call for developing, coordinating, and motivating others.

For employers, finding technically skilled employees equipped with soft skills is the top issue HR professionals report, according to John Shaw, research and strategic initiatives manager at the Northern Virginia Technology Council.

Because technical skills are essential to STEM roles, professionals often choose to develop them first. But, according to U.S. News & World Report, if you can hone your soft skills and couple them with your technical prowess, you may find yourself at an advantage as you look to advance in your career or even move up within your organization.

What are the Skills You Need for Leadership?

“Today, so many organizations are trying to find individuals who have the skills to lead – they may have experts in their given technical areas, but they need individuals with leadership skills to take them to the top,” says Katrina Merlini, Assistant Professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Program Chair of the Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership at Florida Tech.

For one example of how technical skills combined with people skills can lead to a managerial or leadership role, look no further than the rise of product managers. The project-based cultures of science and technology companies in particular have fueled the growth of this role, with these organizations increasingly seeking professionals whose blend of STEM skills and soft skills can help them work across departments to lead cross-functional teams that have a variety of technical experience.

Tech giant Google with its Project Oxygen, which originally identified eight critical behaviors for managers to improve critical business outcomes when it launched in 2008, is continually learning about how the demands of technical innovation necessitate better cross-collaboration and stronger decision making from leadership. Google has since expanded their list to 10 essential behaviors and soft skills displayed by the company’s “best managers.”

The 10 Oxygen behaviors are:

  1. Coaching — focuses on developing individuals
  2. Delegation — empowers team and does not micromanage
  3. Diversity and inclusion — creates an inclusive environment with concern for well-being
  4. Time management — productive and results-oriented
  5. Communication — actively listens and shares information
  6. Growth oriented — supports career development and discusses performance
  7. Visionary — has a clear strategy for the team
  8. Advisor — has key technical skills and uses them to help advise the team
  9. Collaboration — fosters team collaboration and collaborates across Google
  10. Decisive — strong in negotiation, conflict management and decision making

Besides team efficiency, employee engagement and possible organizational advancement, adding soft skills can give a more purposeful perspective to technical work. Scientific American emphasizes that scientists must have leadership skills to grapple with the disruptive trends and ethical questions raised by new technologies and how to best implement them to solving global challenges, arguing leadership education can best help researchers to elevate their discipline and communicate the importance of their work in meeting societal or economic needs.

How Can You Add Leadership Skills to Your Technical Skillset?

One recent study, Developing Leadership Competencies for STEM Fields: The Case of Purdue Polytechnic Leadership Academy, cited the discrepancy between employers’ demands for interpersonal skills and many educational programs placing the responsibility of development on employers.

One important step to adding leadership skills to your technical skillset can be continuing your education. Look for programs that place a value on the soft skills of leadership and present them as an essential complement to your STEM knowledge and technical skills. If you already have a STEM-focused degree, adding the soft skills and leadership methods through a graduate program may be your next step.

Florida Tech’s MA in Organizational Leadership program “is complementary to various STEM-related degrees…” explains Merlini, reiterating that “what sets employees apart from others who [also] have these STEM skills…are leadership-related skills (e.g., perseverance, communication, receptivity to feedback, empathy, developing others). So, this program is also ideal for those with STEM- and business-related backgrounds who are engaging in everyday leadership or who are currently in or want to pursue leadership roles.”

In STEM fields where rapid change is only accelerating, STEM professionals must balance their technical skills with the soft skills of leadership in order to adapt to, influence, and lead through this rapid change.

Grow from Technical Expert to Valued Leader with an MA in Organizational Leadership from Florida Tech!


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