People Skills vs Technical Skills – Which is Better?

I meet with many different kinds of people every day of the work week. I specify the “work week” because it’s usually only in business meetings that I closely analyze people the way that I do. When I have in-person meetings, I subliminally but deliberately watch the way people sit, the way they clasp or hold their holds, their eye movements, the way the sit in their chair, level of eye-contact, gestures, mannerisms, and many other subtleties. Over the years I’ve developed a keen sense for how to read non-verbal cues and have seen how these cues can often steer the tone of a meeting. I think we all assess people subconsciously and in most lines of work, the effectiveness by which we’re able to do that can often create positive outcomes.

Those that know me hear me say all the time that one of the best books I have ever read is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This book was first published in 1936, and since then many other authors have written similar books on the same topic. But in my personal opinion, this book set the standard framework for how to succeed in business by building strong relationships and getting people to like you. For a long time I would read this book every year as a refresher, but it’s somewhat imprinted on my subconscious now.

Whether you’re an investor, entrepreneur (or neither) having great people skills will greatly set you apart. I often hear people say to themselves and others “I’m not a people-person” or “I don’t need people skills because it doesn’t pertain to what I do.” I sometimes scratch my head in confusion and wonder how anyone who says things like this can ever achieve their full potential in life. I’m a firm believer that good people skills (at the most basic level) are learned, not inherited. For example, my wife manages a team of about 11 people, and in her most recent performance review her team gave her rave reviews for how much they love working with her because she is attentive, timely, and easy to talk to. My wife is an introvert by nature, but she tells me all the time how she forced herself to step out of her comfort zone and learned how to be the leader that she (and everyone around her) knows she is. I greatly admire this about her.

On the other hand, I have met and worked with entrepreneurs who have never taken time to develop their people skills and it ended up hurting their companies. For example, our team was working with a start-up tech company helping them to prepare their pitch deck for investors. We spent countless hours working with the CEO to deliver the pitch, but no matter how many times we practiced it, we could never develop a high enough level of comfort to let him deliver the presentation. So a decision was made to let another member of the team deliver the presentation and the CEO would step in afterwards for the Q&A. Okay, crisis averted – so I thought.

On the day of the presentation the investors and the company gathered in the room and settled in for the presentation. At the start of most pitch presentations, the main presenter will introduce the other members of the team. In this case, when the presenter introduced himself as someone other than the CEO, this immediately raised concern with the investors. In most cases, investors want to hear directly from the CEO because it’s the CEO that crafts the plan, scope, and vision for the company.

As the presentation came to a close the CEO came to the front of the room and positioned himself ready to answer questions. Just to paint a proper picture of the CEO, the man is brilliant and technically gifted. He created a highly useful, and extremely beneficial technology in a very challenging vertical. In fact, months later I heard from a strategic institutional investor that looked at the company’s technology, and they told me that they’d never seen any other technology like it. The tech was that good. When the question and answer period started I (and the investors) were taken aback at how poorly the CEO interacted with the audience. His answers were short, he made very poor eye contact, and he did not speak with sufficient confidence or authority. This crippled the momentum from the presentation and may have contributed to the team’s inability to raise the capital they needed.

Now, I’m making two broad assumptions here. The first assumption I’m making is that the team would have raised the capital they needed had the CEO delivered a killer pitch. The second assumption is that the CEO should always be the person to deliver the presentation, which is certainly not always the case. But what I do think this example illustrates is the importance for startup CEOs (or anyone for that matter) to place just as much emphasis on developing their people skills as they do developing their technology.

Developing great people skills is a learned activity and having these skills will take you a long way in life and business. Whether you’re an introvert, a CEO, or just an average Joe, I encourage you to continue developing in this area. You will not regret it. Cheers -KM


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