Many business analysts focus on growing their skills during the first few years of their careers. Their resumes are packed with programming languages and software tools to prove they can handle any specific task that is thrown their way.
However, more hiring managers than ever are focusing on soft skills and even choosing to hire inexperienced business analysts because their soft skills make up for their technical ability. It’s easy to train someone how to use an analytics platform. It’s harder to train them how to think critically about problems or report the data professionally.
If you’re trying to buff up your skill set to advance your business analyst career, consider focusing on these soft skills to increase your chances of landing a job or earning a promotion.
Meeting Management and Facilitation
Business solution designer and IT/PM consultant Brad Egeland shares a few the top soft skills business analysts need in today’s fast-paced workforce, highlighting meeting management as the most important.
“Besides participating in regular project status meetings led by the project manager, the BA will be conducting many project meetings throughout the project engagement,” Egeland writes at BA Times. If you’re unable to control the meetings you lead and attend, then you could be setting yourself up for endless interruptions, unproductive discussions, and very long workdays. According to an infographic created by Fuze, middle managers spend an average of 35 percent of their time in meetings each day (50 percent for senior management), and executives consider 67 percent of meetings they attend to be failures.
You could well be holding your career back if you’re not properly equipped to hold the room’s attention, work through an agenda and create actionable assignments from the meeting. After all, why would a senior manager (or anyone for that matter) attend one of your meetings in the future if they think it’s going to be a disorganized waste of time?
Facilitation Occurs Naturally Throughout the Day
Aaron Whittenberger agrees with Egeland’s suggestion. “Not all business analysts have to facilitate large group discussions among a large group of stakeholders, but facilitation of discussions and relationships is an important skill for a business analyst,” he writes. “Knowing the goal of the discussion helps guide [it] along the path toward that goal and reduces tangent discussions.”
From Whittenberger’s viewpoint, facilitation ranges from the high level (like leading a client meeting) to the low level (chatting with a colleague in the hallway). The ability to command a discussion with a clear purpose and goals can get you far regardless of your role in the company.
Negotiation is one of the most underappreciated soft skills in the business world. From two co-workers dividing up a workload to a manager working out a timeline with employees, there’s a back-and-forth element to most aspects in the workplace. For business analysts, the more you work with different types of people, the more you negotiate throughout the day.
“A business analyst is an intermediary among a variety of people with various types of personalities: clients, developers, users, management, and IT,” Alison Doyle says. “You have to be able to achieve a profitable outcome for your company while finding a solution for the client that makes them happy.”
Many negotiators actually work on other skills like empathy and listening to better reach agreements on projects and action plans. Adrian at Modern Analyst explains how the process of negotiation works and why this skill is so important:
Good negotiators can develop understanding, acceptance, belief, respect, and trust.
Your attitude, approach, and tone of voice can all affect how likely people are to negotiate with you.
Your caring and concern for the other party’s needs are often just as important to achieving your end goals.
While the common negotiator stereotype consists of strong boardroom executives who refuse to back down, the reality is actually much different. Instead, think of a hostage negotiator trying to talk people down, except the hostage in this situation is a missed deadline, additional project requests, or a cut budget. If you’re unable to reach agreements that at least partially satisfy all parties, then one side (either your client or your internal team) is going to be unhappy about the project moving forward.
How to Improve Your Negotiation Skills
Fortunately, you don’t have to wait until you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place (or a client and a frustrated dev team) to practice your negotiation tactics. In an article for Business Analyst Learnings, Steve Brown suggests taking steps to become better at negotiating, even if you’re just trying to decide where the team should go for lunch:
- Research problems and come prepared to discuss issues with information.
- Focus on solutions instead of unfair expectations or perceived personal slights.
- Prioritize issues so the most important ones are addressed even if time runs out.
If you focus on just one of these tips a week, you can grow your negotiation abilities and prepare yourself to handle more challenging situations.
Formal and Informal Leadership
You don’t have to wait to be nominated for a leadership role or until you’re the highest ranking employee in the room to showcase leadership skills. In fact, business analysts that take negotiating positions or call planning meetings often have to be leaders while sitting next to senior managers, vice presidents, and CEOs.
Karthik Selvaraj at Head Honchos explains that this concept is called informal or situational leadership. It is the process of stepping up into a temporary leadership role because you’re best equipped to handle the situation. How you perform in these situations is indicative of how you would behave in a permanent leadership position.
Even junior analysts and business interns can learn from stepping into temporary leadership roles, and should always be watching how others lead.
“An entry-level employee might not be leading anyone, but they should be noticing and taking notes," Catriona Harris, CEO of Uproar PR, says. “This is the time to start visualizing how you will handle certain situations, so when the time comes, you are ready."
Taking advantage of informal leadership opportunities can prepare you for the project management and operations leadership roles. The time to start preparing to be a leader is when you’re looking ahead to the future, not when you’re applying for your first management position.
Active Listening and Understanding
Without strong listening skills, you will struggle with the rest of the soft skills on this list, from leading a meeting effectively to negotiating an agreement.
“Productive listening hinges on creating an environment where both parties feel safe, especially when conversations are more complex,” Paige Lansing Valle writes at Emotive Brand. “Often, the more someone feels listened to, the more they open up.”
You can set yourself up for success by listening productively to your team in low-stress situations. When colleagues know they can come to you on minor issues, there will be less stress when bigger ones arise.
Steps For Improving Your Listening Skills
The team at TechCanvass emphasizes the importance of active listening and provides tips for honing this crucial skill. These can be applied to people above you, such as clients and managers, or your coworkers and employees at your level.
Ask open-ended questions that make the client, co-worker, or manager elaborate on their ideas. This will give you more information that can be used to better give them what they want.
Paraphrase their statements or repeat ideas back to them. This confirms that you haven’t missed anything and are on the same page with the team.
By taking these two steps, you may be surprised by how much more you retain in your day-to-day conversations.
Clear and Effective Communication
The team at Project Management Works highlights signs that you can follow to see if you’re communicating effectively. Even if you think you’re following communication best practices, you could be faltering if you’re missing key criteria. You’ll know you’re reaching participants when:
Stakeholders are engaged and ready to offer their support.
The client is confident in the deliverables
The project team feels they have the right tools and information to succeed.
Time isn’t wasted on unnecessary meetings or spent reading old reports.
If you find that your efforts aren’t checking off these boxes, then it’s time to rethink how you communicate. In some cases, you might need to completely reevaluate how you talk with others in the workplace and make yourself heard.
“Your words are only a fraction of the message you relay to staff members,” Rachel Miller writes for Sandler Training. Your tone or body language might be the source of your problems for in-person meetings, while your timing and formatting might fall on deaf ears for digital communication.
Bonus Skill: Documentation
Along with communication, documentation can make it easier for parties to return to discussions and check what was actually said. If you have strong communication and listening skills, you should be able to create a clear summary and detailed report.
“From the written text to the depicted requirements using diagrams, [documentation] tells a story and brings the audience on a journey from problem to solution,” Richard Lannon writes.
Plus, if you work with people who lack the strong listening skills you have developed, documentation can help them catch up with the plan.
Business analysts are problem solvers. They need to constantly find new information and come up with creative solutions. Without curiosity, analysts are likely to get stumped by problems or accept information at face value.
In an article for Forbes, Adi Gaskell explains that there are actually two types of curiosity, both of which can be fosters in the workplace:
D-Type curiosity comes from having a deficit in some way. People become curious to overcome a problem.
I-Type curiosity comes from the initiative to learn more and explore the world around you.
While D-Type curiosity is crucial for business analysts, many leaders want to surround themselves with people with I-Type curiosity who are constantly learning new information. Some managers go so far as to seek out these individuals during job interviews. Traits like curiosity can provide insight into how that person might function as an employee.
"While it's true that I am listening for specific skills, knowledge, and processes that may be needed for the job I'm filling, I'm also specifically listening for how the candidate values the process of learning itself,” Kurt Rakos of SkyWater Search Partners tells Inc.
Candidates who are curious and have a strong desire to learn tend to do better when faced with new challenges or tasks outside of their normal job duties because they want to explore foreign concepts instead of avoiding them.
Tips for Fostering Curiosity in Your Company
If you or your co-workers aren’t as curious as you would like, there are steps you can take to better encourage creative thinking and planning. Psychologist Todd Kashdan sets out the steps you can take in an article for Psychology Today:
- Encourage people to ask questions, or in the absence of questions, explain what you’re doing and why.
- Instead of punishing failure, discuss what went wrong and what could have been done better. This encourages your team to try differently in the future.
- Focus on the actual process to get things done along with the results. If you’re always looking for a better way to do something, your team will too.
Fostering curiosity requires a cultural shift within your company. While a few people can come up with creative solutions, there should be support and encouragement from the whole team.
Nobody is perfect, and even the best managers and CEOs lack some of these skills. However, if you strive to improve a few of these soft abilities in the workplace, then it should be easier to improve others. You don’t have to become a power leader overnight, but you can start working at it today.