How Soft Skills Increase Security Productivity

February 28, 2023 | By Jennifer Minella, IANS Faculty

This piece is part of our ‘Faculty Focus' series, an interview-style article where a member of the IANS Faculty shares firsthand, practitioner-based insights on an infosec topic. In this feature, Jennifer Minella discusses how soft skills are critical to the productivity of not just the organization – but also to the personal success of security team members.

Five questions with IANS Faculty member, Jennifer Minella

Jennifer (JJ) Minella is an internationally recognized authority on network and wireless security, an author and public speaker. A network architect turned advisory CISO and infosec leader, in the past ~15 years she's worked with organizations up to Fortune 50 on strategies ranging from network security to leadership. She is also the creator of the Mindfulness-Based Leadership for Infosec workshop series. Jennifer is the founder and principal advisor of Viszen Security, offering technical strategy and coaching solutions to CXOs and practitioners.

1. What are some of the soft skill issues that can affect not only personal but security team productivity? 

Jennifer: We tend to measure productivity in a few ways – productivity of a team, of an organization, by profits, operational efficiency and how well we’re meeting various project targets. Underlying all of those is the very important but often overlooked foundation of personal productivity – the productivity we bring (or take away) as individual contributors. It’s staggering that only 2% of professionals (including leaders) make time to work on their personal productivity skills. We, as security professionals live in a constant storm of ‘busy’. But ‘busy’ is the villain to the heroic efforts of productivity and an uncurrent of busy manifests in myriad ways. A calendar full of superfluous meetings. An inbox overflowing with mind-numbing emails. 

The frustration of chronic staffing issues and the never-ending expectation to pitch in and fill the gaps. The negative results? This leads to burnout and just gool old fashioned fatigue. Studies show that our effectiveness begins to fall off steeply somewhere around the 40-hours of a standard workweek. Yet we’re driven to just keep grinding out our work. The burnout and mental fatigue associated with working too long and switching between too many tasks without sufficient mental breaks is one of the key reasons companies and our industry as a whole is losing great talent. This chronic stress is also likely the biggest contributor to the mindsets that make our workplace feel like a combat zone instead of the collaborative space it could be. 

Objectivity, creativity and strategy fade out of sight as anxiety takes center stage. The lack of communication, trust and the most basic human social skills are lost as the more primitive parts of our brain take the reins from our executive function. 

2. How do leaders currently address these issues and why has it not been working? Outline the challenges for us. 

Jennifer: Sadly, the ‘soft skills’ such as communication, trust and organizational health are reserved for the elite in most organizations. The executive leadership teams and boards may be afforded the opportunity for workshops and personal development, but not always the rest of the organization. Technical individual contributors will tell you the struggle they have just getting approval for technical trainings required to do their jobs. New CISOs are begging for more resources and training to level up their skillsets. Soft skills (a phrase which has been overused and not always taken seriously) are put in a priority far beneath technical training. If technical training is organizational priority number #264 then its soft skills cousin must fall somewhere down around #3,877. 

But it cuts both ways. For years, the industry has perpetuated the stereotypes – the individual in the black hoodie; the gamer in the basement; the nerdy techie that never makes eye contact. These stereotypes are outdated, but still many technical professionals don’t see the value of these soft skills. 

3. What are workable solutions to address soft skill challenges? 

Jennifer: I think it’s our job as leaders to put a spotlight on these soft skills which are critical to the success of not just our organizations – but to the success of us all as people. Organizations need to prioritize the soft skills and acknowledge the very large body of scientific evidence that these things work. Learning to communicate more effectively, understanding how to build trust, becoming more discerning with our attention, developing the ability to focus and becoming exceptional time management are all skills that are easily taught. It takes the right toolbox, and we have many to pull from, from organizational health workshops to the latest mindfulness training. There are unlimited learning options for individuals and groups, personally and professionally. 

4. What are some best practices that the leaders/teams could adopt now? 

Jennifer: Leaders can start prioritizing soft skills and helping their teams understand the tangible benefits of developing those skills. Just as with technical training, there are training, courses, apps and practices that are almost prescriptive for whatever ails you (or your team).  Other key soft skill areas to focus on include:

  • Consider what positive qualities or skills you see in your managers/leaders/team 
  • Consider what undesirable qualities or habits you observe in other managers/leaders 
  • Self-reflect on your strengths and weaknesses in those same areas 
  • Practice active listening to understand - not to respond, reply, or interject 
  • Communicate early and often, and never be afraid to over-communicate 
  • Take on a leadership role by volunteering on projects or mentoring
  • Work on your awareness of feeling anxious or unsettled and identify causes or contributing factors

5.  What are the benefits of prioritizing soft skills? 

The impact of improving soft skills ranges from better employee retention to less burnout, better mental health, much higher job satisfaction and productivity, enhanced team dynamics, and ultimately a better bottom line for all involved. It’s one of the rare organizational win-win opportunities.  

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