Soft Skills: Your Secret Weapon for Small Business Success

What are soft skills, and why are they important for your small business success?

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Developing employees' soft skills should remain a high focus for small businesses looking to remain competitive and reach next-level growth

Soft skills are often referred to as “intangible” interpersonal skills that help people successfully collaborate, influence others, and communicate.

No matter what business you’re in, the ability to work with and connect with people is a strong point of differentiation between those who succeed and those who don’t. The ongoing growth and development of employees’ soft skills should remain a high focus for small businesses looking to remain competitive and reach next-level growth.

While it’s well-established employees with strong soft skills are needed for business to succeed, according to a Globe and Mail report, “the total shortage of people who possess soft skills is at 2.3 million, and the implications of the growing skills gaps are serious.”

With increased competition and heightened customer awareness through social media, small businesses can’t afford to have poor behaviors and actions of team members be the sole reflection of the business brand.

“How you and your team appear to the world – whether in-person or online is a representation of your business brand,” says Ami Au-Yeung, a workplace strategist and career coach.

“The minute interactions, especially soft skills, between your staff and customers, vendors, or other stakeholders don’t go unnoticed. With increased competition and heightened customer awareness through social media, small businesses can’t afford to have poor behaviors and actions of team members be the sole reflection of the business brand.”

What can you do as a small business owner to get ahead of this shortage?

Identify soft skills that are important for your business

The first step to getting ahead would be to identify what soft skills are important for you. To get started, you can leverage public reports that highlight today’s most important soft skills.

Sites like Udemy and LinkedIn publish reports each year that highlight the most sought after and researched skills.

Using the Udemy “2020 Workplace Learning Trends Report: The Skills of the Future”, you can learn that the most important soft skills to know for 2020 are:

  • Growth mindset
  • Creativity
  • Innovation

Another LinkedIn report indicates that leadership and oral communications are the most coveted soft skills for future employment.

Leveraging these kinds of reports can help you understand the broad landscape of important soft skills, and hone in on the ones you want employees to develop.

Next, look at each of your own top performers and leaders and evaluate which soft skills they possess. What implications can you draw from their performance when it comes to skills that make your business successful?

Finally, look at the roles/job descriptions in your company and evaluate what soft skills are needed to perform those jobs successfully.

“You need to ask yourself, what do you and your business want to be known for?,” Au-Yeung says.  “What do you value as a business owner? Let’s say post-purchase customer care is a cornerstone of your business. A soft skill that you may need to train your team on is conversing with difficult clients who may be irate about a product purchase. Your team will need to understand the customer’s perspective, be empathic, be patient and be open to partnering with the clients.”

Based on all this information, you can start benchmarking important soft skills for your company’s needs and identify where you might have any gaps in your current team.

Support the development of those soft skills

One way to support the development of soft skills is to properly assess for them at the interview stage. Going into interviews, make sure to have a set of questions that measure not only the candidate’s technical ability but also ones that evaluate the soft skills you’re looking for.

For example, you can ask questions like:

  • Tell me how you communicate complex topics to a new customer?
  • Tell me about a time you had to deal with failure?

Highlight the importance of these soft skills early in the employee onboarding process as you welcome new candidates into your culture.

Managers must also model the desired behaviors which they want to see in their company.

“Managers need to recognize that their staffs are watching their behaviors for cues and behave accordingly,” says Saul Carliner, a professor at Concordia University.

“Managers can’t say one thing, do another, then expect their teams to do as the manager says. Additionally, when managers see something that is ‘off’ in the behavior of their employees, they should immediately address it.”

One way to support the development of soft skills is to properly assess for them at the interview stage.

Carliner says you can detect signs when there is a soft skill gap in your staff. Common problems include people finding out about important decisions, policies, and guidelines by accident, people working at cross purposes with one another, people avoiding one another, and misunderstandings.

Another way to support soft skill development is to offer training and coaching, either internally or externally. Training should be focused on helping your employees develop stronger emotional intelligence and self-awareness. You can use sites like re:Work to help you find training and workshops that support the development of soft skills, for free!

Because soft skills are so challenging to teach, hiring managers must now consider how to weigh the traditional value of technical skills against someone’s soft skills. They may ask themselves something like, is it better to hire an IT consultant who has 50% of the technical abilities but 75% of the soft skills? Or vice versa?

According to a report by the International Association of Administrative Professionals, OfficeTeam and HR.com, 67 percent of HR managers said they’d hire a candidate with strong soft skills even if his or her technical abilities were lacking.

There is no one formula for measuring soft skills, and in some cases, it can be just as much an art as a science. Know what skills are important for you and your business, and be sure to anchor that into everything you do, from the top down.

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