A business is a lot like a healthy human organism —no matter how fantastic the brainpower of that organism, it’s the heart that pumps it up with oxygen and life. In a similar way, all the technological, sales, and marketing skills that a business team possesses make up the brain of the company. The heart that makes those functions come alive and operate smoothly lies in learning top soft-skills.
Soft skills make up a whole set of leadership, teamwork and character traits chiseled out to perform under pressure. Among the benefits of soft skills training are increased ROI and a highly productive working environment. According to a study from Boston College, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan, on the job soft skills training delivered a 256 percent return on investment due to boosted productivity and employee retention.
How does a small business get the same kind of ROI and precisely what soft skills are needed to take your business to the next level? We asked several successful entrepreneurs, CEOs, and small business founders to share the top soft skills vital to their daily work. Here are their years of experience gathered in 8 essential points for you to learn from and implement today.
Communication is the chief intersection in your business journey, the daily meeting ground of the business leader, their team, and clients. If there’s a “jam” at any point, it’s bound to create friction throughout the whole business journey.
Mark Webster, Co-Founder of Authority Hacker, notes the importance of cultivating communication in distributed teams. “Even though we’re an online business, we still set aside time slots to chat with our team and discuss what’s going on,” Mark says. “Every morning we have a daily standup call where we can discuss what everyone has planned for the day and the things which may get in their way — that way we can all discuss what each individual can do to help them proceed.”
An open environment doesn’t just communicate ideas better — it leads to better problem-solving. ”When it comes to failures, instead of simply proposing a solution for them, we’ll dig into what exactly caused the failure and how we can work together to fix it,” Mark adds. “This leads to a much more open and communicative dialogue rather than a simple one-way management structure…This has had a huge impact on the business as it gets our team to really think about what they’re contributing to the business.”
Mark notes that it’s the ideas sparked by out of the box thinking that really boost his team’s productivity. To make sure none of those ideas are lost, prioritize communication within your team. To help keep track of all his team’s tasks, ideas, and keep communication flowing, Mark uses a time-management tool like Asana. The daily reporting feature helps him instantly understand what’s on the team’s agenda.
Negotiation may be the least favorite skill a business owner has to learn, but one of the most critical. As Victoria Pynchon writes, “Negotiation is a conversation whose goal is to reach an agreement with someone whose interests are not perfectly aligned with yours.”
Lewis Goldstein, President of Blue Wind Marketing, identifies the importance of negotiation skills that can take any conversation past the paralysis of an initial “no”. “The importance of negotiating can’t be underestimated,” Lewis shares. “It’s all about learning how to communicate effectively so both parties get what they want. In order to be highly effective in negotiating, you need to understand where someone is coming from. To do that, you need to ask calibrated questions and labels.”
Lewis notes that an essential complementary skill to negotiation is understanding both your own and the speaker’s body language. “Body language oftentimes matters more than the words in a conversation,” Lewis says. “When you use positive and open body language you’re portraying yourself as confident and influential. On the flip side, when you can read the body language of others well, it empowers you to understand the variety of signals that people use – both consciously and subconsciously.”
Negotiation skills may look hard to nail, but you’ll quickly catch on by analyzing past experiences. Lewis suggests recording and listening back to business calls to understand ways you can improve customer negotiations. When listening back to recordings, look for what you did well and what you can do better next time. Read all about U.S./Canada recording laws and auto call recorder apps and you’re good to go!
3. Positive mindset
In a tough business environment, few skills are more universally acclaimed than an optimistic and positive mindset. Make no mistake: positivity isn’t about the number of smiley faces you attach to an email. Neither is it the failure to spot problems. It’s about the kind of resilience and character your team brings into solving problems that makes it stand out.
Positivity is the top skill that Kimberly Rath, Co-Founder and President of Talent Plus, an assessment provider with a 30+ year history of success, looks for in new employees. “From the beginning, we have taken the selection of each colleague very seriously,” Kimberly says, “and one of the things we select for is positivity/optimism. This always needs to stay front and center as you build a sustainable culture. Your organization gets better or worse with each hire.”
The reason positivity should be one of the key traits you scan new employees for isn’t just a healthy workplace environment. As Kimberly shares, “Most important for leaders, it’s essential to create a culture where change is embraced, accepted and celebrated.” When such change occurs, it’s the “individuals who have grit along with flexibility, resourcefulness, and optimism” that “can take on change, adapting to what’s happening around them and to them as the workplace changes.”
Positive problem-solving abilities are one of your team’s greatest assets. When hiring new employees, look for both skills that are “mission critical” (e.g. hard skills and knowledge) and the character traits that make for long-time players (e.g. positive attitude towards the job, ability to keep up and change with the times, adaptability to the workplace culture and new tasks).
4. Active listening
Remember how as a kid, you could always tell whether your parents are “ active listeners” (fully involved in the problem you’re communicating to them) or “passive listeners” (murmuring “aha” while staring at the newspaper)?
Stefan Chekanov, CEO and co-founder of Brosix, notes the importance of being the “good parent” to your team and clients. “It takes both skill and discipline to take the time to truly listen to a team member, customer, manager, etc.,” Stefan says. “So often people begin reacting based on partial information or inferences they make, rather than trying to understand what the other side is really saying.”
Active listening is a vital skill for getting constructive feedback from clients. “When a customer calls with an issue, we have a script of questions we ask in order to try to understand all aspects of the situation, and we train our support staff in active listening techniques,” Stefan shares. “In this way, we avoid misunderstandings and mistakes that come when you react to partial information, and our customers feel that they matter to us.”
Free online learning platforms like Coursera can be of great help in honing soft skills, including active listening. Consider scheduling weekly study sessions or follow-up discussions with your team. These will make it fun to grow your knowledge together whilst helping each other out and bonding the team.
Just like talent, business isn’t all passion and enthusiasm. The backbone of successful leadership is the unwavering discipline that humbly does its job through both the ups and downs.
Silicon Valley’s longest-serving CEO, entrepreneur and inventor Ray Zinn, has been at the forefront of the tech industry since 1978. His secret? As Ray puts it, “Discipline is doing what you don’t like doing and doing it well—having the determination, no matter how difficult a task is, to do it correctly.”
This disciplined approach, which Ray expanded on in his book, “Tough Things First” allowed him to run a business through times when nearly everyone else would’ve given up. “When Micrel [i.e. Ray’s company] was in the middle of our IPO, I suddenly became legally blind,” Ray shares. “I had to have the discipline to not only finish the IPO but return home and face my condition; it was not reversible. I went on to convince a skeptical BOD that I could continue to run Micrel without being fully sighted by learning to navigate the world in an entirely new way. Because I was so determined and disciplined, I was able to convince the BOD and went on to run Micrel for 37 years, only one that was not profitable.”
With discipline, you can achieve absolutely anything you want. Every single hard and soft skill gains from a disciplined approach. As Ray suggests, never leave things to take care of themselves. If you can’t be there to talk an issue out in person, use software like video conferencing and/or a virtual phone system to connect to your colleagues without putting problems (however small) on hold.
For an online business with a distributed team of freelancers, things can get messy and out of control if the leader lacks strong skills in giving clear instructions.
Running his own digital business, Sam Zuo, CEO of PassiveAirbnb, doesn’t waste a second of his (or his teams) time. What helps him is a concise and transparent team management approach. “Clear instructions [are] really important because most of my freelancers are in different timezones, so the default mode of communication is always in written text. “ Sam says.
To help freelancers understand his management style and expectations, Sam has come up with a “user’s manual” that projects his business mindset in a nutshell. This is an informal two-page text that in transparent terms covers topics like problem-solving, team expectations and preferred methods of communication. For example, instead of complaining about problems, Sam instructs his team, “If there’s a problem and you want me to decide, always come with 2 solutions.”
Outline your business practices and expectations in simple, written form to all new employees. Skip the managerial jargon and simply connect to your team in human terms. Your work is sure to get more organized and mindful. To stay mindful and patient in the midst of a hectic workday, Sam also suggests practicing daily meditation on your own or with a mindfulness app like Headspace.
7. Facing discomfort
You’ve heard it before: if you want to do business, you’ve got to be ready to step out of comfort zones. Handling discomfort teaches entrepreneurs the importance of analytical but fearless decisionmaking. It also helps strong leaders break existing rules in order to create their own.
The ability to put yourself out there and push through discomfort is an acquired skill that any aspiring entrepreneur should cultivate. As Kayla Pendleton, Founder of Women’s co-working space Make Her Mark says, “It’s very tempting to back off the first few times you push yourself out of the comfort zone because it’s uncomfortable. But…every time I do some new, hard thing, it builds my confidence and I get more and more skilled at navigating myself to get past my boundaries of what I think I can do!”
Handling discomfort isn’t just about courageous decisions. It’s also about feeling OK with asking for help and teaching others to do so with your example. “I’ve grown my membership and expanded my services greatly because I’ve learned to ask for help and find great resources such as grants and mentors,” Kayla shares. “[Another] less obvious benefit is that I have become an inspiration for my members…many of whom are in business for the first time and are looking for encouragement and leadership.”
If you’re new to the business journey or need help at any stage, don’t be afraid to ask for guidance from a community of fellow entrepreneurs, femalepreneurs, freelancers, or telecommuters. You’ll gain many a helping hand in the process. Kayla also suggests learning to think on the fly and studying new things to inspire yourself and your team.
Every entrepreneur is essentially a one-man orchestra that juggles countless tasks throughout the day. When you’re multitasking all the time, it feels easy to slip into “autopilot” mode and have your interactions with colleagues and clients turn generic.
Robyn Flint, an insurance specialist at ExpertInsuranceReviews.com and founding owner of real-estate rehab company Property Wise, LLC, notes the importance of putting other people first in the midst of your busiest workday. “In order to run three businesses while also working as a freelance writer and author, I must employ a set of soft skills to make it all come together,” Robyn says. ”My number one soft skill is my strong work ethic. …I believe in making [my clients’] experience with me the best possible so they walk away feeling like their needs were met and they would refer my services to others.”
For a local business, giving clients special care and treating their business as your top priority can work wonders. ”I receive repeat clients, referrals, and have actually had a client cry when our time together was done,” Robyn shares. “As a full-time real estate agent…treating clients as if their transaction involves the largest financial investment they will likely make in their lifetime has made me a five star professional.”
As a business owner, you may possess lots of inner integrity — but your clients need actions, not words to see that for themselves. For example, Robyn has a 32-touch yearly campaign strategy in place with all clients. That means making contact in one fashion at least 32 times per year via holiday/birthday/anniversary cards and client appreciation events. A warm, human touch such as a card sent via post creates a lasting connection that spreads the caring message of your business.
Each business success story looks kind of magical and spontaneous from the perspective of time. Behind each success story though, lie a great number of leadership, communication, and other soft skills honed until they become second nature.
With each soft skill you learn and cultivate today, remember that it all goes into shaping your future tomorrow. In just a couple of months, you’ll be forever grateful for how far you’ve come. As for the technologies essential for every entrepreneur, check out our super simple guide to digital transformation for small business.