How small businesses can close the soft skills gap

Louize Clarke discusses the role that soft skills play in the often under-resourced small business environment and how business owners can be mindful of developing their own, as well as recruiting them into their own businesses.

Growing profit margins or breaking even, managing your team, building a loyal customer base, marketing; where do soft skills sit within the demands of running a small business? Already under-resourced, how do business owners develop their own soft skills and recruit these into their teams? Is there even a place for these within the fast-paced, often stretched small business?

Soft skills are essentially emotional intelligence; how one relates and interacts with other people.  Communication skills, a positive attitude, teamwork, negotiation, empathy, all vital components of business success. The beauty of soft skills is that they compound and overlap with one another. The challenge is they can’t be taught in the same way hard skills can.

Recent research from the CIPD showed that three quarters of employers have identified a soft skills gap in today’s workforce. Economists predict that by 2020, more than half a million workers will in fact be significantly held back by a lack of these skills. But we’re seeing a shift. The CBI and FSB have joined forces with business to call for a re-evaluation of the value of soft skills. What does this mean for small businesses in terms of addressing the role they play, and will we be left behind if we don’t review our own cultures? How can we as business owners show leadership in making soft skills part of our business ethos?

Make soft skills a priority

In large corporate structures, there’s a tendency for roles to be task based, with management layers supporting and directing individuals. Smaller organisations don’t allow for that luxury. The reality is, you’re fighting for scarce resource and your role will typically be multi-faceted. This means the key survival skills become negotiation, persuasion and an inherent ability to build and maintain networks that are mutually beneficial. This is true at all levels of your business.

Increasingly, we’re seeing the corporate world understand the benefits of softer skills, investing in effective communication techniques; courses such as ‘How to maximise your EI’ are becoming more prevalent. But in the environment where time is the most valued resource, the focus on training tends to be on areas with tangible benefits, such as sales or technical certifications. Small businesses need to elevate the priority they give soft skills, in terms of how they demonstrate them through leadership as well as build them into their workplace culture. Look at your business’ values – many of these will tie back to soft skills such as communication, listening, accountability. Bring these to life by really fostering these attributes within your business, communicate and share these across your team to embed them.

A cultural thing

The evolution of a small business’s culture can be quite unique. In the early days, it’s often driven by the passion and energy of the founding team. With growth, responsibilities and trust needs to be delegated to people who have less emotional involvement with the business. This can sometimes create a tension between the business owner and staff as they sometimes forget that the employee is just that.

Experience also shows that there can be an unrealistic view from the management team of how great their company is to work for. As a recruiter and founder of a small business, the war for talent is still waging. So, in a market where the candidates still have a choice, there is a real need for companies to invest in developing soft skills to attract the right talent.

Early-stage businesses and start-ups often hire the first person that says yes simply because they don’t have the time or money to be selective. While soft skills may seem irrelevant, this can have a massively detrimental effect further down the line if the hire was wrong. The pain is far greater in a small business for a bad hire than in a large business.

Understanding the soft skills that underpin the company culture are vital. As an example, an engineering-led company will be largely built on process while a sales-driven one needs flexible thinkers. My advice is always to hire on the potential and the fit rather than be swayed by qualifications. Its soft skills that will make your employee click with other team members, connect and empathise with clients and be more productive. Positive work ethic and good time management are both key soft skills.

Lead to create competitive edge

Many small business owners simply don’t invest in soft skills for themselves as they see it as time wasted when they should be building their business. This can make them really poor managers, and impact the way they motivate their own staff. Building a team is one thing, leading another.  Motivating, inspiring and coaching your employees requires a huge amount of emotional intelligence.

Soft skills are so much about awareness of yourself as a person, a colleague, a leader that simply becoming more mindful of them can adjust your style. Like so much else in leadership, soft skills are about practice. When it comes to creating vital competitive edge through your people, however, soft skills are critical. They help you better understand what drives your team, help you communicate more effectively and also create a forum for constructive feedback. Soft skills are a key step towards building a successful team.

Tap into empathy

This is so often overlooked, but for me it’s the number one soft skill, whatever your business size. All of us can afford to do this. It will help you understand your customers more, motivate your team, negotiate better and build stronger relationships. It’s about listening more and talking less; understand where someone is coming from by asking smarter, more considered questions. When you listen and talk less, you will gain much more insight, it will help you become more attuned to people’s needs, and understand how you can help them. And in turn, how they can help your business.

With the value of soft skills estimated as worth approximately £88 billion to the UK economy, small businesses need to take a new approach to fostering these in their business and set the tone for a new way of working. It’s an easy step towards a more empathetic, happier and competitive business.

Louize Clarke is co-founder of incubation hub GROW@GreenPark.

Further reading on skills

Alan Dobie

Alan Dobie

Alan was assistant editor at Vitesse Media Plc (previous owner of before moving on to a content producer role at Reed Business Information. He has over 17 years of experience in the...

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