5 Ways Small Business Owners
Can Sharpen Their Soft Skills

See also: Innovation Skills

Small business owners and leaders often fall into the trap of believing that the same hard skills that got them to where they are now will be enough to sustain their business moving forward. After all, focusing solely on technical abilities has served them well thus far; shouldn't it continue to?

As your business grows and evolves, so will the demands of managing it. And if you want to create a successful, thriving business, you must stay ahead of those changes. That means, in addition to perfecting your hard skills, you must also focus on honing your 'soft skills'. They are the skills that differentiate an above-average leader from an exceptional one.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the crucial soft skills small business owners must possess to stay at the top of their game and how they can go about mastering such skills.

So, without further ado, let’s get started.

Business interaction between two women.

What are soft skills?

Unlike 'hard' skills, which include goals like learning a new programming language or becoming an expert in spreadsheet software, soft skills are a bit more intangible. They are not necessarily something you can learn in a course or certification but stem from your collaboration talents, emotional intelligence, and work ethic. Some common instances of soft skills include:

  • how you interact with colleagues
  • how you handle situations at work
  • how do you solve disputes
  • how you work on a team
  • what kind of attitude do you bring to the job

These are just a few examples of what can be considered soft skills, but the list is truly endless

Why do leaders need soft skills?

Say, for example, you're at a critical point in your business expansion phase and facing a crucial decision where you must weigh the pros and cons of each option.

Now, hard skills might help you figure out the financial implications of each option, and narrow down the choices from a cost perspective. But soft skills will enable you to make an informed decision that looks beyond the numbers and considers the impact on your employees, customers, partners, and company culture.

Without soft skills, you likely won’t be able to make a well-rounded decision that is actually beneficial for your business. That's why a high level of soft skill proficiency is the hallmark of any great leader. And because they form building blocks of successful collaboration, decision-making, and problem-solving, leaders who possess these skills can rise above the competition and take their business to the next level.

Soft skills for business owners

Now that you understand what a pivotal role soft skills can play in a leader's success, let's take a look at some of the key qualities you should strive to hone if you want to reach the top of your game:

  • Communication. Communicating effectively with colleagues, customers, and other stakeholders is a boon you can't afford to miss out on. This means not only being able to articulate your ideas but also understanding and listening to others' points of view.

  • Discipline. It takes more than talent and passion to sustain a business. Leadership requires unwavering discipline and hard work to weather the inevitable storms, and those who lack it will likely struggle to stay afloat.

  • Resourcefulness. This is a key trait for any aspiring entrepreneur, as it enables you to manage your resources and maximize output with minimal input. Like many startups, you might not have the luxury of a large budget or team, so understanding how to stretch your resource capacity is crucial for long-term success.

  • Ethics. As a leader, you must lead by example and adhere to a strong code of ethics. Compromising your values or taking shortcuts may lead to short-term success, but it will ultimately weaken your team and your brand name in the long run.

  • Adaptability. In an ever-changing business landscape, few skills are as invaluable as the ability to anticipate, respond and adapt to new market trends and customer demands. Make no mistake: those who can't keep up with the times will quickly find themselves left behind.

  • Creativity. Thinking outside the box gives you the capacity to hit the reset button and come up with fresh solutions that can completely revolutionize the way you do business. Tasks that would otherwise seem mundane can become much more exciting and rewarding when tackled with a creative mindset.

How to develop your soft skills?

Hard skills are relatively easy to acquire. You have a goal – to learn a new technology or software program, for example – and you take a class or get the necessary certifications to reach that goal. With soft skills, the process of gaining them is a bit more nuanced.

Although innate to some degree, soft skills require practice, dedication, and self-awareness to truly master. Below are just a few of the many strategies that small business owners can employ to strengthen their soft skills:

#1: Practice active listening

Yes, this may sound like a no-brainer, but most of us aren't as good of listeners as we think. When we're conversing with others, our minds are often too busy formulating our responses or judging the speaker's actions to really lend an ear.

To foster better communication in your workplace, practice active listening – that is, truly listen and absorb what others have to say. Resist the urge to interject with your two cents and, instead, work to understand their point of view. Use nonverbal cues to show that you’re paying attention, such as nodding your head or making eye contact.

#2: Self-reflect

For most small business owners, a typical day is a blur of meetings and ad hoc tasks. But this cycle of haphazardly shifting from one activity to the next with little thought to how you presented yourself or acted in the previous session is a recipe for disaster. Why? Because if you don’t take the time to reflect on your own behavior objectively, how can you ever hope to improve it?

To break this cycle, pencil in some short periods of self-reflection throughout the day or week. Just a few minutes of conscious thought to consider situations where you didn’t get the desired outcome or failed to express yourself adequately can lead to those small but significant adjustments in your behavior that will ultimately make a big difference.

#3: Go beyond your comfort zone

As humans, we tend to be creatures of habit, stuck in our own ways and comfort zones. But if you want to foster the growth of your soft skills, you need to be bold and push yourself into new situations, even when it’s not necessarily comfortable.

Whether speaking in public or participating in a debate, taking calculated risks and embracing new challenges can foster the type of growth that truly strengthens your soft skills.

To make the process of stepping outside of your comfort zone less intimidating, start small. Make a pact with yourself to try one new thing each day. It could be as simple as striking up a conversation with someone you don’t know at networking events or joining a club or organization outside of your normal circles.

#4: Seek feedback

Not everyone can judge themselves objectively or accurately. To get a true picture of how your soft skills are measuring up, consult trusted colleagues and friends.

This exercise doesn't aim to make you feel bad about yourself or your abilities. Instead, it allows you to get a clear sense of how others perceive you and what they believe your strengths and weaknesses to be.

By consulting with those who know you well, you may even discover blind spots in your self-assessment that you otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. That’s invaluable information you can use to refine your skills and become a better leader.

#5: Make a plan

Soft skills are just like any other skill – they require dedication and hard work to hone. To ensure you're on the right track to success, devise a plan of action and set aside time each week to practice.

Identify the areas where you need the most improvement and then come up with a plan to tackle them, step-by-step. For example, if you need to work on your public speaking or presentation skills, commit to joining events that encourage public speaking or practice giving presentations in front of an audience of friends or colleagues.

But don’t get discouraged if things fail to go quite as you hoped or if the process feels slow and laborious. Every little bit counts, so stay consistent in your efforts and don't give up. With time and practice, you'll find that your soft skills have grown far beyond what you thought was possible.

Industries that emphasize soft skills

We've answered the what, why, and how, let’s now focus on the where. Soft skills can provide an invaluable edge in any industry, but these proficiencies are particularly beneficial if your small business operates in the following fields:

  • Sales and marketing. The art of selling and marketing requires you to understand human psychology. You must learn to read people’s reactions, discern their motivations, and tailor your approach to the individual. Here, soft skills can help you connect the dots to arrive at creative solutions and find common ground with your prospects, creating win-win scenarios for both parties.

  • Life coaching/ wellness mentorship. Providing meaningful guidance and support requires an in-depth understanding and connection with your clients. For that to happen, you must be patient, understanding, and empathic when creating and offering your services. An effective life coach or wellness mentor must have the right approach—in this case, emotional intelligence and communication are 90% of the equation. By honing these abilities, you can set yourself apart from the competition and command a higher price.

  • Healthcare. Through training and experience, you can learn the medical lingo and procedures necessary to become a qualified healthcare professional. But what separates exceptional healthcare practices from the rest is their underlying soft skill set. Knowing how to empathize with and comfort a patient, or being willing to explain complex medical concepts in layman’s terms, is what will ultimately make your patients feel safe and secure in your care, helping you build up your loyal client base.

  • Technology sector. For many tech companies, soft skills serve as the ultimate tiebreaker in winning the deal and closing the sale. In this competitive space, where everyone has the same technical proficiency and product offering, those with the finest soft skills tend to have a better chance of making meaningful connections and forming beneficial partnerships.

  • Finance/ insurance. The world of finance and insurance involves complex concepts, processes, and procedures. But, to pull off deals successfully, you need more than just knowledge of the subject matter. You must also have the capacity to communicate clearly, remain composed under pressure, and handle delicate situations with ease. Unless you have a tight grip on these vital soft skills, you'll have trouble standing out in this industry.

  • Marketing or design or creative agencies. The quality of an agency’s work depends on its ability to understand the unique needs of its clients, and to execute ideas that meet those expectations. More often than not, this requires a deep understanding of customer insights during onboarding and the capacity to collaborate and communicate effectively the rest of the way. In short, without impeccable soft skills, you won’t be able to run a successful marketing or creative agency.

Enrich your leadership with soft skills

Soft skills can help small business owners form meaningful connections with their customers, hear what’s not being said, and identify opportunities they may have overlooked.

So, if you’re looking to get ahead in the competitive business world, invest time and energy into honing your soft skills. Your success is sure to follow. It will be an investment you won’t regret!

About the Author

Sam is a marketer and writer who has been working in the industry for over five years, helping tech companies develop content strategies. When he's not working, Sam enjoys spending time with his wife and dog, reading, and playing golf.