Soft skills are entrepreneurs’ best tools during these uncertain times

Carol Appel
Carol Appel Head of Training Youth Business International

What are soft skills, and why are they so important for entrepreneurs?

‘Soft skills’ has become a buzzword both within and outside the entrepreneurship community. Both HR professionals and practitioners in the entrepreneurship field claim that soft skills, such as emotional intelligence and communication, are just as important as technical skills – if not sometimes even more important. Soft skills are an asset which can help professionals and entrepreneurs to succeed in their careers and businesses, respectively. 

In YBI’s recent  research report, ‘Entrepreneurial soft skills for the future: a scoping study’, soft skills are defined as ‘a set of competencies, behaviours, attitudes, personal qualities, motives and thought processes that enable young people to perform well and achieve their goals, work well with others, and effectively navigate their environment’.

There is growing evidence to show just how important soft skills are for entrepreneurs, and how much they contribute to success in business.

Research conducted by the World Bank in 2012 compared the results of traditional business training and soft skills training in Togo. Entrepreneurs who attended the soft skills training had an average of 30% increase in their profits, while the business training participants had an increase of only 11%. The results were even more pronounced in women, who had a 40% increase in profits compared to only 5% for those attending traditional business training.

Therefore, entrepreneurship support organisations need to help entrepreneurs develop their soft skills just as much as their technical and business management skills. Otherwise, the likelihood is that their new-found knowledge will have minimal impact.

Entrepreneurial soft skills and COVID-19

We all live in a VUCA world – a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. And nothing illustrates that better than the challenging times we are all experiencing in 2020.

The current crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has directly affected entrepreneurs from all over the world, regardless of the size of their businesses. Entrepreneurs are having to reinvent their businesses to survive the crisis and, in many cases, to maintain their families’ main source of income.

In situations like this, simply knowing how to create a Business Model Canvas or undertake market research, for example, is not enough to save a business. More than ever, entrepreneurs need to employ entrepreneurial soft skills in order to succeed. These include: negotiating good deals with landlords and suppliers, keeping open lines of communication with clients, making decisions based on relevant information, dealing with the risks that arise in uncertain and challenging times, and maintaining good psychological health.

Unfortunately, very few entrepreneurship support programmes include soft skills as part of their curriculum. This leaves us with a big gap to fill as practitioners in the entrepreneurship field.

Teaching soft skills online

One of the biggest challenges arising from the crisis was how to deliver entrepreneurship training and other support services, such as mentoring, online. This is relatively easy to do with technical skills. But can this approach be replicated with soft skills? Is it even possible to teach soft skills to an entrepreneur in the first place?

YBI’s answer to that is: definitely YES! We truly believe that entrepreneurs are made, not born. People can change and learn new skills – both technical and soft – as long as they show willingness to evolve.

But, obviously, it is easier to learn how to fill out a cash flow than how to be a better negotiator or how to improve your communication skills. Improving soft skills takes time and requires entrepreneurs to reflect on their own performance, understand what they need to change and how to do it. Then they must practise, practise and practise again!

In in-person group trainings, this is usually done in a variety of contexts and practical exercises. These help entrepreneurs to reflect on their current performance and understand what they could do to improve their skills. But how can this be reproduced in an online environment?

YBI has found out that individual exercises and reflections, combined with quality content and support from the group of entrepreneurs you are training with, can partially reproduce the power of in-person training for soft skills development. The combination of self-paced content and live sessions involving all participants throughout the training programme can be a powerful combination – one that not only allows for skills development, but can also reduce drop-out rates in online trainings.

YBI’s GPS (Growth and Performance Skills) Training for Entrepreneurs

Since May 2019, YBI has been developing an in-person soft skills curriculum after identifying a lack of dedicated soft skills programmes among its members. The curriculum was developed with support from five members of the YBI network and was in pilot phase when COVID-19 hit the world, forcing the cancellation of all in-person trainings.

YBI then decided to transpose part of the curriculum into an online format in order to support all the entrepreneurs who have been affected by the pandemic.

The curriculum is a mix of four live sessions and seven self-paced modules covering the following soft skills: VUCA skills, Grit, Decision Making, Ideating & Maximising Opportunities, Action Focus, Negotiation & Persuasion and Agility.

The curriculum has been tested with 2 groups, with entrepreneurs from all over the world – from South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Sweden, Russia, Armenia, Spain, Poland, Argentina, Mexico and Mongolia.

Out of the 62 entrepreneurs who initiated the training, 63% completed it. This is impressive: on average, only 20% to 60% of online students actually finish online classes (according to B. Smith, 2010). Entrepreneurs were very pleased with the results achieved through the training and many of their testimonies show the impact that it has had in their lives, especially with regard to the current situation.

“GPS training is really good! In this situation, I was almost helpless. Because of the Coronavirus, I couldn’t keep my business open, but still had to pay salaries to my employees. It was too hard for me. But after this training I can make a proper plan for my business and have actually already started doing it”. Jahan Khursida, who joined the second cohort.

 These results prove that teaching soft skills online is both possible and effective. It has the power to support entrepreneurs from all over the world to navigate the current crisis while keeping positive and focused.

YBI is now working with its members to adapt and translate the curriculum to four other languages (Spanish, Russian, Armenian and Swahili). The training in English will continue in the coming months.

The GPS training is made possible by our long-standing partner, Accenture.

This is part of a blog series where we want to share our approach to supporting young entrepreneurs in starting and growing their businesses. Read how we’re helping micro and small businesses in India and Bangladesh to go digital.

Photo credit: Anthony Shkraba from Pexels

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