13 key soft skills for business success: Entrepreneur-author Ronnie Screwvala shows you how to up your game
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It’s not just hard skills but soft skills that help you succeed in a fast-changing world, according to the compelling new book Skill It, Kill It: Up Your Game by Ronnie Screwvala.
The book is packed with personal stories and views from industry leaders, along with actionable checklists and tips. Each chapter also includes short snippets from interactions with dozens of professionals in India, focusing on the challenges they faced.
Ronnie Screwvala is a first-generation entrepreneur and author. His earlier book is Dream with Your Eyes Open (see my book review here). Besides a string of successful Bollywood movies (Swades, Rang de Basanti), he is the founder of upGrad and the Swades Foundation.
Here are my key takeaways from his informative 165-page book, summarised as well in the table below. See also my reviews of the related books Multipliers, Coaching, Think Again, Powered by Storytelling, The Culture Code, Entrepreneurial StrengthsFinder, and Manager’s Guide to Mentoring.
“Strong communicators are not born; they are made over time through practice and rehearsal,” Ronnie emphasises. This includes recording one’s talks and videos for reflection and improvement and taking part in activities that involve public communication.
Communication helps build relationships and truly connect with others. Clarity, brevity, focus, and humility help, as well as body language and eye contact. Joining conversations is better during a natural pause.
Work-related storytelling can create life-changing moments. “Stories are powerful because they influence and impact people by shaping minds and moving hearts,” Ronnie explains.
Stories evoke emotions, retain attention, and create a memorable impact. They help stand out from the crowd and convey sincerity with meaning.
Stories should be narrated only selectively and not overused, Ronnie cautions. They can be introduced in a conversation by using phrases like — This reminds me of or This is a bit like.
Stories should convey only a few key messages and not have a complicated plot. Elements of soul, drama, and humour help – but they should be consistent, without false exaggeration or spin.
Storytelling should be a lifelong skill and is required for leadership training in many companies. It is important to be alert and collect stories every day and watch other successful storytellers, Ronnie advises.
“Storytelling opens up a new world of creativity and possibilities,” he observes. “Make your personality come alive by sharing your stories,” he adds. (See also YourStory’s Changemaker Story Canvas, a free visualisation tool for storytelling by founders.)
Unfortunately, many people do not think big out of insecurities, fears, or pressure. But even those who come from small towns can think big if they overcome fears of shame and show the hunger to grow big as evinced by entrepreneurs like Paytm Founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma.
Showing ambition and problem-solving skills are more important than one’s origin, according to Biocon Founder Kiran-Mazumdar Shaw.
FEAR stands for False Evidence Appearing Real. “The key is learning to embrace failure as a natural, normal, and even beneficial part of work,” Ronnie affirms.
“Fear is the enemy of thinking big. Confront and crush it,” he adds. A good question to ask to overcome the fear of failure and big goals is to ask What will happen if I allow myself to try?
Unfortunately, many people get used to a state of being overwhelmed, or not showing passion and ambition, or letting others make their decisions. “Get in the driver’s seat,” Ronnie urges.
“The comfort zone kills big thinking,” he adds. Thinking big gives a push to stretch beyond current capabilities and become more creative. The pandemic era is also challenging notions of job security and stability.
Writing down 12-month, five-year, and 10-year goals also help create a sense of direction and actions to take regularly. “Individual growth is a treadmill,” Ronnie writes.
Shine, don’t whine
Instead of an entitlement mindset and complaining attitude, it’s better to be a self-starter and take control. Positive problem-solvers get further ahead in life, Ronnie affirms.
It is one’s responsibility to improve career prospects, not the company’s. Being a person with possibilities and a plan will bring more rewarding work opportunities and decisions.
Listen, observe, learn (LOL)
“Through effective listening, you can motivate and inspire your team,” Ronnie writes. It is more than hearing and involves focus, attention, absorption, understanding, feedback, and empathy.
Distractions like mobiles should be avoided, and one should not “tune out” while others are speaking. “Listen to absorb, not just react,” he emphasises.
It helps to summarise conversations and follow-up with customised rather than generic responses. “Listening doesn’t equal obeying,” Ronnie cautions – one can still take independent decisions.
Listening, expressing gratitude, and giving feedback apply not just to seniors but to peers as well. Listening helps bring in fresh thoughts and ideas.
Empathising with others opens up fresh perspectives and can even make you realise there are others with bigger problems than yours, Ronnie advises.
“The soft skill of empathy can transform a company’s culture,” he adds. But empathy should not be confused with being soft or weak or sucking up to others — one can show “tough love” with authority as well.
Giving space for empathy should not lead to manipulation. Faking niceness comes across as insincere too. Showing empathy need not extend to solving others’ problems or becoming a therapist, Ronnie cautions.
Empathy is about relating and is not the same as sympathy. “It’s about showing your humanity while still maintaining your authority,” he advises leaders.
Empathy can be shown in tough times and happy moments, such as a child’s birthday. Even in a company with a cut-throat culture, an employee can set a new tone with positivity and empathy, Ronnie suggests.
“Show a little empathy to your peers, then watch it spread,” he advises.
In times of rapid change or crisis, lifelong learning helps future-proof careers. Continuous structured learning helps improve hard and soft skills and navigate the crossroads in life.
Specialisation helps stay relevant via online resources, certification, and learning from experts, Ronnie suggests. Learnings stick through deep and interactive experiences.
This helps deal with the “trucks” (dangers) and “trends” (new opportunities) that are inevitable in today’s world. Passion, or badly wanting something, is key to motivate learning.
Multitasking works only in specific contexts. “Multitasking is best for doing easy tasks where mistakes are low-risk and unlikely,” Ronnie emphasises. For example, morning walks give exercise, exposure to nature, and also spark creative thoughts.
In other contexts, multitasking can lead to distractions, mistakes, and even stress. Prioritisation, focus, and planning can help reduce the need to multitask. Multitasking should not be seen as a way to impress others, Ronnie cautions.
For example, Ronnie sets aside 30 minutes at the end of each day to review progress and plan ahead. Discipline helps reduce constant interruptions, as well as being able to say ‘no.’ Taking short breaks also helps clear the mind.
High growth, not stability
Other than in government jobs, fast change is the rule, not stability. Coasting along at a mediocre grade is not enough – it can lead to stagnation or becoming obsolete, Ronnie cautions.
“High-growth employees view each day as a chance to step up, learn new skills and information, and actively solve problems,” he describes. They are active volunteers, problem-solvers, voracious readers, and eager learners.
The desire for contentment or more family time is understandable, but a proper balance needs to be found for long-range success. Setting and working towards future goals helps in this regard.
Clashes and conflicts are inevitable in the workplace. Cronyism, favouritism, gossip, discrimination, and unnecessary politics should be avoided.
There should be no double talk or double standards, and mistakes should be admitted. “Apologising shows grace, humility, and that you care about keeping the team strong and united,” Ronnie advises.
Employees should not hesitate to ask their leaders for assistance during tough times either. “Here’s a big secret: most bosses enjoy giving advice and offering wisdom when approached properly,” he adds.
“Socialising with colleagues outside of the office is important. It builds bonds, creates allies, and helps you become part of your company’s culture,” Ronnie affirms. For those who are introverted or have family pressures, reasonable solutions with fewer interactions can be worked out.
Work-life balance can be achieved by assessing energy drains (“vampires”) and energy gains (“batteries”). Energy givers can be positive employees, family time, and enjoyable activities, while drains are stressful arguments, lack of sleep, or relationship troubles.
Self-reflection on extrinsic/intrinsic motivation, along with planning are needed to find this work-life balance at least once every two weeks, Ronnie advises. This may change in different phases of life, for example, early growth or married life.
“One of the biggest drains on our energy may be guilt,” he cautions. Learning to unplug from devices and even bringing one’s kids to work on occasion can help find balance.
Too much perfectionism can lead to stress and burnout, Ronnie warns. Hobbies and regular mini-breaks of a few days help in this regard and a support system of buddies or sounding boards.
Positivity can help deal with drains. “Sometimes, people just need to experience the energising power that comes through positivity to change,” he observes.
Confidence through risks and failures
Risks and failures are part of the growth journey, but they must iteratively build rather than reduce confidence, reliance, and conviction.
“Failure is merely the down payment one must give on the way to learning, growth, and ultimately, success,” Ronnie affirms. “Failures are a comma, a brief pause,” he adds.
“Real self-confidence comes through knowledge – and knowledge comes through lifelong learning,” he explains. The more you know, try, experience, and learn, the more confident you feel. For example, Ronnie took a data science course to improve his marketing skills.
“Life is a continuum of being able to overcome and transcend setbacks,” according to Vani Kola, Founder of Kalaari Capital.
Taking micro-risks firsts helps build capabilities and confidence. “Risk-taking is like building your muscles,” Ronnie describes. In companies like RPG group, an innovation award is given for “Best Failure” to help learn from experiments.
Staying away from negative people and negative energy is key. Toxic people drain energy. It’s better to spend more with positive and creative people. “Spoilers” in a company should be counselled or let go.
“The self-talk that takes place every day inside your mind is powerful,” Ronnie writes. Self-negotiation helps improve judgment, take control, and overcome unreasonable pressure for perfectionism.
“The more you overcome hurdles, the stronger your core sense of self will be,” he adds. It is important to take charge and not make excuses.
While mentors are important, they should not be seen as tutors. “Avoid the tutor trap,” Ronnie cautions.
The tuition mindset of handholding is not helpful in the working world. Self-learning is more important than assisted learning.
Mentors are not crutches – they don’t give you answers directly, but ask powerful questions that lead you to find answers yourself. Mentors give nudges rather than shoves, Ronnie explains.
He also clarifies that mentors are not necessarily senior managers who have “been there, done that.” Good mentorship insights can also come from peers or those with unique perspectives. They can come from younger people or industry outsiders.
Mentors can be roped in at different stages in life for different skills. Engagements can be short and focused, and mentor advice should be carefully noted down for reflection and action. Successful leaders should also pass on the baton and mentor the next rung, Ronnie advises.
The road ahead
In sum, soft skills are the “turbo-boosters” to success in a fast-changing and uncertain world. Being relevant and forward-thinking helps build joy and energy.
Working smart and going deep with each skill can help build your luck, Ronnie affirms. “Remember, lifelong learning is a marathon, not a sprint,” he sums up.
YourStory has also published the pocketbook ‘Proverbs and Quotes for Entrepreneurs: A World of Inspiration for Startups’ as a creative and motivational guide for innovators (downloadable as apps here: Apple, Android).