Soft Skills in Entrepreneurship & the Future of Work
We’re often told of the importance of soft skills. More importantly, how they are equally as important to one’s life and career as their more technical counterparts. Soft skills are often more generalised, transferable and are thus more difficult to codify and substantiate. Whereas hard skills are often more technical in nature with better defined and more tangible value. These qualities lead many to wonder how they could be equally important. We find ASEAN youths to be the same.
Our research done in collaboration with the World Economic Forum in 2019 found that while ASEAN youth tend to value soft skills more highly than hard skills, soft skills are still relatively undervalued. We surveyed 56,000 youths and asked them what the three most important skills for the future of work are. Their top choices were creativity and innovation, languages, and the ability to use technology, while their least valued skills were data analytics and maths and science. However, other soft skills like resilience, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence ranked mid to low in importance, with less than 1 in 3 youths believing that they were among the most important skills.
Despite the perceptions of ASEAN youths, the importance of soft skills is often heralded by experts as undeniable. This belief was thoroughly echoed in a recent webinar between YCAB, an Indonesian NGO, and Garena, Sea’s games publisher and development unit, to celebrate the launch of their new initiative. The collaboration aims to upskill 1,000 teachers with 21st-century digital skills, so they, in turn, can pass down these valuable learnings to 100,000 thousand students across Indonesia. They emphasized that these 21st-century digital skills not only included technical skills, such as software programming, but also the soft skills necessary for the future of work, such as critical thinking.
What was particularly interesting about the webinar was the panellists’ unanimous and emphatic agreement of the importance of soft skills during their discussion. Despite their very different backgrounds, leaders from the private, public and third sector all emphasised the necessity of nurturing soft skills in youths, especially in light of the pandemic. While they agree that hard skills are also undeniably useful, in a world that is becoming increasingly unpredictable there is an even stronger need to develop softer skills, which are durable and transferable. In particular, they mention three core soft skills, namely resilience, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence.
During our research into on how COVID-19 has impacted youths around the region, one recurring theme we discovered was how important these aforementioned soft skills were to their adaptability and survival. In particular, I wanted to draw attention to the practical application of soft skills by entrepreneurs, who despite having been one of the hardest hit, display remarkable perseverance. By examining these skills, which have countless applications, through a single perspective their importance becomes more salient.
Resilience & Critical Thinking
Resilience is often described as the “ability to bounce back”. It is not necessarily the ability to endure adversity, but instead, it is the capacity and willingness to try again despite it. In an uncertain world, resilience is an essential tool to adapt and overcome ever-changing challenges.
Critical thinking is not about intelligence or knowledge, but about the process of analysis and understanding. It isn’t about what you know, but how you know it. It combines analysis, problem-solving, creativity, open-mindedness and communication, to allow you to digest information and make informed decisions.
In the context of COVID-19 entrepreneurship, the two are used in concert by entrepreneurs to retool their businesses and to explore new and different avenues of growth. Entrepreneurs applied resilience to get back up after being hit by pandemic related disruptions, meanwhile, they used critical thinking to decide how best they should do it. In fact, we found that entrepreneurs were the most likely to report having used COVID-19 as an opportunity to find new business models and improve their income (45% of entrepreneurs).
One interesting example we found through Shopee, Sea’s e-commerce platform, was of this fashion and clothing entrepreneur in Indonesia. During social distancing measures, where everyone had to remain indoors, the seller realised he had to quickly pivot his business away from producing outerwear (e.g. hoodies). He instead shifted his product mix and started broadening his children’s clothing line. He also started producing and selling fabric masks to help support the local knitting factories. By doing so, his revenue increased by 35% during the Ramadan period, despite the pandemic.
Emotional intelligence is the awareness and control of one’s emotion, and understanding of others’. Since emotional intelligence is so multi-faceted, we’ll only focus on one aspect, namely empathy. Empathy is often described as “putting yourself in another person’s position”. While there are actually three types, the one we most commonly associate with empathy is known as compassion empathy. Compassion empathy is the ability to understand a person’s situation and context, feel with them, and move to help them.
Empathy is particularly important given how challenging the pandemic has been on both a professional and personal level. On one hand, fear of the pandemic has been found to increase stress levels, and on the other remote working has made team communication more difficult. We found that over 1 in 5 youths found difficulties managing and working with their team, and said that this was a constraint to remote working. Entrepreneurs must exercise empathy to communicate effectively, and help ensure the welfare and productivity of their teams and business.
It’s a Journey
The most important part of soft skills is that, like any other skill, it’s something that can be developed. While genetics can predisposition some people to be more naturally empathetic or resilient, it doesn’ preclude the rest of us from learning these skills. By nurturing these soft skills we can be better equipped to face the future of work and to thrive in a world full of trials and tribulations. While soft skills might be the hardest to prove you have, it is in the crucible of COVID, a time of crisis and hardship, it becomes clear to see who has them.