03/09/2016 05:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Think Soft Skills Can't Be Developed? Think Again


I often hear entrepreneurs say that they hire based on soft skills, because they can't be taught. I've been hiring and guiding people for 20 years, and I vehemently disagree. In some cases, people don't want the social graces. In others, people (especially really smart people) rarely have the patience. But, provided you are willing, you can train yourself how to work well with others. Just ask Zig Ziglar, one of the best sales people and a famous motivational speaker. He made a career out of training people how to develop soft skills.

"Soft skills" include communication, social graces, language, managing people, leadership style, how you react to situations and all the other non-position-centric parts of a job that characterize relationships with other people. I've often heard soft skills referred to as how you conduct yourself and how well you work with others.

Soft skills can be developed, but requires you to put yourself in situations in which you can collaborate with other people in meaningful ways, engage in emotional intelligence training and seek out mentors who will invest in your growth as an entrepreneur.

Let's break down this strategy into tactical steps that you can take by examining some of the soft skills that can be developed, including:

Public Speaking

There are organizations like Toastmasters that are dedicated to helping people improve their public speaking skills - but in my experience, it's all about getting out there and doing it. Like most skills, public speaking is all about repetition. It's also valuable to record and watch your own presentations. Doing so helps reduce all the things that you do while speaking that detract from the message you're trying to communicate - like gesticulation, putting your hands in and out of your pockets, rocking back and forth, timing, and of course using the filler words like "um".


For many fields, it's important to be able to work a room. Inflection in your voice, being authentic, bringing a unique perspective, active listening, keeping a conversation on point, and being positive (while staying authentic) are all key. The best way to work on this is to pay close attention during social situations. Tuning into non-verbal and neuro-lingusitic queues like watching for eyes glazing over during a discussion, and genuinely being interesting in hearing someone else speak, rather than just waiting for your turn to talk, are all great ways to be engaging. The key is to be with people - talking, learning, and paying attention.


Most of these skills need to be practiced in person. Training writing skills can be equally as educational. I've learned so much from the editors of books I've written. Working on strategic things like being more succinct, tactical things like ending all items in a bulleted list with the same punctuation, and fine tuning items such as using less gerunds are all things that will help you become a better writer. Writing is a skill that employers will seek out until the end of time - as is the patience you learn from taking constructive criticism.


This is similar to being engaging, but operating in a group dynamic. When we're too engaging, we're not accepting enough input. When we're not engaging enough, we aren't contributing to the group. A structured approach to collaboration can help, but can be a crutch. I've recorded meetings and then played them back. When you watch recordings of yourself, it's usually easy to recognize better ways to handle situations.

Problem Solving

As with most other soft skills, training to be a better problem solver involves solving various problems and then seeking out constructive guidance on other creative ways to think about a problem. One technique I've had a lot of success with is to point out the type of strategy (e.g. abstraction, reduction, lateral thinking, root cause analysis, analogy, trial and error) being employed when someone is going through a problem, and how other strategies might have led to a result quicker or with more accuracy.

People Management

Management is different from leadership in that it's typically more tactical. Management also involves making your employee better. There are a lot of different strategies when it comes to how an organization wants managers to comport themselves and effect change. Therefore, it's always helpful to pick a management style and have managers learn that style. This will invariably change as organizations change, and it's important to take into account a manager's natural management style and use a more structured methodology to help fill gaps. This allows managers to be more authentic, which in turn will help your corporate culture be more authentic and your business more successful as it grows.

Handling Pressure

Handling pressure well is often tied to confidence. If you're confident that you can get yourself out of any situation, then you're more likely to handle situations with little to no stress. Also, make sure you have a good tree of resources behind you and know how to use that tree. In fact, I encourage my employees to role play, where we identify a problem under pressure. The more you experience high pressure situations, the better you become at handling them. Finally, identify go-to phrases for various issues. Having an easy line to use that is polite but allows you to get them to stop can be a great way to make a situation better.

Creative Thinking

Creative thinking is an important soft skill for any entrepreneur. There are a number of critical and creative thinking tools you can employ to teach yourself to think creatively,. I like games. Games are fun and levity helps to make the process more enjoyable. When you're having fun, you retain just as much, if not more, and are happier, and thinking of creative strategies to win a game is a great way to learn how to think creatively.

Attention to Detail

One of the best ways to learn to pay attention to details is to fail from having not done so. It's best not to do that in front of customers, employees, and on projects where failure might lead to a project getting behind schedule. Therefore, engage yourself in exercises that are dependent on following a lot of directions. This is a great way to learn how to pay attention, especially when the instructions or details are real-world tasks that might be performed as part of your job.

Time Management

Time management can help you be more efficient. When people feel like they've accomplished a lot, they often end up happier as well. There are hundreds of books and courses on time management. I recommend finding one of the courses that matches your business's values and going through it. Most programs revolve around priorities, so in the meantime, think of how best to organize your tasks based on the type of task and priority for that task. This alone will have an immediate impact while you look for a program to help teach the staff.

So, what skill should you start developing first? Create a professional development plan. Start with a template. I like a 360 approach, where you rate yourself in each category, and also have your colleagues and employees rate you (anonymously works best.) Then examine which soft skills could benefit by having you spend additional time working on them - and make a plan to do so. I like accompanying such a plan with a communication plan, or when you'll check in with yourself (or someone else!) on the status of each area you're worked on.

There are numerous books that provide practical approaches to identify leadership problems that plague many businesses, as well as how to shift mindset and organizational culture. The Management Shift is a great one that includes a lot of research and case studies, that outlines the impact such change can provide for your business.

Good luck, and on behalf of your customers and employees, thank you!