Take time to learn, because the future of your business will depend on it
I’m excited today because I’ll be here this week when five C-level leaders I know will share their personal stories of transformation and transformational leadership for the first time. My excitement prompted me to reflect on my own experiences and consider the question I posed in the headline.
Read or listen to just about any transformation story, and it invariably starts with leaders upgrading their soft skills for better results. Whether in manufacturing, retail, or technology. Starbucks, Kone Elevators, Microsoft… the story and elements may differ, but the theme remains the same.
As tech innovators mature into leaders of giants like Apple, the theme is the same. Like it or not, Apple may not have enjoyed its success without Steve Jobs’ ability to paint a picture or tell a story. However, he was also known to lack social niceties and treated people poorly of him.
I started my business over 30 years ago with a small team. I focused on improving my ability to market, sell, and build partnerships. I turned to more technical skills. As I matured as a leader, I changed my perspective. If I had known then what I know now, how different might things have been?
This made me think of a more recent experience. About five years ago, when my company opened a new business line of professional education products, we gave them away for free so we knew what to improve and what to keep. The largest group of users were start-up entrepreneurs, who were sensibly managing resources and taking advantage of a free and quality offer.
I noticed that after the trial period, most of them dropped out. Was it the cost? Were they too busy? Did they have better things to do with their time? Why don’t startup entrepreneurs see the value in developing their soft skills?
Every startup leader (and business leader) and entrepreneur, no matter the size and stage of their organization, must constantly learn. However, this does not mean joining classes. Most people who have built a business have been short on time, sleep, resources, and money most of the time.
Every start-up entrepreneur spends time putting out fires, working on and in the business, but too often at the expense of building their own future. This is understandable. However, given the failure rate of entrepreneurs, I would suggest doing this exclusively is a mistake. But why spend time on personal development when every problem an entrepreneur faces can be seen as an existential threat to their new and growing business?
Start with your why! Your technical skills are not the secret to the future of your startup. Your soft skills will allow you to share ideas, connect with investors, clients, partners, and clients, and move forward. Leave soft skills development to chance, approach them randomly, or don’t commit, and you could sign the death warrant for your startup.
Naturally, I am quite systematic in preparing releases and communications. You can’t imagine the hours I’ve spent practicing sales and other presentations until I felt comfortable. You also can’t imagine the number of comments I’ve searched, the iterations and changes I’ve made and continue to make.
Where to focus? The nature of business remains the same, but the “how” continues to change. I’ve started many new lines of business over the years, but I haven’t been in a pure startup founder situation for almost 30 years. However, from talking to people who have done it and to experts at Stanford University and other organizations, I’ve learned that aside from leadership, there are some essential soft skills to keep improving.
Leadership is essential to adequately motivate others to do their best. It depends on truly understanding and meeting your needs in any situation. It’s also the area that most leaders remember and punish themselves for making mistakes, so don’t wait.
The next essential quality is empathy. I really wish this had been better articulated decades ago. Empathy builds the right organizations, products, and services today. I relearned about empathy through Design Thinking at Stanford and learned that its applications are endless. Some people may be naturally more empathetic than others, but this should be at the top level of skills that startup entrepreneurs develop on a daily basis.
Completing the top 3 would be communication. Again, this requires understanding and empathy. But communication must be continuously developed. It’s not just about offering launches or marketing; its applications are endless. Get this wrong, and a lot can go wrong. Once again, you can’t afford to wait. But with all this, don’t leave your learning unstructured.
So how can I develop when I’m already so busy? You need high-quality input materials, you need time and opportunities to practice, and you need time to get feedback and reflect.
For quality materials and input, find what works for you. For example, podcasts are good when you’re on the go. Mentors can give you good advice and feedback. Opportunities are everywhere. What is challenging is building effective active learning and reflection, but tools are available to do so.
Yes, focusing on your business today is essential. Yes, you have time to learn. But don’t neglect your future self. If you do, you won’t be there when you and your organization need you most.
Arinya Talerngsri is the Director of Capabilities, CEO and Founder of SEAC, the Southeast Asia Center for Lifelong Learning. She is fascinated by the challenge of transforming education for all to create better prospects for Thais and people around the world. Contact her email at firstname.lastname@example.org or https://www.linkedin.com/in/arinya-talerngsri-53b81aa