How should you develop soft skills?

Catherine Wong, Joe Kong and Jannie Tam

Experts chime in on the latest developments in business and accounting

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Catherine Wong, Joe Kong and Jannie Tam


Second opinions

Catherine Wong, Chief Development Officer, Chorev Consulting International Ltd.

The term “soft skills” was created by the United States Army, referring to any skill that does not involve the use of machinery. As an executive coach, I refer to soft skills as “leadership skills,” as soft skills are highly effective in helping someone climb the corporate ladder and become a leader.

Adult learning can be categorized as informational or transformational. The former refers to gaining new knowledge, whereas the latter involves looking at things from a new perspective. Both are essential for developing leadership skills. You can do “how to” types of informational learning such as delegation approaches. For example when you lead, not only do you need to know how to coach, but how to delegate, and how to provide constructive feedback. You can also follow the SBI (situation, behaviour and impact) model in giving feedback, or the GROW (goal, reality, options and will) model in coaching. Selecting good courses on online platforms or watching TED talks are always a good option.

Transformational learning, on the other hand, takes much more deliberate work. We may have our own set ways in leadership, but with changing situations and contexts, we need to adjust and evolve. One of my clients, for example, told me about his struggle to lead in a virtual environment, despite his experience. Through our sessions, he recognized his key strength was to resolve team challenges while giving space for them to grow. He then decided to establish a virtual “open office” – a Zoom room operating at a specific time daily for his team to drop by and connect.

Having a coach will also greatly help with transformational learning. But if you don’t have access to one, you can start by analysing good films. Shawshank Redemption, for example, challenges views on leadership in light of difficult circumstances; 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible touches upon the meaning of adaptiveness, persistence and resilience; The Blind Side on appreciating and recognizing people’s strengths; and 42 on bringing a team together. These are all great movies that lend new perspectives on how to be a better leader.

Try asking yourself the following questions after watching a movie: What was most extraordinary about the character’s behaviour(s) that made him or her effective? What influenced their actions? What does the character and I have in common? What can I do differently in the future?

Finally, whether you are trying to grow your leadership skills through informational or transformational learning, you need time and space. Take the time to learn new knowledge and create mental space to reflect.

“Having a coach will also greatly help with transformational learning. But if you don’t have access to one, you can start by analysing good films.”

Joe Kong CPA, Facilitator of the Institute’s Qualification Programme

“When you think you can win, you want to compete.” In 2009, an experienced Toastmasters Club member provided me with this answer when I asked: “Why should I join a speech contest if I won’t enjoy it?” His wise reply inspired me to step out of my comfort zone and join many speech contests over the next two years. In the process, I also learned how to mentor or coach young people as well as my own children, and develop their soft skills.

Both of my daughters began learning the violin at the age of five and passed their grade eight exams at the age of eight. It wasn’t an easy road for them, as they told me that they wanted to quit every time they faced a challenge. To understand them, I asked whether they enjoyed participating in violin competitions. They replied “50-50” because they loved winning medals and awards, but did not appreciate the tediousness that came with practicing. This is in alignment with my speech contest experience, and further confirmed my belief we all are born to strive for excellence. If we believe ourselves to be capable, we are willing to grow, if given the chance.

As a facilitator of the Institute’s Qualification Programme, I apply this belief to my teaching style, helping students to believe in themselves by encouraging them every time they work as a team during workshops.

For example, I give everyone a chance to speak, and to sharpen their soft skills, I ask them to lead class discussions. After providing feedback as a facilitator, I have seen my students improve dramatically in their presentation skills, and they would often exceed my expectations. It’s always rewarding when students thank you after classes.

To further develop your own soft skills, keep the following in mind: Be passionate and believe that you can overcome all obstacles; take management and leadership courses; consider every day as an opportunity to brush up on your skills; take some time to reflect on your progress so far; and find a mentor.

“Be passionate and believe that you can overcome all obstacles; take management and leadership courses; consider every day as an opportunity to brush up on your skills; take some time to reflect on your progress so far; and find a mentor.”

Jannie Tam, Founder and Senior Director, GROWDynamics Talent Development

Today, businesses are moving toward the direction of double or triple bottom-line, which includes measuring its environmental, social and governance, as well as diversity and inclusion performance, to stay relevant amid a rapidly changing and challenging marketplace. As such, there is an increasing emphasis on soft skills in the workforce and the need to bridge skills gaps, including those for accounting professionals, who aim to play a pivotal role in driving sustainability endeavours.

Soft skills are human-centric skills that help us manage ourselves, our relationships with others and the environments we are in. With many integral terms to describe what soft skills are, the following is reworked to frame some of the key skills with suggestions on how to develop them.

Having a strong sense of internal and external self-awareness to match one’s uniqueness with the work requirements and make committed efforts to excel, and building cultural capital to collaborate with people who are different from us. They could be clients of various other job disciplines or colleagues of different cultural backgrounds. This would help you develop authentic communication skills and resonate with others. This is not only to voice out one’s views, but also to carry a sense of empathy, trustworthiness, and dependability, and establish an ethical position by doing what we say we will do and help others achieve the same. There is an ethical value chain to drive corporate culture.

Soft skills cannot be acquired if we do not have the right mindset. To grow in these areas, here are some strategies to employ:

  • Read and reflect: On top of reading for professional information, find time to immerse yourself in books and movies that speak to your heart, and reflect on them. Soft skills are driven intrinsically.
  • Build non-contractual relationships: Authenticity, vulnerability and empathy are crucial for a new “relationship economy.” Relationships built upon them are beyond hard data and contracts and may drive goodwill value in the corporate balance sheet.
  • Buddy and mentorship systems: Grow with like-minded people. Professional networks and associations can lead to further buddy and mentorship programmes for mutual support toward shared purposes and goals.
  • Manifesto: State what you plan to do in your role and what changes you would make. Communicate it and pledge to align interests with stakeholders to extend from personal aspiration to corporate and societal transformation.

Soft skills are hard to measure but easy to tell from interaction with others.

“Soft skills cannot be acquired if we do not have the right mindset.”

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