The absence of a physical workspace and subsequent virtual interactions have put every employee’s arsenal of soft skills to the test, says Thomas Molenaar
With the tech industry estimated to grow at the rate of 5% over the next two years, opportunities for qualified individuals are certainly on the rise. However, there are thousands of graduates who are eager to make an impact in the industry but don’t know where to begin.
Those further in their careers might naturally have an interest in moving to leadership roles but may not know how to stand out and stay relevant in a constantly evolving, yet oversaturated tech startup world. In recent times especially, remote working has called attention to certain facets of co-working, in ways that were not thought of before.
The absence of a physical workspace and subsequent virtual interactions have put every employee’s arsenal of soft skills to the test.
Looking beyond the obvious, here are a few nuances within broader aspects worth looking at.
Being a clear communicator
Communication skills- this one never gets old, but evidently gets broader with time, in scope and applications. Clarity in communication is fundamental to relaying direction, expressing ideas, or providing feedback, irrespective of the complexity of our work. Verbal (written, spoken) and non-verbal (body language) communication play an integral role in daily aspects of work, right from regular work interactions like meetings, task delegations, and feedback, to more advanced communications like elevator pitches and negotiations. Eliminating confusion and guesswork from communication is a prerequisite to ensuring alignment and productivity. Just as ideas need to be presented in a clear and concise manner to be noticed and picked up, questions need to be asked whenever necessary, to bring attention to things that require more clarity.
The quality of communication also greatly impacts work relationships. Smooth coordination and collaboration with co-workers could also translate to meaningful and long-lasting relationships outside work.
As important as speaking skills are, we often don’t give due importance to honing our listening skills, perhaps because the only way to do it is by religiously practicing it. Active listening involves a deliberate effort to pick up on intent, content, and emotion from the speaker, by attentively hearing, understanding, and retaining information.
When listening is practiced as a perspective gaining exercise, we pay close attention to the speaker’s viewpoint more objectively. The more we make a conscious effort to defer judgment and avoid the urge to interrupt or form a counterargument while the other person is still speaking, the more we find ourselves receptive to new ideas. Active listening is also about making sure the other person knows that you’re paying attention. Cues like eye contact and verbal acknowledgment while listening, and insightful comments when appropriate, help convey that they are being heard. It is a highly rewarding skill to nurture, also in terms of relationship building, as the speaker feels valued, thereby laying a solid foundation for further meaningful interactions.
Communication, especially in a virtual environment, could be a tricky minefield in many instances. Say, a particularly tense debate or even something as simple as text-only situations like emails and instant messages where tone and intent could get misconstrued. While there is no one right way to do things, it always helps to take a moment to reflect on personal strengths as well as areas of improvement and incorporate constructive feedback whenever possible.
Being a team player
‘I not only use the brains I have-I use all the brains I can borrow.’
This quote by former US President Woodrow Wilson rightly captures the intent behind teamwork. It’s all about getting the best out of a group of people working together toward a common goal. Efficient collaborations bring out the best in each member of the team to seize opportunities, tackle problems, or on a very basic level, to just ensure a smooth workflow. In addition to being self-aware, the ability to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of teammates can work wonders when working within a team. While building trust and reliability is an ongoing process, they also lay the foundation for good teamwork.
Empathy and compassion go a long way in establishing true human connections which could serve as a closely-knit support system, even under pressure. In such cordial environments, task delegations and conflict resolutions can take place in less complicated ways.
In the context of a global workforce, the importance of cultural intelligence or intercultural skills cannot be stressed enough. For instance, eliminating unconscious bias is imperative for creating a respectful and inclusive work environment, where we empathise and work together with colleagues who are different from us in ways more than one. How we interact within a culturally diverse group invariably reflects on foundational aspects like team dynamics, communication, decision making, leadership styles, and feedback.
Recruiters are always on the lookout for those who think ahead of the curve. The ability to think independently and act when necessary, would prove particularly useful in an environment as dynamic as tech start-ups where agility is highly valued. By not limiting themselves to assigned tasks, enterprising individuals proactively spot potential opportunities or areas of improvement, find solutions to problems that others may have overlooked, share ideas, and contribute to the team even when not directly involved. The willingness to go that extra mile, to research, ask questions and work toward bringing ideas to life, adds significantly to the company’s development in its most crucial stages of growth.
An active approach toward learning/upskilling
Acquiring and applying new information as the company, industry, and the world evolves, is an essential skill required to thrive in a fast-paced startup environment. The rate at which old systems become redundant and ingenious new ones disrupt the course of life is a powerful reminder of why it is important to be always open to learning and unlearning. The ability to learn quickly and adapt to new challenges also helps to get the most out of an opportunity before it becomes the norm.
A passion for mastering the latest tools and staying up-to-date with what’s hot in the industry will not only equip someone to be flexible in the workplace but will also boost their career. Thanks to the democratisation of learning resources online, including comprehensive YouTube videos, upskilling is as unconstrained as it could ever be. All it takes for augmenting your skillset is curiosity, discipline, and consistent effort.
There’s something Tatjana Kazakova, Chief Strategy Officer of Leaders on Purpose, has said that illustrates what leadership should ideally be like, in the face of uncertainty: ‘[They] understand they don’t need to know it all themselves. But they do need to be ready to see an opportunity and to have a logical understanding of how to get where they need to be.
‘They can go into a dark room and know how to bring light- but [aren’t] afraid to go into the darkroom.’
This piece of wisdom perhaps encompasses several qualities and most importantly, a mindset that anybody in a startup environment should aspire to imbue, irrespective of seniority. Composure, critical thinking, problem-solving, accountability, creativity, collaboration, and rational optimism are all components of this essential toolkit.
The world of startups, by nature, is not alien to risk and ambiguity. The ability to identify and pursue opportunities, while also traversing volatility is second nature to those in the game. That is not to say that we are considering only external factors and paralysing setbacks. Uncertainty also clouds crucial everyday affairs, in situations where important information is unknowable.
Sharpening one’s intellect to focus on the controllable variables, without letting the worry about the uncontrollable eat into potential resolutions, is a skill worth mastering. Going one step further, learning to use creativity and imagination to turn limitations into surprising opportunities, unlocks infinite possibilities for success.
To work well within a team during a crisis, it is important to maintain a sense of hope and stability, guided by collective action and trust, where each member steps out of their comfort zone and rises to the occasion. For those leading teams it is prudent to be transparent in their approach and not withhold unpleasant news for the fear of letting the team down. Forthrightness only adds to their credibility and helps take the edge off the disorientation.
Thomas Molenaar is a Senior Manager at The Big Search, a recruitment partner specialising in executive hiring and team build-outs for tech companies. It has launched and scaled development teams and placed sought-after executives at more than 30 unicorns.