Communication, curiosity, and EQ: the new skills for business growth

Why putting people first can still result in profit and business growth

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HSBC UK has partnered with Raconteur to deliver advertorial content and an accompanying research program to look at what’s driving UK businesses with ambitions to grow. In the third article in this series, Raconteur speaks to entrepreneurs about the soft skills that can help to foster and unlock business growth.

Strong leadership is fundamental to success. Anyone who has ever captained a sports team or overseen a successful family knows this to be true.

But strength comes in different forms: successful business leaders unlock growth not just through so-called ‘hard’ skills, but with ‘soft’ skills like effective communication, empathy, and courage – among many others. And in a world where business is increasingly competitive, such attitudinal attributes are increasingly the difference makers between those thriving and those striving to survive.

Businesses that use soft skills to facilitate growth are experiencing greater successes and delivering better experiences for their employees as a result.

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Growing sustainably

One company that has survived and thrived is Simply Lunch, a family business that has grown from a humble burger van to a leading food-to-go supplier over the past 45 years. Sam Page, managing director of the company, credits the soft skills of patience and resilience as crucial to navigating that scaling-up journey.

“Growth is very rarely a straight line,” he says, pointing out that there have been more downs than ups in the running of his business. He advises business leaders to consider growth trajectories over the course of years or decades. He says patience is key to this long-term view.

Slow, sustained growth has proven successful for Simply Lunch. But achieving that has required the business to build a team that shares the company’s vision and values. Translating that into a people strategy helps, Page adds. If companies recruit people that understand the company’s vision, they will help facilitate the organisation’s goals.

Listening and making sure that people know that you care for them personally is incredibly important

Keeping colleagues on board with that mission is vital, says Page. “Listening and making sure that people know that you care for them personally is incredibly important,” he says. “If you do that, and you lead by example, that really does help foster that growth culture that you want to achieve.”

The ability to communicate effectively and empathetically becomes ever more important as a business scales, Page says. “Your communication needs to improve, and you need to be a lot more concise and deliberate about what you’re saying.” He points out that when Simply Lunch was a 20-strong team, he would see and interact with everyone, every morning.

Now the business is bigger, he can’t possibly know all his staff personally. “What you needed to communicate would be done in a couple of minutes,” he says.  “Now you need to have systems and processes in place to make sure that your message, your vision and the alignment of what you’re trying to achieve, gets through to the business.”

Growing pains

That journey is a similar one to that traversed by Dhruv Patel, CEO, and founder of the Nisai Group. Patel has also seen the importance of soft skills in scaling his technology-enabled education business across the UK and internationally. The Nisai Group started with a small UK-based team in the late 1990s, and now has more than 200 employees across the UK, Asia, and Canada.

Growing to that level hasn’t been easy – and has been down to emotional intelligence as much as it has business savviness. Investing in people has been a key contributor to his business’s success, says Patel, who has deliberately nurtured a “distributed management system” where his senior team are empowered to make decisions. As the business scaled, Patel changed his role to act more as a “facilitator and catalyst” than a traditional top-down leader. This approach, Patel says, has created a highly engaged and accountable team across Nisai’s global offices.

But with such a distributed global team, Patel has found maintaining consistent culture and values requires more than just words; it demands a physical presence and a strong start at the company.

“Every one of those people employed in Asia and elsewhere, I have been with them and inducted them. That helps get them up to speed quickly,” says Patel. “However, business norms can vary by region, so I have had to adapt my communication style when working with individuals in Asia compared to the UK.”

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Knowing when to let go

While Patel was directly facilitating the day-to-day growth of the Nisai Group in the early days, he has deliberately stepped back over time to empower his team. “You come to a conclusion that there is not enough time in the day,” he says. “You get another job as well – like parenting and grandparenting and all that.” For some, that would be nerve-wracking, but he had set up his business and workers for success. “When you have a team which has really been trained for a while and you trust them, it’s fine,” he says.

When you realise you’re getting to a point of scale, it then becomes about the culture that you have within the business

This ability to let go and trust the team is something that Peter McIntyre, head of business bankingat HSBC UK, has observed as crucial for leaders to master, especially as their businesses scale. “At the outset, it’s about an individual or a small group of individuals, and it’s the excitement or the rollercoaster of the frustration, the long hours, the first contract, the biggest contract, the first sale overseas,” he says. “But when you realise you’re getting to a point of scale, it then becomes about the culture that you have within the business.”

At that point, good leaders ought to ask themselves a number of questions, says McIntyre.  How do you embed a culture and establish a positive, transparent people framework? How do you recruit, and to what values? What values do you put on accountabilities, on role, structure, feedback, and more?

Championing strengths and recognising weaknesses

McIntyre has also seen the importance of leaders being willing to recognise their own gaps and seek outside input. “Running a business can be a very lonely thing,” he says. “Sitting in a job at the helm can be invigorating and isolating, emphasising the need for a network to bring perspective and balance.

For Patel, humility, and willingness to learn is a core part of his leadership approach with the ability to admit mistakes framed as a way to empower employees to step up and support as needed.

This willingness to be vulnerable and admit failings is something that Patel sees as increasingly important for modern leaders. “If you want them to follow you, help them,” he says. But it’s also important to be able to switch roles quickly and confidently. “I am a micromanager when I need to be, or I can be at 40,000 feet high,” he says. “I’m not afraid to dirty my hands up. You’ve got to lead from the front, but also at the same time saying, ‘Hey, hang on, they’re better people to lead from the front, let them go up.’”

Celebrating success in all measures

Beyond navigating the internal dynamics of a growing business, Patel, McIntyre, and Page say soft skills can be useful when measuring and celebrating success. Although financial metrics are of course critical to a business, good leaders realise growth can – and should – take many forms.

“The bottom line is one thing,” says Patel. “But we make the impact. If you don’t make the impact, the bottom line is not there.” For Page celebrating growth in areas beyond just the financial is crucial. “We definitely look at growth in other ways now,” he says. “We’ll look at our growth in our sustainability. That’s a big point for us: at the end of the year, how have we grown our impact on our local communities? How have we grown our support to our local homeless charities where we’re providing food to the homeless people around our local areas? That’s growth.”

Because at a time when things are tough, a focus on impact and broader measures of success is deeply rooted in personal purpose and gives staff a reason to think of the ‘why’ behind the business. “If a partner is interested in making impact of their local countries, then we have a good match,” says Patel. “If they haven’t, there is a transaction. And we’re not saying we’re not going to say, ‘no transaction’, but at least we know, we’re not going to say, ‘longer partnership’.”

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Learning lessons for the future

As these leaders have navigated the ups and downs of business growth, they’ve learned invaluable lessons. “You really have to be patient, and you need to be resilient,” says Page. “Good news in business compounds over time, it doesn’t really happen that quickly. But bad news happens very fast.”

Being able to empower your employees by celebrating their success reaps dividends, says Patel. “Make them accountable,” he says. “Because then they’ll do things. What is quite interesting for me is they will make decisions, because they’ve seen how I made decisions. Now they’ll come to me and saying, ‘I’m thinking about this, what do you think?’” And 99% of the time, it’s what he would do.

Beyond optimism, faith also helps. “You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing,” says Page. “Believe in your strategy. And in the end, hard work with the right strategy and the right team around you, will get you to where you want to get to in the end.”

Sign up for more data-driven insights on growing your business - covering themes such as innovation, international expansion, and leadership - straight from HSBC’s research teams, industry specialists, and partners.