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Soft skills are about self-conviction, says Ronnie Screwvala

The upGrad co-founder on his new book, honing soft skills and why the pandemic is the right time to introspect and work on them

Ronnie Srewvala's 'Skill It, Kill It' is a clarion call to develop 'soft skills', a term much bandied about in the corporate sector.
Ronnie Srewvala's 'Skill It, Kill It' is a clarion call to develop 'soft skills', a term much bandied about in the corporate sector. (Courtesy Penguin Random House India)

During his decades-long career, Ronnie Srewvala has donned more hats than most leaders. But the one that inspired his new book is his role as chairperson and co-founder of the ed-tech company, upGrad. Skill It, Kill It is a clarion call to develop “soft skills”—a term much bandied about in the corporate sector. But what are these skills and what do they look like in action?

Drawing on learnings from the ups and downs of his entrepreneurial ventures and interviews with industry leaders (from Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar Shaw to Paytm’s Vijay Shekhar Sharma to NITI Ayog CEO Amitabh Kant), Screwvala makes a persuasive case for honing techniques of negotiation, capacity for teamwork, leadership and mentoring abilities, even the gift of telling compelling stories to achieve professional goals. He advices junior- and mid-level employees with empathy and kindness, laying out the blueprint for an emotionally intelligent workplace. Edited excerpts from an interview:

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Did you have a target reader while writing the book?

My first reader in mind was me, 30 years back. I came from a lower middle-class background. Everyone in my family was a professional, and there I was, wanting to branch out into entrepreneurship. So, I see myself as a product of soft skills—I know the struggle to get those skills and also the disproportionate rewards when you do get them. During the five years of upGrad, we came across an incredible diversity of people, from students to professionals, people who were about to choose their career paths to those 20 years into their jobs. Most of us are focused on knowledge, degrees, diplomas, certificates—and relevantly so. But we also miss out on soft skills.

My target audience is also people in tier II and tier III cities. When I talk to them, they often seem to come with a sense of handicap because they don’t have the right accent or diction, which is unnecessary. There are super smart people everywhere.

What provoked you to start upGrad?

After I exited media, I was clear that I wanted to build something ground up, roll up my sleeves, not just have the investor hat on. Education stood out as something that needed to get disrupted. I thought I could bring my strengths to the table—understanding of credibility, respecting research, understanding consumers, pre-empting trends, building a brand, and most importantly, telling a compelling story. Education today is as much about storytelling as what I did in my previous avatars.

The soft skills you write about are universal concepts that should matter at all times. Why have we not taken them seriously?

I think we live in our comfort zone too much. We feel let’s not push the board any which way because we’re doing things gradually. We also always believe that the environment around us is half the problem and therefore don’t stretch ourselves—because soft skills is a stretch mode. There is also a lack of self-conviction. In entrepreneurship, people often wonder, how come he raised $300 million, and I couldn’t raise any money? And I say, maybe he connected, told his story much better. That’s what it’s about.

How did you sort of zero in on the people you interviewed?

Of the 1,000 people I spoke to, the quotes are as much from normal working professionals (as industry leaders). I wanted to understand the core of what they were going through. The founders I spoke are people I would consider leaders. Most people think that as they get to the more senior levels, they are more in control. But when you are higher up, you’re actually less in control, because you’re more dependent on how everyone reports. When I mentioned soft skills to them, (the leaders) connected with it strongly.

Skill It, Kill It—Up Your Game By Ronnie Screwvala; 224 pages;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>299.
Skill It, Kill It—Up Your Game By Ronnie Screwvala; 224 pages; 299. (Courtesy Penguin Random House India)

You argue for building emotionally intelligent workplaces, but in our current work culture, there is a move towards dispensing with non-performers brutally.

I don’t understand why judging performance and results equals brutality and being cut-and-dry. The world doesn’t give you a second chance. Empathy comes in with the time you give people to grow into a job, the mentoring and feedback you give them. But, at some stage, I don’t think it’s brutal to ask someone to move out for lack of performance—otherwise you’re wasting his time and yours. It really depends on whether you give people the ability to take risks, make mistakes, take initiatives, and train them. Some of the organizations today don’t have that elasticity.

With people losing their jobs quickly these days, one would think being a generalist is more employable. But you make a strong case for being a specialist.

Today, to really make a mark, you need to have a strong element of focus, because then it becomes part of your attitude and approach. You may think a tech person is more specialist, but a salesperson is a generalist. That’s not true—it’s only because you’ve branded those functions in that manner. If you want to be in the top 20-25% percentile of your organization, you have to come out of your comfort zone, upgrade again, and specialise.

What advice would you give to people who want to switch careers, since you have done it several times?

The one quality to look out for is complete openness. You need to be hungry about why you’re doing what you’re doing. People mix this up with the domain strength. I moved from manufacturing to media, from media to the not-for-profit space, and now to education…. Today, with the kind of pressures you have in your work life, you have to enjoy what you’re doing and be proud of it. People move jobs because they want to get to the next level. But, for a lot of people, it’s about feeling a sense of restless in their jobs, and so, they need to change their vocation to get more out of life. You should just go ahead and do it because there’s something that’s obviously troubling you, but it requires a lot of sacrifice. The main thing you need to do while changing vocation is to leave a lot of the past behind.

Many people, especially freshers, are joining the workforce remotely owing to the pandemic. How do we recalibrate our soft skills in the digital space?

Just 15 minutes back, I finished an induction session for about 130 people. As I got in, I heard an argument going on about whether to put the cameras on. I listened to the conversation for 30 seconds and then for the next 20 minutes explained to them, how can they possibly induct themselves in a job unless they figure out how to connect?

Digital, of course, has its challenges, but your soft skills are about your self-conviction, not about how you show off at a water cooler. I think our ability to connect is getting less and less and technology is not going to allow us to necessarily improve it. So, I said to my team, how are you going to do teamwork or get things from people, if you are saying, oh, but I’m not dressed today, or how I will look here, or my mom’s walking in the background, and so on. You have already started with so many hang-ups and excuses—that’s not going to work. There’s a lot that’s happened in the digital space, and we should use all that as plus-plus. (This time of remote work) is also a phenomenal opportunity to introspect about our soft skills.

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