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Cultivating Soft Skills To Foster A Culture Of Innovation



Balvinder Singh PowarBooster Space Industries, Board Member And Director

About Our Guest

Balvinder is English of Indian origin, resident in Spain. He is a Business & Finance graduate with a Masters in Mediation. He has extensive experience leading cutting edge projects internationally. He is a Founding Partner, Board Member and Director at BOOSTER Space Industries and AERDRON. He is also an Adjunct Professor and Mentor at IE Business School. In 2018 he became a Senior Advisor at “Opinno”, an Innovation Agency.
Rahim Rahemtulla: Hello, everyone and welcome to Silicon Valley Innovation Center. I’m Rahim Rahemtulla, the SVIC Brand Ambassador. Today, we bring you an interview with Balvinder Singh Powar. Balvinder is a Board Member and Director at Booster Space Industries and I’m delighted to say that he joins us now. Balvinder, lovely to have you with us.

Balvinder Powar: Rahim, great to be here.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And so, Bal, I want to say to start, just to let everyone know, you’re going to be doing a webinar for us in November – on the 8th to be precise – and that’s going to be focused on innovation. And I’ll just share the subtitle to everyone, it’s “The Importance of Soft Skills in Innovation and the World we will live in.” So I think it’s very intriguing and hopefully today we can talk a little bit or more about what that is. So I think today, just to start, tell us what are soft skills in your definition and tell us a little bit about why they’re important when it comes to building an innovation culture.

Balvinder Powar: Well, we talk a lot about the technical ability, but if you look at people’s CVs and compare them anywhere around the world, we almost take for granted people’s technical ability because you can learn that. But if we think about the difference between being a tech technician and a leader, a leader has to manage him or herself and other people, so those are the soft skills.

Now, in a lot of my talks and even the one I’ll give later in November for Silicon Valley, I’ll talk about big challenges that we face. So if we think about something like the Moon landing, I’ll ask people, “What type of skills did they need to get there?” And 80% of the words will be things like “bravery”, “courage”, “planning”, “empathy”, “teamwork” and “trust” and the hard skills will come second. So those skills are so much more important because it makes a difference between something that’s good and something that’s exceptional because if you want to develop yourself, there’s a point where the technical skills can only take you so far and the soft skills make you a leader, make you a manager of people.

And they’re very important in the world we’re living in today because these are things that cannot be replicated, until now, by computers or technology or AI. So I say that we’re getting into a world that is high-tech and high-touch. Still, people are the ones who come up with ideas.

Rahim Rahemtulla: When you think of the soft skills, they can be learned as well as the technical skills?

Balvinder Powar: They can be learned and it does help that if you’re in an environment around people to actually learn them and build them together. So, for example, in the training I do, we call it “human-led innovation” and, especially, my main training is at IE Business School. Whatever people study, we do two tracks that are transversal: one is about business innovation, having the mind of entrepreneur, even if you’re an employee, and another one we call it something like behavioral fitness, so we talk about knowing yourself, how to lead others, emotional intelligence, things like influence and persuasion, how to deal with conflict. So you can learn them, but you’ve definitely got to practice them, too. So the group environment can help you to become somebody who’s proficient in those things.

Rahim Rahemtulla: So, you think this is something that everyone should or could learn? Is it not necessarily just for leaders or just for entrepreneurs, but you feel that even if we are employees learning these soft skills, you feel that has value for us as well?

Balvinder Powar: I think it has value because you create a certain type of culture that’s hopefully more agreeable and more attractive to work in and that can lead to innovation. Obviously, it’s about the context. Now, if you’re doing a very good job in a factory, on a production line, maybe you don’t need so much rapport with your team, maybe you don’t need innovation, so it might be less important. But the good thing about it is it can help to create a certain culture and, depending on the culture you need, that for us equates to performance. But these are skills which are harder because they are about people and people are very complex, so they don’t happen by chance.

Rahim Rahemtulla: No. And so, what does it look like when you try to teach people these skills? How do you do that? Of course, it’s very abstract to say, “Let’s be persuasive, let’s be good when it comes to dealing with people”, but what does that actually mean in practice? And how do we know that we are good or bad at that?

Balvinder Powar: Now, that’s a very good question because I say, “If you’re a professor in Financial Accounting, you have to try to make the numbers and the teaching funky.” In my regard, with the soft skills, I have to make them very tangible, so the type of training I do is very much a workshop.

So I’ll give you an example about some training I did last week. I had a group of MBA students who are people between 25 and 30, so they have some work experience. So at the one-month stage, we actually ask them to do something called the Belbin Test. The Belbin Test is one that measures how you work in a team. We actually benchmarked it with the behaviors and the experiences they had till now and then we asked them to map out the gaps between where they saw themselves and where other people saw them and then I gave them more tasks to do as a group. So you have a scientific test that measures it, you have an experience together and then you test it out with a challenge and that challenge was about a critical situation of survival. So, in that way, you have the context, the science and the application, but it’s very much about doing in the group setting or learning about yourself and others.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And so, when you work in the group setting, after that you go through that process, your peers and that group, they feed back to you. Is that how it is? Is that how you learn where your strengths and weaknesses are?

Balvinder Powar: Exactly, because you can do things about your strengths as a leader that’s about yourself, but in the context of a team – which is a culture and a group of people – your peers are also going to tell you many things that you cannot see. If you go back to psychology, things like Johari window, we talk about the things you can see for yourself and the things that only other people can see, so it gives you a broader perspective about your behavior. That’s very interesting, especially when we’re working with diversity. And diversity is not just nationality, it’s also working style.

Rahim Rahemtulla: Tell us more about that. How do you mean, working with diversity? That’s a very hot topic at the moment, I think, not just in Silicon Valley but especially there too, where people worry that the workforce there is not diverse enough. So tell us a little bit more about how this applies in the context of diversity.

Balvinder Powar: Now, if you think about diversity, all the science tells us that a diverse group of people will outperform a uniform group but it can also underperform. So they outperform if they’re well-managed, so well-managed means that people understand each other.

What I do with teams at the beginning, I use my mediation experience and I make a working agreement based on three levels of need: individual, team and task. And we try to go beyond the words. Because imagine if you have a group of ten people and you ask them, “What is the key aspect to teams and good culture?” They’ll tell you, “Respect.” The problem is respect means different things to other people, so we have to go through the banner words and then we have to think about culture, we have to think about communication style and people’s experience. So we have to go deeper. Once we understand that, then we can bring it together in a new way, and what can help us is defining a challenge together.

So we have to go beyond the layers thinking that today diversity is not about nationality just by itself, it’s also about language. A group of ten people, they might work in English but English isn’t their main language. And also, you have to think about people’s abilities. So in today’s world, diversity is a hot topic because imagine you have a traditional CFO of a bank, he or she might be over 50, but then you have the C-level person who’s managing cyber security. That’s a young person’s game, that person might be in their 20s, but they have to manage in the organogram of the same level. So we have to look at those aspects and what they mean. We talk about many layers of diversity. If we can understand them and put them together in the right way, then magic happen, but the first thing we have to be is aware.

Rahim Rahemtulla: Yeah. So for the younger C-level executive there and the older one, is it necessarily any easier for either one of those people to understand diversity is? I guess we sort of have a bias, in some ways, to think that the older generation needs to adapt and work according to what’s new, but is that always necessarily the case?

Balvinder Powar: I don’t think it’s always necessarily the case because you have many people who have a very open thinking, who have a pioneering spirit, but it is true that the younger generation live in a very mixed, hybrid world already and a big part of their education has been based on soft skills already, when they older generation – I count myself, I’m nearly 50 – when most of my training education was about the hard skills. What the older generation have as an advantage is about communication because they’re used to a more direct communication which doesn’t depend on technology.

So I’m asked a lot about diversity in the broadest sense to train that and I do a lot of training with younger people about that because of the communication style. Younger people are used to communicating through machines, which isn’t always the more productive way to manage things.

Rahim Rahemtulla: I feel like it’s a little tricky, in a way, to use machines, to use technology to communicate but use soft skills at the same time. When everything is mediated through messaging apps and platforms, email, I suppose, as well to some extent, I feel like this definition and the application of what we think of as soft skills takes on a new dimension and maybe one which we’re still getting used to, we’re still learning. Is that a fair, do you think, picture?

Balvinder Powar: I would say because it’s all becoming hybrid, but you have to remember that technology is a tool for us. So, for me, when I talk about teams, obviously we have very dispersed teams around the world and virtual teams and that’s great. Because we’ve done that at Booster, you can work with whomever you want to and it doesn’t matter where you’re from. In your case as well, you can be in Berlin and your colleagues in the U.S. But I also do recommend that we have some time together face-to-face because the quality and the understanding and the empathy and the connection can make it much greater. So I would always recommend that, if we have a project that’s going on for a year, at least to have a kickoff together and then we have a finish together and even a midpoint. Because 20 emails can be actually replaced by 5 minutes face-to-face because what we do lose in the virtual communication is the non-verbal communication, which is recognized as being up to 80% of communication. So if you want to create innovation, the quality of how you interact with others does become important.

Rahim Rahemtulla: Do you feel like now remote working is becoming more common and having teams in different parts of the world is becoming more common? You could say we’re more globalized now, so having people come to places like Silicon Valley to work from all over the world is more and more commonplace. So are we perhaps getting better, naturally, at soft skills and diversity just as a result of the environment we see? And perhaps this is not something that, in an earlier generation, they would have necessarily had this practice at, whereas today somehow it comes naturally to us.

Balvinder Powar: It comes naturally to us and this is a normal way for us to work, but still, maybe we need some guidance in how to manage it well, especially depending on the objectives that we have. If we’re doing very mechanical processes, it doesn’t matter that much, but if we’re doing things about team empathy, human-led innovation, we have to find the hybrid that works for the team and the challenge that we have in front of us. But yes, I think it’s like fashion, you go one way too far and then you find the midpoint. You have to find what is that hybrid, what is that way of working that is good for our challenge of managing the work and, if we need innovation in there, how do we do it?

So a lot of my training actually involves that and I’m asked to help teams on how to do that. Simple questions are, just one example, is we talk about cave and commons. So we have to think about a team, how much time do you need in the cave where you can work individually? How much time do you need in the commons when you need to be together? That depends also on working style, so it’s finding the balance. But we have to identify, address them and get ready for it.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And I’m thinking about this in the context of, say, an established bank, for example, or a well-established shipping company, for example. I mean, big, well-established institutions like these are facing this disruption. And so, can you say a little bit about how, in that context, how does a big company like that find this hybrid balance and this working style when they’re faced with the fast moving technology world that they find themselves in?

Balvinder Powar: That’s a very big challenge for the big companies because they have a lot of power, financial power, but they have a lot of legacy, which is not necessarily a negative thing, but they have this historical baggage. So I actually work with companies, I’m an adviser at a company and what we do is we try to help the big companies, the multinationals, to act like startups. So what we do there is we create space where we have hybrid teams, teams involving entrepreneurs and experts and founders of startups with the traditional teams, for example, in the banks. And then we find the way, “What is the culture of the bank? Do you prefer to do something separately? Do you prefer to find internal teams? Do we find the hybrid?”

But the important thing is they have to have space for experimentation and they also have to incentivize people not just financially but how they behave to make innovation happen. So one of my clients is Santander Bank, we’re working a lot on behaviors that support the bank in this innovation and people are compensated for that, about creating a culture and behavior towards creating innovation and helping their colleagues to think differently. But you have to allow yourself to fail and do some type of experimentation.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And is it hard to convince companies that this has to be done? I suppose they know about it and they might have read about it and they’ve heard about and that it’s taken for granted in the sense that everyone does need to be able to learn how to fail and so on. But when it comes to actually putting these things into practice, I suppose there’s a lot at stake for them and so they’re not necessarily comfortable with doing that. How do you get around that?

Balvinder Powar: Again, the culture part is very important because if we give some training to a group of people in a company but there is an overarching culture from the top, it’s very hard because those employees will think, “Why are we doing this? Are we part of the bigger picture?” So people have to understand they’re part of a bigger picture. And companies, they are realizing because they’re starting to feel the pain. Ideally, you do this before the pain starts because then you’re already behind. And in FinTech, that’s very clear. You have startups like Revolut and 26 which can compete with the major banks because they’ve a very agile, unique model with no heritage behind it. So now in FinTech, they are feeling that and we have a lot of work helping them in that process, whether they do it internally or start new companies or buy the startups.

Rahim Rahemtulla: So do you see there is real evidence now that these disruptors like N26, they are taking customers away or customers are going to them first and this is very real now?

Balvinder Powar: It’s very real. What is that? It’s about seeing, creating a new market and what they’ve done is they’ve created a new market for people who didn’t feel that they were being served by the traditional companies. So especially for the younger people who are doing all their banking on their mobile phone, that’s where these companies are entering. Because now, people don’t want to go to a physical space, that’s maybe for the older generation. So those companies, so most software companies, they have an advantage.

An interesting quote is, we have a very big bank called BBVA, one of the biggest in the world, and even the CEO of the company said a few months ago, “Very soon, we will become a software company.”

Rahim Rahemtulla: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of talk about how basically every company needs to become a software company. And one rather illuminating, perhaps, quote that I could pull out with that, we could say there are tech companies and there are dead companies.

Balvinder Powar: Okay.

Rahim Rahemtulla: Now, maybe that’s a little too extreme, but what do you think?

Balvinder Powar: It depends of, if you’re a bank offering a whole suite of services, you still might need to have physical branches, maybe less, because you’re serving a different type of customer. But if you’re serving customers who do most of their work and their business through technology, then that’s where you’re becoming very techy. But not everything is application; it’s also about the experience. You think about Apple. Apple, the flagship tools are very important to them, is not just about sales, it’s letting people enter their world. And even people like Amazon who said, “What are you doing at Apple?” they have opened physical stores in Germany. So there’s a point where you have to mix the tech and then also the idea of an experience.

The experience is a very interesting thing because it creates an emotion and we know that when it creates an emotion, you don’t think logically so you don’t just think about price. Because if you’re selling something just based on the price, you become a trader.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And I feel this is where soft skills come in again.

Balvinder Powar: Yes.

Rahim Rahemtulla: We’ve come back around because you could say Amazon, Apple, Google, these are all big tech companies, but the user experience is, in a sense, a soft skill, it’s an expression of soft skills. And so, even when we’re on our mobile phone or looking at a webpage, the way we feel about that page and how the quality of that experience is, in a sense, a soft skill. As if we would go into a shop and have really good customer service there. This is, in some sense, the digital version, I suppose. Is that a fair assessment, do you think?

Balvinder Powar: I would say so because if you’re offering something of high value, you want people to feel something because they’ll never forget that and they won’t just base their purchasing decision comparing the specs of a computer and something else. It’s not based on price, so you can offer them something of higher value.

A big example of that, this week I’m going to Germany again and I’m giving a talk about innovation in a hospitality institute because their students are being hired – the hospitality students – by people like Apple for the user experience and for consumer firms like Adidas. Because they’ve realized that experience is part of the emotional connection, where people will create loyalty and they’re willing to spend more.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And so, it seems like the big tech companies, in a way, seem to be leading on this. I don’t know if you agree with that but creating this sort of digital soft experience, I can only really see that getting more and more important, especially as we get into more and more artificial intelligence, for example, and we start talking to our computers more. We want more and more from them and we want that empathy when we use them.

Balvinder Powar: Yes. We want the empathy because that’s a human feeling and that cannot be replicated by machines, but it also gives you a competitive advantage. Now, if you think about the mobile phone world, really, one phone and another don’t have that much difference. So why does one company fail and one succeed? Because they make you feel something. Look at Xiaomi in China, they’re copying the Apple model. Is Apple the best phone? Maybe not, but you have an emotional connection to this device so you want it. So you’re not even looking at how much it costs – that’s the product you want. So it’s creating this higher contingent of value that keeps the customer with them.

Rahim Rahemtulla: People do say that everyone who uses Apple devices, they really love them and have a real connection with them, which us Windows and PC users don’t really understand. But, Bal, we’re almost running out of time today. And so, I think you’ve given a lot of really interesting preview of what you’re going to be talking about in your webinar and if I just close out today, just give us, if you can, just one solid takeaway that you would like companies to know. If they want to build their innovation culture, what is that one thing that you would want them to take away to think about?

Balvinder Powar: A simple thing is first to ask what does innovation mean for you, what does it mean for your employees and find that understanding and decide, “Do we need innovation? What does it look like?” And inspire your employees to help you define that path. So create that culture and let people make small experiments that cost almost nothing. Now, just with that you create a change, but first you need to define, “Do we need innovation?” And, “What does it mean?”

Rahim Rahemtulla: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Bal, for joining us today for this interview. I think we’re all looking forward to hearing more at the webinar and so, just to remind our viewers, that’s going to be happening November 8, 9 am Pacific Time. And for the details, if you want to register, check our website For today, though, Bal, I think that’s where we’ll wrap things up. So thank you very much for joining us and, viewers, thank you for tuning in. I’ve been Rahim Rahemtulla. Joining me today has been Balvinder Singh Powar. From us today, that’s all until next time. Goodbye.
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