Charles Adu Boahen on the importance of soft skills and cultural awareness

When you’re a successful investment banker or high level government minister, connecting with people is crucial. And that involves both soft skills and an appreciation for different cultures. Here’s former Ghanaian finance minister Charles Adu Boahen thoughts on the importance of these skills and attitudes.


Charles Adu Boahen on the importance of soft skills and cultural awareness

Charles Adu Boahen’s path to success began with his undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California where he majored in engineering and Harvard Business School where he received his MBA. He has experience in investment banking and private equity and ran JP Morgan’s Africa operations from Johannesburg before returning home to Ghana in 2007 to set up a boutique investment bank called Blackstar Advisors. Eventually he found himself serving the people of his home country as their minister for finance. Mapping his trajectory from top tier US schools to premier investment banks and then high level government positions seems unsurprising when you consider the educational and technical experience and skills he picked up along the way. But Charles Adu Boahen credits much of his success to his ability to understand the importance of soft skills – skills you don’t learn in a formal education – and his awareness of cultural differences between the people he works and does business with. 


There are a lot of differences, he says, between doing business in places like New York, London and Paris, compared with doing business in Accra, Lagos or Johannesburg.


“In the West, you need to look somebody in the eye when you’re talking to them. It’s very important. In Africa, it may be seen as being rude if you look your seniors in the eye or your elders in the eye. You’re supposed to be more demure and humble in the way you engage or approach somebody who’s older than you – somebody who has gray hairs,” Charles Adu Boahen explained in a recent interview. “If you use that same approach in a Western boardroom or in a corporate environment, most people will assume that you’re lying, or you’re not telling the truth, or that you’re being evasive.”


Charles Adu Boahen explains soft skills

Soft skills are very important in business and government, says Charles Adu Boahen. Soft skills are universally transferable skills such as critical thinking, teamwork, and resilience. Often soft skills are the intangible skills of working life, as opposed to the obvious hard skills of a job – like understanding economic principles, being able to trade in the markets, knowing how to quantifiably analyze a business opportunity.. Soft skills are qualities like empathy, emotional intelligence, emotional control, communication, self awareness.


For Charles Adu Boahen, soft skills go hand in hand with cultural awareness in terms of importance.


“They’re important within the context of where you are and what you’re trying to do. A firm handshake in the West is seen as confident and assured. A firm handshake in Africa may be seen as trying to show that you’re strong, or you’re squeezing somebody you don’t respect – but you don’t want it to be a limp handshake either,” said Charles Adu Boahen.


Lead with  your right side, says Charles Adu Boahen

In Africa – or at least in Ghana – Charles Adu Boahen explained that it is disrespectful to greet with the left side of your body or to take anything with your left.


“You don’t use your left hand – and I’m left-handed!. I grew up left-handed. Most Ghanaians, if you’re born left-handed, your parents will try and force you to switch to your right. It’s almost like it’s a disability,” said Charles Adu Boahen. “So, a lot of people find it surprising in Ghana when they realize that maybe three out of the last five American presidents were left-handed. So, whereas in America, it’s no big deal – I can use my left anytime I want to – in Ghana, I’m very conscious about using my left hand. And up to today, I would apologize if I have to use my left hand in a situation, even though there’s nothing wrong with it, because I know how it’s perceived.”


Charles Adu Boahen said understanding subtle cultural differences – like attitudes to left-handedness and eye contact in Africa, or the way you share your food or pour drinks in other cultures – can be the difference between a good business interaction and a lasting relationship, or failure. Sometimes more so than the substance of whatever you’re talking about or your good intentions. And many people are entirely unaware of it. 


Charles Adu Boahen says your curiosity can even cause you trouble

A simple – usually perceived as a positive – attribute like curiosity is another example.


“I think it’s always important to ask questions and be able to be curious about stuff. Not in an offensive way, but it shows an interest in wanting to understand the way people operate in that particular environment, and shows some level of understanding,” said Charles Adu Boahen. “But the Western approach sometimes can be a bit overbearing. They come into a country or into an environment, and they expect everybody to conform to their style. And sometimes it rubs people off the wrong way. And that’s why you’d see some situations where you meet a French guy, he knows how to speak English perfectly well, but he insists on speaking French, because he doesn’t see why he should be the one to speak your language. Why aren’t you the one speaking his language, he thinks?”

Charles Adu Boahen said it is always important to appreciate the sensitivities of difference cultures and environments, and try and see how best you can conform.


“Learning a few words in their language is always something that people find quite flattering, and shows that you’ve taken the time out to learn about them. Learning how to pronounce their names properly and not butchering their names is always very important and very well-appreciated. And so then those little things, I think, really make a difference,” said Charles Adu Boahen.


Technical abilities and professionalism in your chosen field are crucial. But Charles Adu Boahen advises to not forget the importance of soft skills and cultural awareness.


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