6 Essential Soft Skills for You to Succeed in Foreign Trade

At some point in the foreign trade life (and several others), we worked with that person who graduated from college with honors, skilled up their english studying in Cambridge, took a bunch of courses, did 3 MBAs before their 30s and in the last, had the diploma delivered by the hands of Bill Gates.

Their curriculum is beautiful as per the education background, but all we need is an e-mail or a call from them to bring up all our loathing and disgust.

Envy? No, nobody walks with their CV glued to the forehead. It is a person who spent a lot of time developing their Hard Skills and neglected the Soft Skills.

Soft and Hard Skills?

Being brief with the explanation, "Soft skills are behavioral skills, that is, personal attributes you need to have to be successful in the workplace. Unlike hard skills which are called technical skills.''

Frankly, I prefer to simply call them virtues, because they are all about behaviors that demand energy and generate good for themselves and the others involved - but let's keep the trendy jargons.

These six soft skills have been chosen considering my professional trajectory in foreign trade. Some inherent in me, others demanded (and still require eternal) development and there are those that I learned just by hitting against the wall ... several times.

1. Communication

At the beginning of my career I believed that to be seen as a serious person I needed to communicate with colleagues from other sectors and superiors with a language similar to a mixture of Supreme Court Judges and Prime Ministers discussing our Constitution.

It was the young hurry to grow quickly in life by the stupid way.

Communicating means being understood and the fewer words you need to do this, the less you will waste your time and others. If you fail to be understood, take the blame and reformulate, no one has the obligation to know how your mind works.

By e-mail, forget what you learned by writing with your monography, no one reads them for pleasure because its structure is not inviting at all! Separate your thoughts into paragraphs, use concise sentences and simple words, this will not make you less professional.

''If you send out rolled-up messages with paragraphs that go beyond ten lines, you can be sure that it will be procrastinated on.''

2. Critical Thinking

The operational work of foreign trade can be quite a routine and binds us to a dangerous comfort zone that makes us act like robots that don’t contest - this subject worries me and I’ve already written about it in the text: How can we avoid being a robot at work and not be fired by one?

Understand your work and procedures with mastery and then reflect on and question it! Start by asking why it should be done in such a way and how it can be corrected or improved. The simplest questions can lead to relevant progress:

• Why do I need to print it out and sign it if it has already been approved via the system? • Why do I need to send it to you by e-mail if it is saved on the server which you have access to? • Isn’t it better for me to account for it to you after it has been done, rather than waiting for it to be authorized?

Problems don’t exist to be simply accepted, but rather solved. Remove the stone from the shoe or buy new shoes.

"If you limit yourself to working like a robot, it will be easier for your superiors to make a decision in case they decide to reduce the workforce. Robots don’t express feelings."

3. Adaptability

I spent more than a decade working in the naval field and this year I migrated to the chemical segment. I admit that, at first, I felt like I had reset my career. We feel a little despair but the bills keep coming and the dogs need food.

To paraphrase the philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus: "The only constant is change" and foreign trade demands more adaptability than other fields, also with different goods. Then we are presented with innovation of systems, customs procedures, updating of legislations, geopolitical movements...

Summing it up in a very straight forward way: if you are too resistant to change, foreign trade is not for you.

4. Responsibility  

I beg your pardon for my French in advance.

You're going to screw up. All you have to do is work so it can and will happen. Take responsibility when they do happen and don’t waste the time of others by justifying yourself or putting the blame on somebody else. Not only is it lack of communication, it is also childish.

Clean the mess you’ve made.

When it happens, admit it as soon as possible. If necessary, escalate it to your superior and preferably providing an immediate solution along with it to prevent others involved from seeing it on their own (and some moron use it to screw you over). This way, whoever is affected will be more prone to help resolve and will condemn you less for that.

"Mistakes are part of the learning process, though, learn from them! This is how we grow, but we can’t have progress only by making mistakes."

And once you have mastered the current job and the mistakes are sort of nonexistent, it's time to ask for new responsibilities.

5. Proactivity

This soft skill is imperative to become a proper leader, because the proactive makes it happen and their attitude inspires by example.

In foreign trade, a process on hold or on stand-by means loss and, if its anchor is a problem, it is a tempting invitation to procrastination. And I don’t mean the classic '' I'm going to have a coffee before I solve this '', but rather pushing it to the end of the to-do list, just to avoid facing it.

You may not be the right person to solve it, but your proactiveness in reminding the issue to the team may be enough for someone to get moving.

And if the problem was caused by you, avoid the temptation to shelve it up and go back to the item above on responsibility. That’s right, sometimes we need two soft skills together to work it out best.

6. Teamwork

The one on the right looks like my Tommy.

Foreign trade operates through a giant teamwork, much larger than its industry counterparts, capable of involving people located in two, three or even more countries in a single operation.

If you are not from the field, I suggest you read the below: https://jonas-vieira.com/2018/05/07/quais-prestadores-de-servico-atuam-numa-importacao/

Of course, with so many people involved, it is very easy for an operation to get off track and these are the moments where teamwork is most necessary.

"Cause it's easy to say you can work as a team if you've never had a conflict with them before.”

As I mentioned in critical thinking, problems exist to be solved and should be the only concern until it is in fact solved, since it’s common in foreign trade the immature workers to be primarily concerned about pointing fingers rather than collaborating with the solution.

"Once settled, understand what happened, talk to those responsible, develop an action plan so that it doesn’t occur again and deal with the possible financial damage caused."

Simple, professional and free of vanities to move on.

And remember, a high-quality teamwork will make you stand out with your customers as well as other companies involved in the operations. As a result, your networking will provide you with more opportunities.


Do you need other skills? Undoubtedly, yes. Here I confined myself to my humble professional career. Certainly there are other skills that may even, depending on the sector, company and countless other factors, be more important than these presented.

Of course we fail to use the soft skills all the time which is normal. After all, we are simply humans. We need to develop them through habit, reflection and feedback. It isn’t easy, but the advantage is that it is a free learning and they will be remembered more than the Hard Skills.

How about you, reader?

Can you put these soft skills into practice? have you had a co-worker as I mentioned at the beginning of the text? Do you believe that others soft skills have been more important to you? Let's keep talking in the comments.

Written by Jonas Vieira

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