At their core, businesses are basically groups of people working toward a common goal. The more effectively these people can work together, the more successful a business can be. If collaboration is the wheel that helps the business progress, business skills are the lubricant that keeps the wheel turning smoothly.
No matter what your industry or job, strong business acumen will help you succeed. This guide explores the top business skills everyone should have and how you can improve your business acumen.
Business skills are a foundation for success in the business world and include soft skills like communication, along with analytical and organizational skills that help a business succeed. Critical thinking, negotiation and trainability are other examples of business skills.
“(Business skills) are the common set of terms and practices used by all individuals who make up a business organization and, likewise, are the common set of terms and practices used by all business organizations,” says Cathy Rusinko, professor of management at Thomas Jefferson University’s School of Business. “Every discipline has a language. Business skills are the language of business.”
For instance, a common understanding of financial terms allows people around the world to agree on how to value a company. Within an organization, business skills help employees better work together and with customers.
“Business skills are essential for the success of any company and employee, but especially those in service-related fields where employees are often the first and most important interface between the company and its customers,” says Jim Glenn, faculty member in Walden University’s DBA program. “In the U.S. today, services represent approximately 70% of GDP, which makes having good business skills even more important than in prior decades where manufacturing dominated the American economy.”
Rusinko distinguishes between qualitative and quantitative, or functional, skills. “Qualitative skills, often called the softer business skills, are most often the focus of courses such as management and human resources,” she says. These can include communication, leadership and management.
“Some employers and researchers think that our current reliance on virtual communication creates an even greater need for formal training in the softer skills, since we now tend to substitute these virtual forms of communication for what used to be more personal encounters such as face-to-face or at least voice communication,” Rusinko says.
Quantitative skills also can be called hard skills, which are more technical in nature. “Quantitative or functional skills include the tools and methods that are taught in disciplines such as accounting, finance, business statistics and business analytics,” Rusinko says.
Quantitative and qualitative business skills often are integrated in school as they would be in business. For instance, finance students might be required to give an oral presentation of a company analysis, Rusinko says.
While a solid foundation of all business skills is beneficial, the most important business skills to learn will depend on your role in a company. For example, a project manager relies on leadership and time management skills, while a company accountant focuses more on financial and data analysis.
Businesses are run by people for people. How people communicate with each other determines how smoothly a business runs. Internally, employee communication sets the tone for a company’s culture. Externally, how employees communicate helps define a business’s brand.
“The branding of a company’s image and reputation is often determined by a customer’s first impression of the employee and their ability to process requests cordially, politely and efficiently,” Glenn says. “This also means that to develop a positive brand image, employees must be able to articulate their thoughts clearly and politely to the customer in spoken and written form.”
Communication is also important from a business-to-business standpoint, as businesses often need to communicate with suppliers, vendors and potential investors. Effective communication can make you an impactful team member on any side of business operations.
Whether you realize it or not, you engage in negotiation daily. Most of this negotiation happens informally, such as discussing what to have for dinner or where to go on the next family vacation. However, formal negotiation skills are critical for success in business and involve reaching consensus, compromising, cooperating, strategizing and effectively communicating.
Negotiation skills are not about learning how to win an argument, but rather how to prevent one. The best negotiators are able to help people reach a mutual agreement without undue tension. Being a good negotiator can also help improve your communication skills, as you’re more likely to know what to say and when and how to say it.
Leadership skills are important for anyone who wants to succeed in a business environment, even if you don’t hold a managerial role. Leadership skills are not the same as management skills. Leadership is focused on people more than processes.
Strong leaders can empower people to succeed and facilitate teamwork among peers. They build a productive and amenable work environment by using interpersonal skills to help foster collaboration and effective communication.
Leadership skills include effective communication, delegation, flexibility, motivation, problem-solving, positivity and a readiness to take on responsibilities.
While leadership focuses on people and creating a collaborative work environment, management is about uniting people to work toward common goals. Managers develop and execute processes in pursuit of goals, including allocating resources and organizing teams.
Part of being an effective manager is knowing how to lead people from near and far. While a leader’s impact is mostly felt in the immediate environment by leading individual teams, managers also must be able to drive an organization’s culture.
Improving your management skills will help you better communicate and collaborate with your own managers. When you understand the challenges and objectives others face, you can work together to find solutions and achieve goals.
Decision-making is a daily activity when running a business. Decisions can range from which projects to pursue to who should work on initiatives and how to allocate resources. Business leaders are constantly making decisions, and these decisions may occur in an ever-changing environment that requires adapting to change and pivoting to address unexpected variables.
“Being able to quickly analyze and respond to a rapidly changing business and technological environment requires well-developed, finely tuned critical thinking abilities for professionals in key decision-making roles,” Glenn says.
Critical thinking is the ability to analyze information and make an objective decision based on that information. “While critical thinking may not ensure organizational success, it will consistently help those using it to make better business decisions,” Glenn says.
Data plays an integral role in business decision-making. Before managers can make a sound decision, they need to collect and analyze relevant data. For this reason, employers value skills such as the ability to compile, review, analyze, understand and report on data.
While considered more of a quantitative skill, data analysis includes soft business skills, too. For instance, creative thinking enables the data analyst to generate informed solutions. Also, communication skills are key to helping others understand your analysis.
Financial literacy is an important skill even if you aren’t in a finance or accounting role. No business decision is made without considering the financial implications.
“Being able to understand financial statements, perform a financial ratio analysis and optimize resources through linear programming are critical to managing a business,” Glenn says. “You cannot run until you can walk, and walking in business means being able to understand relatively complex concepts and applying those concepts as needed.”
Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is the ability to understand both your and other people’s emotions and how those feelings influence a situation. “People with high EQ use self-awareness, self-regulation and social skills to comprehend, acknowledge and regulate their reasoning process by using emotions,” Glenn says.
Companies seek individuals with high EQ because they collaborate well and function effectively in a team environment. Ultimately, they create a happier workplace. “Happier employees translate into better service, repeat business and higher profitability for the company,” Glenn says. Some companies include emotional intelligence tests as part of the application process.
As businesses become more complex and interdisciplinary, the ability to work with cross-functional teams is increasingly critical to your personal success and that of your organization, Glenn says.
Organizational skills mean more than just keeping your desk tidy, although that can be a component. On a broader scale, organization means the ability to define and prioritize goals, then create a plan to accomplish them. People with strong organizational skills tend to be more productive. They’re also likely to be better time managers and less inclined to procrastinate.
Being organized also makes you a better team member by helping you stay on top of tasks and complete work on time. The more organized you are, the easier it’ll be for you to communicate ideas and problem-solve with others.
Trainability is the capability to learn quickly. “Top-performing Fortune 500 companies all look for this quality in potential new hires,” Glenn says.
“People who possess this key business skill are often described as a quick study, which means they are able to quickly analyze a business situation, rapidly develop a set of alternatives to address a specific situation or problem, select the best alternative given the information on hand and implement that alternative smoothly and with maximum efficiency,”Glenn says.
Trainability translates to adaptability because someone who is a quick learner can understand new processes and adjust to changes in the work environment. In some ways, being trainable is the trump card for lagging skills. For example, if you don’t know a lot about data analysis but you are a quick study, you can learn how to crunch numbers and use software.
Whether you want to sharpen your business acumen to advance your career or achieve personal success, there are many ways to approach the study of business skills. In fact, just the act of learning can help you hone your skills.
“A large part of any business degree program is not only about learning the language of the business, but learning how to learn,” Glenn says. “Developing research skills to quickly gather disparate data from a multitude of sources is critical in today’s business environment.”
For this reason, he suggests pursuing a multidisciplinary business degree. MBA programs are the natural avenue as they “enable students to significantly improve their writing, collaboration and interpersonal skills,” Glenn says.
However, you don’t need to complete an entire degree to sharpen your business skills. Even taking one or two courses to learn a new business skill will build your knowledge and make you more marketable.
“Formal training is a good option for someone who is planning on a career in one of the business disciplines and/or wants a formally recognized credential, as well as credit, for their training,” Rusinko says. For those who don’t fall into either of those categories, there are also less formal and less costly options, such as adult education classes offered by local schools or municipalities. Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, can be another option, Rusinko says, but be aware that these courses may not be vetted.
“YouTube and TED Talks are free, tremendous resources,” Glenn says. “You can learn at your own pace and choose from a myriad of lectures, talks, Power Points and videos on every business topic imaginable.”
Virtual learning opportunities are increasing amid COVID-19. Many companies and business leaders have begun offering free Zoom presentations, Rusinko says. She encourages those who want to improve their business acumen to take full advantage of these resources.
There are also podcasts and webinars such as NPR’s “Planet Money” podcast that aim to help listeners better understand the economy. The Better Business Bureau also regularly produces webinars on business-related topics. You may find more free learning opportunities at your local library or other community resources.
Speaking of libraries, if you don’t like audio learning, books make excellent teachers, especially if you want to sharpen your writing and communication skills. “Reading more is not only educational, but also instructive when it comes to writing,” Glenn says.
Look for books like Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which is just as relevant today as it was when published nearly 90 years ago. A more contemporary option is “The Personal MBA” by Josh Kaufman, who argues that you don’t need to go to business school to learn business skills. His book explains many of the essential business skills for success on the job.
Rusinko also suggests subscribing to newsletters from highly rated business practitioners and professional journals to get a dose of business education right in your inbox.
To succeed in the study of business, you should begin with your goal at the forefront of your mind, Glenn says. “If you can visualize yourself walking across the stage to receive your degree, you are much more likely to stay focused and make it happen.”
Start by defining your learning goal, then create a schedule for how you’ll accomplish it. Glenn tells students to devote three to four hours each day to learning.
“Be sure to look beyond classes and study, and reach out to the business world,” Rusinko says.
A major part of business success is networking. She encourages learners to expand their network of business colleagues.
If you’re a student or don’t have a lot of real-world experience yet, Ruskino says to seek out speaker and networking events featuring companies and business professionals in industries and/or disciplines that interest you. After attending one of these, whether in person or via Zoom, follow up with the professionals you meet via email or LinkedIn, she suggests.
This leads to another important task for succeeding in business: Keep your LinkedIn profile up to date. If you don’t have a profile, it’s time to create one. “Then, you can connect with other LinkedIn subscribers who are in your industry or in an industry that you are interested in,” Rusinko says.
As you hone your business skills, just remember that the act of learning is its own reward. “The journey is more important than the destination,” Glenn says.