It seems like every day I come across something new I want to learn. Coding? Yes please. Search engine optimization? Sounds handy. Graphic design? Let’s go!
But of course, there’s simply not enough time in the day to learn it all—which means I have to zero in on the skills that will be most beneficial to my career.
To learn what those skills would be—and not just for me, but for anyone who’s eager for a career boost but doesn’t know what to focus on—I talked to students and professors from the University of Virginia’s McIntire Business Institute, which offers an online certificate program as well as an in-person summer program that gives non-business students, graduates, and professionals the opportunity to learn these critical skills to increase their career potential. They shared the five business skills that everyone (yes, everyone) needs to succeed, and we weighed in on how anyone (yes, anyone) can learn them. Let our education begin.
1. Great Communication Skills
According to Bloomberg’s 2015 Job Skills report, most employers are looking for candidates with strong communication abilities—after all, whether you’re spending your time talking to clients, co-workers, or company partners, your effectiveness hinges on being clear, concise, and persuasive.
It turns out, though, folks with that skill are relatively hard to come by.
For that reason, UVA’s MBI program puts a strong emphasis on communication styles and strategies. “We use group work, discussions of why and how to communicate well in teams, and sessions on public speaking to provide supportive opportunities for peer feedback on individual’s presenting styles,” says Marcia L. Pentz, who teaches management communication at the UVA McIntire School of Commerce.
Of course, communication can mean a lot of things, so if you’re looking to improve your own skills, you’ll need to first be real about where your biggest weaknesses lie. Are you great at crafting difficult emails, but panicked before a big presentation? Kathryn Minshew, CEO of The Muse and star public speaker, suggests practicing by copying TED talks or forcing yourself to talk to strangers more often. Or maybe heading up meetings is your jam, but you’re less comfortable with casual networking. Try approaching these interactions a little differently or throwing some new conversation starters into the mix. Whether you’re not so great at writing, you don’t feel like you’re very persuasive, or anything in between, challenge yourself to work on one thing at a time to improve your professional communication.
2. Leadership Abilities
You might assume that having strong leadership skills only becomes important when you start managing people, but this is important to your success even when you’re the most junior person on the team. Every time a group of people come together, they need to choose what to do and when—so if you understand how to unify the group and make decisions happen quickly and without conflict, you’ll be incredibly valuable.
Sometimes, this may mean not getting your way.
As MBI student Eliza Currin explains, “Leadership usually means making compromises. Not everyone is going to agree on everything, and so you need to come up with a way to make sure everyone’s voice is heard while also making a cohesive plan.” A strong leader also knows when to delegate. MBI student Jacqueline Lomboy says it’s crucial to be “vulnerable,” or in other words, place trust and responsibility in your co-workers rather than attempting to tackle everything by yourself.
If all of this sounds a little foreign to you, don’t fret—there are plenty of real ways to improve your leadership abilities even if you’re not in a position of power—or even to be seen as a respected leader in the next 30 seconds! If you want to go a little deeper, look into online courses and certificate programs like UVA’s McIntire Business Institute program where you can learn from the greats.
3. An Understanding of Marketing
It doesn’t matter what profession or industry you belong to—at the end of the day, your success depends on the customer. That’s why it’s essential to understand why people make the decisions they do and how you can use this knowledge to your company’s advantage. “Marketing is important because it’s how a business communicates the value of its products or services to potential customers,” explains Mark White, the Director of the McIntire Business Institute as well as a professor at the school.
For example, say you’re a salesperson. Having a bit of marketing knowledge will help you figure out which types of customers will be most interested in your product. Even better, you can develop a different strategy for each type, tailoring your message and price to their individual needs.
Even if your role isn’t so closely tied to marketing, it’s important to know how the process works. “Keeping your job requires you execute your specific assignment well, of course,” says MBI professor Jeremy Marcel, “but advancement and promotion usually requires a deeper appreciation of why we’ve organized work the way we have, and how we can improve the organization to help it compete more effectively in the future.”
If you want to know more about the topic but don’t know where to start, ask a co-worker in the marketing department to grab coffee, pick up some tried-and-true marketing books in your free time, or look into online courses where you can learn the ropes and get some credentials to put on your resume.
4. Financial Know-How
I recently applied for a job at a startup, and after it became clear the team was going to offer me a job, I asked a ton of questions about their financials. Before I became employee number 11, I wanted to make sure they were bringing in a healthy amount of revenue, growing at a good rate, and keeping their expenses in check.
And in today’s business climate, this is a good idea even if you’re joining a more established company. “Understanding the basics of accounting is important to everyone,” says MBI professor Brad Brown. “You have to understand what financial measures say about a business.”
“Gaining this basic grounding in finance helped me learn how to speak the language of business and understand what is happening to companies in the current economy,” adds MBI student Kellie Smith, who says the program taught her key concepts like “the time value of money, company valuation in the stock market, and investing strategies.”
As a bonus, this knowledge can also translate into your non-work life. Currin shares that she’s used her new knowledge of Excel and finance to create a personal budget that’ll help her make the most of her money.
While there are plenty of books and online resources that can get you up to speed here, if finance feels especially intimidating to you, consider looking into accredited certificate programs like UVA’s McIntire Business Institute where you can really learn the ins and outs that you need to use these skills in the workplace. And if you’re just looking to dip your toes in the water, try following some experts on Twitter or actually reading the finance section of your favorite news source.
5. A Knack for Teamwork
You may be thinking this is something you already know how to do, but working on a team is a skill that you can and should be learning and improving upon—for your entire career.
Many MBI students were surprised to find how much their teamwork abilities were lacking when they started the program. “Coming from a primarily science-course load background, much of my education has been independent,” explains Lomboy of her time in the Institute’s summer program. “MBI’s student collaboration in the classroom and in the student presentations taught me the benefits from working collectively with other students and showed me how to work efficiently in a group setting.”
If you’re looking for ways to be a better team player, start with your listening skills. “There is an art to learning when to listen and when to speak up,” shares Smith. Lomboy adds, “I found it most important for one must be able to listen to others with an open mind to their sometimes opposing views and place trust in their abilities.” If you think this might be your challenge, implement some of these tips to become a better listener this week.
Navigating the different personalities in a group—including your own—is also critical. “It’s important to understand everyone’s strengths and weaknesses so you can leverage what people are good at while balancing out those areas where they need to improve,” explains Smith. “This came into play during our final case study presentation, when I was able to embrace my own organizational abilities in order to free up my teammates for their strengths in creativity and vision.” Consider having everyone on your team take a personality quiz, then discuss the results to learn how to work better together.
Finally, just making an effort to get closer to your team can keep people excited and engaged. “[It] ended up being incredibly important for team morale when we were up late working on our project. I have carried this idea of team spirit into other teams I have been on since, and have found it very effective!” shares Currin. Try some of these ideas for bonding with your co-workers if you think this is holding you back.
While there are plenty of ways to learn in your day-to-day job, if you’re really ready to invest in your personal growth, look into a program like UVA’s McIntire Business Institute, which can give you the focus you need to develop these skills.
But no matter what you do, growing in these five areas will help you build relationships, think strategically about your company as a whole, and be seen as a leader among your co-workers. All in all, that’s a recipe for getting ahead.
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