An understanding of essential business concepts and tools can benefit professionals of all levels and industries.

Having a foundation in business can not only lead to greater confidence in the workplace, but open the door to a myriad of career opportunities. For people who have broadened their knowledge by taking a Harvard Business School Online course, the experience has led to such outcomes as:

  • More responsibility at work
  • A promotion or title change
  • Greater attention from recruiters
  • The ability to transition into a new field

If you’re seeking to achieve similar objectives in your career, here are ten business skills you should develop.


1. An Understanding of Economics

A baseline knowledge of economics can be a valuable asset in any industry. In addition to an in-depth understanding of pricing strategies and market demand, studying economics can provide you with a toolkit for making key decisions at your company.

For Nicholas Grecco, a former CORe participant who works as an educator and healthcare administrator, the lessons learned in Economics for Managers were instrumental in helping his organization decide to invest in solar energy.

“I knew investment in solar was a good opportunity, but the concept of willingness to sell (WTS) helped me to understand and explain why,” Grecco says. “Because of extra incentives from the city program and group purchasing power, the electrical contractors were willing to sell solar energy systems for a much lower price than usual, thereby increasing our consumer surplus. By explaining WTS, I was able to convince the owner to move forward with this project.”

2. Data Analysis Skills

Research shows that an increasing share of firms are using analytics to generate growth. Companies such as Microsoft, Uber, and Blue Apron leverage data to improve their services and operations. And according to LinkedIn, analytical reasoning is one of the most sought-after hard skills in today’s job market.

Knowing how to summarize datasets, recognize trends, and test hypotheses can give you an analytical framework for approaching complex business problems, and help you make informed decisions that could benefit your firm.

“Using data analytics is a very effective way to have influence in an organization,” says HBS Professor Jan Hammond, who teaches the online course Business Analytics. “If you’re able to go into a meeting, and other people have opinions, but you have data to support your arguments and recommendations, you’re going to be influential.”

3. Financial Accounting Skills

Accounting know-how can be beneficial to your career, even if you’re not in a numbers-focused role. While it can seem like an intimidating subject, it’s far more approachable than you might think.

Concepts such as cash flow and profitability are useful for understanding your organization’s performance and potential. And knowing how to read and interpret a balance sheet is critical for communicating financial results.

Pankaj Prashant, an engineer who took CORe, says the principles he learned in Financial Accounting helped him build on his technical background and advance his career.

“I’ve been keeping track of my company’s annual reports, and the accounting that I learned helps me in understanding where the business may head in the future,” Prashant says. “I’ve also been tracking a few other companies for investment purposes, and I’ve realized that I can make more informed decisions with my improved knowledge of company financials.”

Related: 7 Business Skills Every Engineer Needs

4. Negotiation Skills

Whether you’re just beginning your professional journey or operating at a senior level, it pays to be an effective negotiator. In a recent report by the World Economic Forum, negotiation was identified as one of the top 10 skills needed to thrive in the future workforce.

Honing your deal-making skills can not only help you secure value for your organization at the bargaining table, but for yourself when advocating for a higher starting salary or raise.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to crafting a successful negotiation strategy. The key, according to HBS Professor Mike Wheeler, who teaches Negotiation Mastery, is to be open to improvisation and plan to think on your feet.

“However you happen to see yourself as a negotiator, most people you deal with likely have a different style, at least to some degree,” Wheeler says. “To succeed, therefore, you must be agile. That means flexing yourself so that you deploy different skills depending on the situation and whom you’re dealing with.”

Related: What’s Your Negotiation Style?

5. Business Management Skills

Strong managerial skills are intrinsically linked to organizational performance. A recent study by Gallup found that managers account for 70 percent of variance in employee engagement, underscoring the need for companies to develop leaders who can drive team productivity and morale.

For seasoned and aspiring managers alike, it’s valuable to know how to lead meetings and communicate organizational change. Equally important is being aware of the common missteps team leaders often make.

In the case of Monica Higgins, a public relations account director, taking the online course Management Essentials was a way to augment her managerial knowledge and develop a fresh outlook in her role.

“I'm more aware of looking at things through a larger lens, from a variety of perspectives,” Higgins says. “I've always been a fan of asking thoughtful, learning questions—as opposed to making declarations—and I'm now a big fan of playing devil's advocate.”

Related: 7 Ways to Become a Better Manager

6. Leadership Skills

Whether you hold a management position or not, leadership skills are vital to workplace success. While some people think of leadership and management as one and the same, there's a difference between the two. Whereas management is centered on implementing processes, leadership is more focused on the people and vision that guide change.

In addition to honing your management skills, building up your leadership skills can be beneficial in any profession. From learning to keep calm during times of pressure to developing your own leadership style, these skills will help you understand how to bring your vision to life and set your team up for success.

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7. Effective Communication

In any business setting, professionals rely on communication to coordinate efforts and accomplish organizational goals. Ineffective communication, or a lack of communication altogether, can prove catastrophic.

Along with developing your skills, a large contributor to success in this arena is being able to understand and adapt to the communication styles of others.

Other key communication skills include active listening, empathy, and reading body language.

8. Emotional Intelligence

Another essential business skill is emotional intelligence, and research shows it’s a leading indicator of performance in the workplace. According to a recent study by TalentSmart, 90 percent of top performers have a high degree of emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is commonly broken down into four concepts: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. In short, this skill refers to your ability to understand your emotions and how they impact certain situations, as well as your ability to recognize and influence the emotions of others.

No matter your industry or position, having this awareness of yourself and those around you will enable you to have more control over your interactions, as well as help you and your team accomplish goals effectively.

9. Decision-Making Skills

All professionals need strong decision-making skills in order to navigate the complex challenges they’ll face in the workplace. For those specifically working in business or management, the need for these skills is even greater.

Determining how to allocate resources, which employees make up a team, and how to implement a new initiative across an organization are all decisions that need careful consideration. With the growing number of tools and resources that can be used to capture data, managers can fuel their processes with valuable insights to make data-driven decisions, often leading to better outcomes.

10. Networking

Networking is another critical business skill that all professionals should exercise.

Whether you’re looking for ideas or advice on a specific challenge, or want to make a career change, the people who make up your professional network can act as an extension of your own knowledge and connections.

If you want to make the most of your network, be open to opportunities to step out of your comfort zone and build new relationships. Once you have your network in place, it’s important to maintain the relationships you’ve formed and continuously find new ways to expand your web of contacts.

Related: How Leaders Develop and Use Their Network


For professionals seeking to advance their career, the value of business skills can’t be overstated. In addition to hard skills, like financial accounting and an understanding of economics, you also need soft skills, like emotional intelligence and leadership, as your organization or business grows.

No matter your industry, an understanding of essential business concepts can help you better understand your organization’s performance, and equip you with the tools needed to spearhead initiatives and drive strategic decision-making.

Do you want to take your career to the next level? Download our free Guide to Advancing Your Career with Essential Business Skills to learn how enhancing your business knowledge can help you make an impact on your organization and be competitive in the job market.

This post was updated on March 24, 2020. It was originally published on May 23, 2019.

Matt Gavin

About the Author

Matt Gavin is a member of the marketing team at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to returning to his home state of Massachusetts and joining HBS Online, he lived in North Carolina, where he held roles in news and content marketing. He has a background in video production and previously worked on several documentary films for Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. In his spare time, he enjoys running, exploring New England, and spending time with his family.