The modern economy—for better or worse—is an international story. The ever-increasing rise in global cooperation has led to partnerships, supply chains, labor pools, and markets throughout virtually every sector of the economy. Where once international business was only a concern of large conglomerates, today, virtually every business, regardless of its size or maturity, is impacted by international considerations.

Are you employed by, or aspire to be employed by, an organization with an established or fledgling international footprint? Do you work within an industry or sector of the economy with significant international exposure? Are you a business owner with your eyes set on expanding your business globally? Do you aspire to craft policy—whether at the local, state, or federal levels—that might be impacted by global trends or international developments? Are you interested in potentially partnering with an organization located in a foreign country?

If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, there are skills you should master to increase your chances of success. Here are four of the most important skills to develop if you’re interested in international business.

Build a profitable, purpose-driven business | Explore Our Certificate Courses

Essential International Business Skills

1. Strong Communication

Communication skills are essential for any business professional—especially those who aspire to work in a leadership or management position. It’s through communication that business is done, and taking the time to develop your verbal and written communication skills is essential.

In the context of international business, there are several steps you can take to bolster your communication skills.

First, consider what languages are most important to your career. What languages do your potential employers, partners, suppliers, and customers speak? Becoming proficient in those languages can open doors that might otherwise remain closed to you. Second, consider nonverbal communication that occurs through body language, posture, and eye contact. This can vary significantly from culture to culture, so it’s important to understand how your nonverbal communication can influence the message you’re trying to convey.

2. Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a concept that refers to an individual’s ability to perceive and manage others’ emotions while also recognizing and regulating their own.

There’s no specific definition as to what constitutes an emotionally intelligent person. However, they tend to exhibit:

  • Self-awareness: Emotionally intelligent people understand their strengths, weaknesses, emotions, beliefs, and motivations, and leverage them to reach their goals.
  • Self-regulation: Emotionally intelligent people can recognize their emotions and impulses—especially negative emotions, such as anger—and regulate their response to prevent an outburst that could threaten a negotiation or business deal.
  • Empathy: Emotionally intelligent people are capable of understanding others’ personal experiences and emotions.
  • Motivation: Emotionally intelligent people are capable of motivating not just themselves, but others.

Emotional intelligence, like communication, is a critical skill for all business professionals to develop. It’s especially important in global business, where cultural or language barriers can make it difficult to form a connection with others.

3. Cultural Awareness

Every culture has unique nuances and quirks, which ultimately makes the world a varied, beautiful, and interesting place. Yet, these cultural differences can occasionally lead to misunderstandings, wrecked deals, or international embarrassment (depending on the prominence of the faux pas).

If you’re interested in breaking into international business, you need to develop a firm understanding of the various cultures you’ll interact with. In addition to learning their languages, you should familiarize yourself with their beliefs, traditions, and social norms.

Strong cultural awareness can ensure the message you communicate and the actions you take are always propelling you closer to your goal. For example, you might want to craft a marketing campaign that resonates with the local community or foster an atmosphere of respect during a negotiation. Poor cultural awareness can leave you with a message that flops or a business deal that breaks down due to a perceived slight you never intended.

4. Hard Skills

In addition to the “soft” skills mentioned above, working globally requires “hard” business skills. As in all business, you need a firm understanding of basic economic principles, financial accounting, and entrepreneurial frameworks.

It also requires knowledge that’s specific to an international context. For example, while macroeconomic theory impacts all businesses, it can impact those operating globally to an even greater degree. Having a foundation in this area can prove essential for anyone interested in moving into a leadership position within a firm that operates internationally.

Additionally, multinational corporations can find their margins exposed to various political and social considerations that businesses operating solely in a domestic capacity don’t encounter. Taxes, tariffs, and trade deficits can quickly become threats—and occasionally opportunities—that must be handled appropriately.

Global Business: Thrive in today's interconnected, global economy. Learn More.

Gaining the Skills for Success

When it comes to developing communication and emotional intelligence skills, there’s no better way than through practice. Find opportunities in your current role to put your skills to the test and become more proficient, especially in the areas where you find yourself the weakest.

To develop cultural awareness, seek opportunities to connect with others internationally. You might join an international trade association, for example, or find an online community that allows you to speak with and learn from others around the world.

If you find yourself lacking the hard skills mentioned above, taking an online course focused on international business can be an excellent way of gaining them.

By enrolling in the online course Global Business, for example, you can gain a foundation in the macroeconomic, governmental, and political developments that influence global business. You can also gain an understanding of the impact that interest rates, trade, inflation, and investment can have on business ventures while learning frameworks you can use to think strategically about international business.

Are you interested in breaking into a global market? Sharpen your knowledge of the international business world with our four-week Global Business course, and explore our other online courses on business in society.

Tim Stobierski

About the Author

Tim Stobierski is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.