These are the 3 skills you need to succeed in 2021

By Patrick Mullane

January 18, 2021

In the past ten months, the world has been turned upside down. The uncertainty brought on by COVID has left many concerned about how their own skills align with a fundamentally changed economic landscape. Top jobs at organizations positioned to grow post-pandemic have more competition than ever. It’s therefore essential that you consider investing the time and money to acquire critical skills if you are looking to remain in your current role or secure a new one.

Harvard Business School Online has identified three top “upskills” essential for professionals to acquire, or hone, in 2021. They are:

• Literacy in Data Science
• Competency in Leadership, particularly while in crisis
• Understanding of the Global Economy

Data science literacy

The use of technology at scale over the last several decades has resulted in the collection of vast amounts of data. Governments, nonprofits, and corporations are increasingly interested in “mining” this data for information that increases efficiencies, improves financial returns, and identifies trends. No matter your role, if you are to participate in critical workplace conversations or recommend courses of action based on supporting data, you must understand the basics of data science, including topics like causality, regression analysis, descriptive statistics, and data visualization.

While data science literacy is important in its own right, it is perhaps more important in the way it signals to hiring managers and supervisors your ability to employ critical thinking. Can you develop a hypothesis, test that hypothesis with analysis, and draw conclusions from what the data tells you? Can you show that data to others in a form that supports your conclusion and is easily understandable? If not, you should consider data science training. Mastering data science concepts can help you advance in your current role and put you light years ahead of other candidates with prospective employers.

There are many relatively easy ways to learn the fundamentals of data science, including a host of books, YouTube tutorials, and white papers. If you are looking for something more robust, consider an online, certificate course. It’s faster and cheaper than a graduate degree and can give you just enough knowledge “to be dangerous.” For example, Harvard Online recently launched a math- and code-free course called Data Science Ready. The course uses real-world examples to bring technical concepts to life and help you see how to apply those concepts in your own job.

Competency in (crisis) leadership

Few were prepared for the challenges we’ve endured during the pandemic. And in many corners of the public and private sector the unique crisis showed the importance of leadership–that specialized kind of leadership needed when things aren’t going so well. After all, it’s easy to be a hero as a leader when the wind is always at your back and the sun is shining on you. It’s not so easy when the storm comes.

So, what are the essential skills needed for leading through trying times? Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn described the characteristics and behaviors required to lead a team through crisis. Koehn pointed to renowned leaders from history: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose team, in 1915, was stranded in extreme weather conditions for 18 months.

Koehn outlines the following core qualities exhibited by Shackleton that present-day leaders would do well to emulate:

• Be comfortable with ambiguity and acknowledge when you make mistakes
• Address fear and communicate constantly and honestly about the risks and likely outcomes
• Monitor mood and foster strong morale and teamwork
• Make sure your team stays busy and focused on tasks at hand and organizational goals

As shown in this HBS Online free lesson, these traits were critical in helping Shackleton do the impossible and save the lives of every one of his men.

Erik Larson’s recent book, The Splendid and the Vile, shows Churchill’s use of many of the same tools that Shackleton exhibited. During the Battle of Britain, the English prime minister also faced impossible odds in a time of crisis, but his leadership acumen helped guide the country through its “Darkest Hour.” The lessons in the book – ones of optimism, honesty, and grit – are relevant for present-day managers; you don’t have to be running a country to apply them. Whatever tools you consider using to sharpen your crisis management skills, rest assured that the ability to coolly and confidently make decisions and encourage others along a given path is a skill that is in short supply and is hugely valued.

Understanding the global economy

When you think of economics you likely think of graphs and soporific textbooks. But the “dismal science” isn’t dismal at all. As this definition of economics notes, “Economics focuses on the actions of human beings . . . seeking the most optimal level of benefit or utility.”

Not surprisingly, there are so many factors that can affect the actions of human beings. Pandemics. Taxes. Trade wars. Social unrest. Politics. Technology. If you understand how all of these things – and more – are inter-related, you will be much more prepared to make predictions about how business decisions will turn out (especially when coupled with your data science skills). You will be able to tie seemingly unconnected things together in ways others – like the competition – can’t. You’ll even be able to use skills in the area of economics to consider more personal things like what direction mortgage rates are likely to move as you contemplate buying a home.

If you’d like an “approachable” introduction to economic topics, there are several non-wonky, great books that meet the need. Thomas Friedman’s The Olive Tree and the Lexus and The World is Flat give excellent treatment to the connectedness of the world with an economics flair. For a more personal look at the field of economics, the wildly popular Freakonomics gives a glimpse into how incentives (a topic in all economic thinking) work on a more personal and often unexpected level.

There are a vast array of other free and affordable resources at your fingertips to help you acquire skills in data science, crisis leadership, and economics. And many U.S. employers offer free training and career development, partly supported by government funding. New pending legislation, the U.S. Upskilling and Retraining Assistance Act, which seems to have bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, would increase to $12,000 the amount companies could deduct for tax purposes when paying for employee training. So be sure to check with your employer about what resources are available.

The turmoil of the last year has surely led to new year’s resolutions. But committing to upskilling should be added to your list of things to do. It may even be more important than giving up sweets.

Patrick Mullane is Executive Director of Harvard Business School Online. Previously, he led a manufacturing organization and served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force. He is the author of The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle: Growing Up an Astronaut’s Kid in the Glorious 80s.