Leveling Up: How to Build Business Leadership Skills

The term “business leadership” is quite broad. Typically, the term conjures up visions of that small one percent of high-level executives who make vital decisions about the future of a company and those who work there. But it can also relate to the thousands of competent and inspiring leaders across all levels of an organization who are demonstrating exceptional leadership skills in both big and small ways.

True leadership includes employees of all levels who support the growth of their colleagues and company, from department heads who oversee teams to project managers who are ensuring the success of a project. Business leaders tend to be those who know the people, the processes, and the overall culture of a company best, which is why many companies invest in and value them.

However, the business world is evolving to where employees more commonly switch companies, which makes it difficult for organizations to hold onto strong leaders. On the flip side, job-switching could be a result of poor leadership. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) noted that the average job tenure has dropped from 4.6 years in 2014 to 4.2 years in 2016, with younger workers heading for the exits significantly faster than older workers. The BLS study showed that more than half of 60- to 64-year-olds had worked at the same company for ten years or longer, while only 13 percent of 30- to 34-year-olds did the same.

So why is job-switching increasingly common? The short answer is it’s complicated. The decision involves not just wages and workload, but opportunities for advancement, co-worker dynamics, working conditions, and company culture. The biggest threat? According to a Korn Ferry poll published in Inc., it is because people feel unsatisfied and unchallenged in their work. Out of nearly 5,000 professionals, one-third of respondents answered that they look for new jobs because they are bored in their current position.

To keep employees from heading out the door, companies need to find new ways to keep their employees happy, such as giving them opportunities for growth. There is a wealth of management training programs that organizations can adopt. Many traditional programs tend to focus on the fundamentals of business, such as budgeting, implementing discipline, and achieving productivity goals. But the leader of tomorrow does not look like the leader of yesterday.

While those fundamentals are necessary, the new business leader needs to also focus on soft skills, like managing and motivating employees. Outside of the traditional business performance indicators, business leaders are expected to be an example for their employees. They should be strong communicators, pay attention to employees’ needs and desires, prioritize change and adaptation within teams, and build a strong company culture and identity.

Admittedly, it is a lot of responsibility, but for those eager to learn and motivated to do right by their teams, there are many ways they can get to this position. A lot of how people learn to become good leaders comes from experience, but there are also many programs in which professionals can enroll to help them achieve their goals.

Fast Facts on What Business Leadership Looks Like Today

Business leaders are as diverse as their employees, but below are a few universal qualities of today’s business leaders.

Advanced education

A study by Harvard Business School reported that more than 60 percent of leaders in 1940 had a college degree, while only 5 percent of the population had one. By the turn of the century, that number increased to nearly 100 percent of business leaders, compared to 30 percent of the population. Similarly, less than 30 percent of chief executives, founders, and second-generation business-owners had graduate degrees in the 1940s. That number more than doubled to 70 percent by the 1990s.

Command of the new office model

The traditional manager often had his or her work desk near or among the whole team. With the ease of technology today, a team can include employees and contractors located around the globe, with some even working from home. Everyone on the team still needs to communicate even if they are in different time zones, so team leaders must be creative in how they keep the team on the same track and working towards the same goal.

An understanding of employee needs and wants

Navigating the workplace culture can be challenging for many people, especially those who do not fit the traditional mold of the business world. This includes historically underrepresented groups such as ethnic and racial minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals, disabled people, and even introverts. For this reason, it is crucial for managers to be aware of the differences between their employees. Good business leaders are continually studying the topic of diversity and its effects on the workplace so that they can create a community of inclusion.

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Mentors – Three Business Leadership Gurus to Know

The following are three outstanding educators in college business leadership programs who have extensive industry and academic experience. They can provide useful perspectives about the job market along with critical skills and strategies for success.

Programs in Business Leadership

Students seeking degrees and certificates in leadership can consider the following five accredited educational options.

The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

The Aresty Institute of Executive Education at the University of Pennsylvania provides a variety of online programs. These include a certificates in business analytics, leadership and management, or a customized program according to professionals needs. The leadership and management certificate is entirely online and intended for flexible learning. The program is designed for mid- to senior-level managers with at least five to seven years of work experience across any industry. Students commit between two and four hours of work a week over four courses, each lasting four to six weeks. These courses include leadership in the 21st century, managing and motivating talent, managing the global firm, and competitive and corporate strategic management.

  • Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Format: Online
  • Tuition: $995 per course ($3,600 for full program)
  • Program length: Four to six months

Cornell University

Students at Cornell University can earn a variety of certificates in leadership, including leadership essentials, high-performance leadership, executive leadership, change leadership, diversity and inclusion, psychology of leadership, women in leadership, essential legal concepts for business leaders, and strategic human resources leadership, among others. Each program is designed with specific professionals in mind and require the completion of four to six courses over the course of several months. The leadership essentials program helps new and lower-level managers with under three years of experience in management move into a new role by exploring their individual leadership styles and developing key interpersonal skills. In the program’s seven courses, students learn how to become powerful leaders, build high-performing teams, develop interpersonal communication skills, measure team performance, manage time and priorities, effectively hire and interview, and address workplace behavior issues. Each course lasts two weeks and requires about three to five hours or work per week.

  • Location: Ithaca, New York
  • Format: Online
  • Tuition: $3,600 for the full certificate
  • Program length: Three months

Columbia Business School

The executive education programs at Columbia Business School teach students the most valuable and relevant skills needed to succeed in today’s business world. There are several online leadership-focused certifications including creative strategy, mastering corporate entrepreneurship, and leader as coach. The “Leader as Coach” program teaches students how to lead with authenticity, empathy, and effectiveness. Students can gain foundational intra- and inter-personal coaching skills to empower themselves and those around them to be good business leaders. The course lasts 16 weeks, with an additional four weeks to access the course site and work on a final project, and students should expect to dedicate three to four hours to coursework a week.

  • Location: New York, New York
  • Format: Online
  • Tuition: $2,489 for full program
  • Program length: 16 weeks with an additional four weeks to access the course site and work on a final project

Booth School of Business, University of Chicago

The University of Chicago Booth School of Business provides a variety of opportunities for people interested in growing their management and business strategy skills. Students can learn to create partnerships, build relationships, and manage diverse groups of people through these open enrollment programs. Programs include the essentials of executive leadership and the psychology of management, high-performance leadership, leading organizational change, negotiation and decision-making strategies, and strategic business leadership and engagement, performance, and execution. In the “Essentials of Executive Leadership” program, students will learn about social psychology and how to apply it to more effectively manage themselves and others. This weeklong program is designed for those who have or are expecting to have management responsibilities, as they explore topics such as motivation, interpersonal dynamics, influence and persuasion, group decision-making, organizational culture, and ethics and leadership.

  • Location: Chicago, Illinois
  • Format: On-campus
  • Tuition: $10,500 for full program
  • Program length: Five days

Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado, Boulder

The Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder offers a variety of business leadership programs, from a master’s in business administration and a doctorate to many executive certificates. Its certificate programs can be especially appealing to current students and professionals since they can be taken online or during a shorter summer session. The programs range from a traditional business leadership certificate to corporate social responsibility, global, and entrepreneurial studies certifications. The “Business Leadership Certificate” teaches students about the art and science of leadership so that they can obtain prominent leadership positions or start their own companies. Students take classes on management principles, critical leadership skills, business law, ethics, and social responsibility, and community and global issues in leadership, among other courses. As part of the program’s experiential learning component, they are also expected to complete one retreat, one workshop, and one experiential project such as an internship.

  • Location: Boulder, Colorado
  • Format: On-campus
  • Tuition: $10,500 for full program
  • Program length: Inquire directly with school

DIY Business Leadership

Outside of the above certification programs, there are many other options for those interested in learning about the latest business leadership skills. Some include joining a local networking group or seeking peers and mentors from within a chamber of commerce or a neighborhood service club. Professionals can also find a variety of online resources on leadership, including courses, lectures, blogs, and training modules. Some of these include:

TED Talks

This popular series of inspirational testimonies from people from all walks of the life is hugely valuable to budding business leaders. Talks are broken down into dozens of categories, one of which is leadership. These talks offer personal stories and insight and cover everything from how to think different to embracing change. All of the talks are free and range from 10-minute summaries to hour-long keynote presentations. A few popular talks include:


Coursera’s online classes offer access to hundreds of topics, often divided into four to seven modules. They are taught by instructors at accredited colleges and cost between $29 and $99, making them significantly less expensive than a degree or academic certificate. Inside the business category, students can find a leadership and management subcategory filled with classes from accredited schools in the U.S., such as the University of California, Irvine, Columbia University, and schools abroad. In these leadership courses, students learn foundational material, such as supply chain management, general people management skills and team-building, but they can also explore modules that offer strategies for specific industries. The courses range in cost, commitment, and workload, as some students may need to complete capstone projects. They can receive a certificate and LinkedIn designation upon completion of the course. A few popular courses include:


Schools around the world offer online courses with edX that range from an overview of specific topics to a deep dive into advanced skills. Students can interact with faculty and are required to complete a project. The business and management section includes courses on leadership styles, team-building, and complex environments. These courses are typically self-paced and may take up to a year to complete but do provide university-level credits. They even may satisfy prerequisites for admission at certain participating graduate schools. A few popular courses include:


GetSmarter is a newer online learning platform that offers online classes similar to the websites mentioned above. The courses are designed by GetSmarter in partnership with top-tier universities from around the world. Students can take short courses in a variety of disciplines like arts and design, finance, and marketing, among others. In the business and management category of classes, there are many courses for students on leadership and management, operations, HR, occupational health and safety, business sustainability, and strategy. Some popular leadership courses include:

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Joe Butler

Joe Butler is an accomplished writer and editor in the Northwest with more than 20 years of experience publishing in newspapers, magazines, and specialty websites. He graduated from Central Washington University with a degree in mass communications and has worked with a variety of clients nationwide. Joe lives near Spokane, WA, where he writes, reads, and collects spoons as well as the cheapest, plastic snow-globes he can find.

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