5 Skills to Develop Right Now

Experts say the most important career move in 2021 may be expanding key competencies.

Up until the pandemic, leaders often lamented about people not having technological or digital abilities. But in 2021, the most pressing need is for workers with the skill to, well, learn new skills.

One look at the World Economic Forum’s list of the fastest-growing skills employers need proves as much. The list is dominated by so-called soft skills—traits like emotional intelligence, active learning, and reasoning. Soft skills were already in demand before the pandemic, but now, as a result of it, leaders realize that they are as critical to success as business or operational acumen. “It used to be that soft-skills development was considered a lower priority than hard skills, but because of the way work is changing, they are growing in importance,”  says Jennifer Zamora, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach.

That’s not to say that talent can slack off on developing their digital skills, of course. There’s a reason Amazon, Google, IBM, and other big tech companies are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into training programs for cloud computing, data engineering, and other digital talents. But Zamora says the rapid acceleration of digital transformation only served to heighten the need for soft-skills development. “They need to be complementary, not mutually exclusive,” she says.

With that in mind, here are five skills that our experts suggest talent focus on developing to position themselves for success in 2021 and beyond. 


Agility has many definitions, including the ability to lead transformation efforts, respond to challenges, and embrace complexity. At its core, however, it means being able to adapt quickly to uncertainty and constant change. With the lines between work and home continuing to blur, being able to operate in an unstructured environment requires enormous mental and emotional dexterity, says Korn Ferry Advance career coach Hamaria Crockett. “It’s a skill to be able to push aside the work planned for the day to respond to an emerging problem,” she says. “Not everyone can do that.”


It may seem odd to think of creativity as a skill to be developed—either you are creative or you are not, right? Wrong, says Zamora. Creativity can be as simple as staying curious and not falling into the trap of “this is how it has always been done,” she says. For example, an engineer in a toothpaste factory figured out how to identify empty boxes without having to stop the conveyor belt by putting a fan at the end of the line that would blow off the lighter-weighing boxes. “Organizations need people who can be creative in how they think about solving problems,” Zamora says. “It’s about developing critical thinking skills and pushing the status quo with new ideas.”

The Service Mindset

Consumers didn’t suddenly have fewer needs or demands because of the pandemic; they just had different ones. As those needs and demands evolve, having a service mindset can set an organization’s talent and culture apart, says Sean Carney, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. “Having the awareness to adjust what goods and services are provided to customers in the way they need them, when they need them, will be a critical skill for talent,” Carney says. 


Last year introduced “zooming” and “mask communication” into the workplace, and along with them, an increase in miscommunication, interruptions, and frustration among colleagues. With most workplace interactions still expected to take place via phone, video, email, or chat, communication skills are more important than ever. That’s particularly true against the backdrop of increasing globalization and the need to communicate with an ever-growing and more diverse array of colleagues, customers, and investors, says Peter McDermott, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs Center of Expertise.  “Written and verbal skills, and presenting well in-person and on videoconference, are growing in strategic importance,” McDermott says. 


The need for sound leadership certainly won’t end with the pandemic. Zamora says organizations want talent with leadership skills to help build diverse, inclusive, purpose-driven cultures. “Talent with the ability to reach out and take initiative, build relationships across the organization, and foster trust and inclusion through their behavior and actions are in demand at every level,” she says.