Tips to Improve Your Business Acumen

It’s probably not a surprise to anyone but business acumen is one of the behavioral competencies in the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) competency model. It’s important to know the business, be able to talk about it, and make decisions to help the business grow.

It can honestly be a challenge to develop business acumen. Of course, a lot of people know how to throw around business buzzwords like “customer Journey” and “wheelhouse” but do they really know exactly what those terms mean? Things move very quickly in the business world, new ideas and concepts are being developed all of the time. It’s definitely a challenge to stay on top of it, especially when your plate is full of work.

Everybody has their own way of staying on top of business. I personally like lists that provide a reminder that I need to take a quick step back and get focused. So here is my quick list for building business acumen.

  1. Read (and listen to) the right stuff. I discovered an electronic newsletter called “Morning Brew” that helps me stay on top of business news. This Monday-Friday enewsletter provides a stock market overview and some commentary about the business headlines of the day. What I really like is the casual, conversational tone. Business acumen doesn’t have to be boring or stuffy to be effective.
  2. Develop a business book library. There’s no specific book that everyone needs to buy, find something that interests you. Cameron Herold is one of my personal favorites. Pick up, Meetings Suck or Double Double if you need a couple of kickstart ideas.
  3. Learn how your organization makes and spends money. If you haven’t bought your CFO/Controller a cup of coffee lately and asked about the profit and loss statement, now might be a good opportunity to do so. The good thing is there’s no rule that you’re only allowed to do it once. Consider scheduling coffee time with your controller right before budget time too.
  4. Join your professional association. I’m not here to tell anyone which professional organization(s) to belong to.  Everyone needs to figure that out on their own. But I do believe it’s valuable to be a member of a professional organization. I am a member of Vistage, and it has been a very positive and rewarding experience. And let me add that I feel it’s important for individuals to volunteer. Not only will you make friends, but you will learn from your colleagues. Part of developing business acumen includes developing both an online and an offline professional network.
  5. Step out of your regular responsibilities. The next time your boss is looking for a volunteer, consider raising your hand. Getting involved in project teams can help you 1) learn new knowledge and skills 2) build new working relationships and 3) get noticed by the organization. These types of special assignments might be worth it. Both from a learning perspective and your long-term career development.
  6. Know your customers. When I talk about customer here, I’m not referring to employees. Do you know who the top ten customers are for your organization? Not just their names, but do you know what they do? Years ago, my employer asked me to go on regular customer calls with the sales team. If you’ve never done it, consider asking a sales manager if you can tag along.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that business acumen isn’t something you learn once and you’re done. Business acumen is changing all the time. Yes, it’s true that terms like profit and EBITDA haven’t changed. We have new term now like blockchain, disruption, and light-bulb moment. If you want to be a contributor and partner to the business, then you have to know how to really talk the game.

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