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.
But honestly, it can be challenging to develop business acumen. Oh sure, a lot of people throw business buzzwords around like “customer journey” and “wheelhouse” but do they really know everything those terms mean? In today’s business world, new concepts are being developed all the time. It’s a challenge to stay on top, especially when your plate is already full of work.
Personally, I find it helpful to take inventory of the things I’m doing to stay on top of business. I love lists that remind me to step back and just get focused. So, here’s my list of suggestions for building business acumen.
- Read (and listen to) the right stuff. I discovered an electronic newsletter called “Morning Brew” that helps me stay on top of business news. Trust me, I hate junk emails as much as the next person, but this isn’t junk. 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.
- Develop a business book library. I’ve seen a lot of book clubs come and go. I’m sure you have too. My goal in 2020 is to find a “Silent Book Club”. It’s where people gather to simply read together. There’s no specific book that everyone needs to buy, and you don’t have to socialize if you don’t want to. But this sounds like a great way to read, learn about new books, and network.
- Learn how your organization makes and spends money. If you haven’t bought your controller a cup of coffee lately and asked about the profit and loss statement, now might be a good opportunity to do so. Years ago, I did just that during onboarding and it was one of the best hours I’ve ever spent on my career. 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.
- 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. 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.
- 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. I know everyone’s calendar is already full. Mine is too. But these types of special assignments might be worth it. Both from a learning perspective and your long-term career development. See if you can squeak out a little bit of time to make it happen.
- 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. Super valuable! If you’ve never done it, consider asking a sales manager if you can tag along. You’ll learn a few things and I’d wager to say that the sales department will be happy you did.
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 EBDITA haven’t changed. We have new terms 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.14