Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Organizations are very focused on economic recovery right now, so it should be no surprise that we need to understand the business. And now that I’m typing this not just “understand” the business but be able to talk about it and make decisions related to the business.
But honestly, it can be challenging to develop business acumen. Oh sure, a lot of people throw business buzzwords around like “digital dust” and “shoppability” 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 current, especially when your plate is already full of work.
One of the behavioral competencies in the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) competency model is business acumen. To keep up on what’s happening in the business world, I find it helpful to occasionally take inventory of the activities that I’m doing. It reminds me to step back and just get focused. So, here’s my list of suggestions for building business acumen.
- Learn how your organization makes and spends money. If you haven’t bought your CFO a beverage 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 time with your CFO right before budget time as well.
- Know your customer. 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 with the sales team on regular customer calls. Super valuable! If you’ve never done it, consider asking a sales manager if you can. You’ll learn a few things and I’d bet the sales department will be happy you did.
- Join your professional association. The decision on which professional organization(s) to belong to belongs to you and everyone needs to figure that out on their own. But I do believe it’s valuable to be a member of a professional organization. Let me add that I feel it’s important for individuals to volunteer. Not only will you make lifelong 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. I realize everyone is busy, but the next time your boss is looking for a volunteer, consider raising your hand. Getting involved in special projects can help you 1) learn new knowledge and skills 2) build new working relationships and 3) get noticed by the organization. Special assignments might be worth it from both a learning perspective and your long-term career development. See if you can find some extra time to make it happen.
- Expand your business book library. I’d like to think that everyone has a library – big or small – of books they use on a regular basis. Maybe it’s time to expand it. Ask a handful of people for some business book recommendations. And when you’re thinking about who to ask, consider a diverse group of people who might not always think the way you do.
- Read the right stuff. Speaking of reading, I continue to be a fan of 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 I don’t consider this one junk. It provides a 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. P.S. They also have one exclusively focused on HR topics.
- Pick a topic you know nothing about … and learn. While I have no intention of becoming a crypto miner, I did set a goal for myself to learn more about cryptocurrency and NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Given the amount of conversation about cryptocurrency at the government level, I think it would be good to know more and develop some opinions about it.
- Take a massive open online course (MOOC). As you’re thinking about learning a new subject, also consider how you want to learn. Many major universities offer free online courses called MOOCs. Two popular ones are Coursera and edX. I try to take at least one MOOC. Taking a MOOC not only exposes me to new topics, but the online chats offer insight into different views from all over the world. It’s a great way to gain a global perspective.
- Learn a new technology. It doesn’t have to be a big software program, but given that our use of technology keeps expanding, it makes sense to learn something new about today’s tech. Since I work remotely, I’ve been focused on learning more about cybersecurity.
- Identify a self-care activity that works for you. You might be saying, “What does this have to do with learning business acumen?” The answer? A lot. Try to infuse some fun in the activities I’ve listed. Recognize and reward your accomplishments. You need to take time for yourself. You will learn more and perform better after you figure out the best way to take care of yourself.
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 mattering, toggling tax, and productivity paranoia. If you want to be a contributor and partner to the business, then you must know how to continuously gain exposure to new business concepts and ideas.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby while exploring the streets of Columbus, OH26