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6 Ways to Build Your Business Acumen

Build Your Business Acumen

In our book, Seeing the Big Picture, we have a list of six extremely practical ideas to encourage and support your development and application of business acumen. We firmly believe business acumen is not a one-time ordeal or list item you can check off. It is a continual journey of growth and learning.

1. Commit the Time to Study and Research

Set aside time for regular study and research. Your days are already full, and crowded with professional and personal activities. Nevertheless, carve out the time to advance your credibility, your career, and your company. How much time do you spend watching television? Could you chat with coworkers less and read industry information more? Could you use your lunchtime more productively? An hour of research even once a week will have a great payoff.

Whether you can spend an hour a week or a half-hour daily, set aside time for study and preparation regularly. Then put it to use.

The Resources section in the back of our book, Seeing the Big Picture, offers a host of opportunities to learn more about business in general and your industry specifically. You can also sign up for our monthly newsletter or access other resources.

You should also devote time to learning how your company is organized and operates: its organization and internal structure, who the key officers are, your primary products and services, your present and future goals. Understand the important priorities, values, and strategies of your CEO, division head, and direct supervisor.

Do you know how your company is doing financially or what its financial goals are? Go deeper than the big picture of your company and explore the financials of each division or department if you can. How are the 5 Key Drivers being prioritized throughout your organization? You can learn this by reading:

  • the annual report;

  • e-mail and other communications from your boss; company press releases;

  • materials on the company website;

  • quarterly Form 10-Q filings and annual 10-K filings;

  • and other resources about your company, including interviews of your senior leadership in all media. Ask your supervisor how to access additional internal operating data if it isn't readily available.

Also, if you are an employee of a public company, listen to your CEO's quarterly conference calls with Wall Street analysts. This quarterly call provides a current report on your company's operations and financial performance and your CEO's priorities and future plans. If you miss the actual call, an archived recording will likely be found on your company's website in the investor relations section.

You should also know who your three to four most important competitors are and learn their basic financial data, strategies, products and services, and strengths and weaknesses. Read their annual reports, their Websites, and information about them in the media.

Finally, learn what is happening in the external environment that might affect your company. Read or listen to financial, economic, and business news from websites and print and broadcast media, including books, magazines, the Wall Street Journal, and the business section of any large metropolitan daily paper.

As Harold S. Geneen, once CEO of ITT and father of the international conglomerate, once said, "When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings."

2. Talk with Key Company Managers

Build relationships with key leaders and managers at your company. Start with your boss or supervisor. Talk regularly with peers or teammates in different departments who have specific expertise. Ask questions that reveal your own research. Share your helpful insights in return.

Talk with your boss or supervisor about the big picture of your organization and how your team or department, and you personally, can have a more significant impact.

Learn the key measures and "dashboard metrics" that your boss and your company's senior management are focused on. Discuss with your supervisor how you can better achieve these targets so you know how your team and job function fit in.

Setting up these discussions need not be complicated or overly formal; meet people for lunch, or set brief appointments in their offices. Let your reasons be known: you want to become more knowledgeable in order to make more effective contributions.

Build relationships!

3. Be Proactive — Contribute and Follow Through

Whenever an assignment or opportunity for action results from your study, discussions, or meetings, follow through and do it. Report back in a timely way to the appropriate parties.

When realistic or appropriate, put your comments and questions into succinct, meaningful, and timely e-mails or memos addressed to appropriate personnel. However, don't overwhelm people with a flood of ideas or recommendations. Be targeted in your approach.

Draw up a brief written action list concerning any or all of the 5 Key Drivers. Link your actions to results that "move the needle" in areas important to your boss and senior management and that support the key measures they have identified. Identify in writing how your actions impact the drivers. Give a copy to your boss or supervisor and discuss.

4. Attend Industry Meetings and Make Outside Contacts

If your company provides any occasion for you to attend industry conferences or major customer meetings, take the opportunity. Network with those you meet there. Read the literature available. Grow your own database of contacts. Keep in touch with them over time, as possible. Gain your own direct sources of helpful industry, economic, or business

information. Stay in communication with those you meet.

5. Find a Mentor

Ask a coworker — maybe a peer or senior manager — to work with and mentor you. Your partner should be someone to whom you can make a commitment regarding your business acumen action plan and to whom you can be accountable. That person may want to further his or her own knowledge, and you can help and support each other. Being a mentor to someone else will help you both.

Above all, be accountable to yourself in your assignment to see your company's big picture and continue developing your business acumen.

Get a demo for Business Acumen Training:

6. Influence Management

To influence senior management, you must follow all of the above recommendations as you prepare yourself to present an idea or opportunity.

Then, when asking a leader to consider seriously your views of recommendations, follow these four important suggestions — principles that have worked for thousands of employees across many industries and types of companies:

Listen to understand:

Listen first. Your sole purpose in listening? To understand where the individual or management team is coming from, to get what's important to them. In every meeting, listen carefully for opportunities to ask insightful questions and learn even more. If you deeply understand their point of view, their needs and priorities, it will first influence you. Then you'll be better equipped to influence them.

Present their case and needs to them:

Once you have listened deeply, make a "my understanding of your needs and objectives" summary before making your own proposals. Once managers know that you really do understand their perspective, they will be more open to listening to your analysis and proposals. You'll have built greater trust.

Speak their language:

Once you've established mutual understanding, connect your analysis and recommendations to their strategic goals, concerns, and needs. Link your message to what's important to them, in financial language they understand. Demonstrate the impact of your proposal or analysis on those drivers important to them. Remember that every department or function has differing priorities.

Use ROI analysis:

Ultimately, every business decision boils down to determining how best to use cash for maximum return on investment. Make a convincing case for a favorable ROI through your recommendation.

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