The 6 Key Elements of Business Acumen

When Executive Assistants and other Force Multipliers ask me how they can become a stronger strategic business partner to their Principal and leadership team, one of the first things we talk about is business acumen.

Business acumen is not just for executives with “official” leadership titles. In fact, developing business acumen is a great way for Executive Business Partners, Executive Assistants, Force Multipliers, generalists, and aspiring Chiefs of Staff to set themselves apart and provide major value to their stakeholders and organization.

What is Business Acumen?

Business acumen is the ability, coupled with the necessary skills, to understand and interpret business situations, make informed decisions, and take effective actions that lead to favorable outcomes. It encompasses a combination of knowledge, insights, and practical understanding of various business aspects, including finance, marketing, operations, strategy, and the overall market dynamics. Business acumen enables individuals to think strategically, identify problems, devise creative solutions, and drive business growth.

This definitely sounds like a valuable skill for Force Multipliers to increase their impact and lead up, doesn’t it?

Why is Business Acumen Important for Force Multipliers?

  • It increases your knowledge of your company, industry, and the role each team member plays, thus enabling you to be a more impactful strategic business partner.
  • It enables you to ask better and more powerful questions to facilitate meaningful conversations that drive clarity, decisions, and results.
  • It will help you feel more confident and empowered to participate in conversations and decisions across all teams and issues throughout the organization.
  • It positions your for more access (to meetings, conversations, conferences, etc.), while also increasing your visibility for future projects and career opportunities.
  • It will help you align your thinking with your leader, identify opportunities and gaps in the organization, and find creative solutions to challenges, making you a even more valuable executive business partner.
  • It will give you new skills and experiences to use during your next compensation review, promotion, or career move.

6 Key Elements of Business Acumen

1. Financial Literacy

I’m not asking you to become an accountant here (unless you want to!), but it is important to understand how to read financial statements, sales dashboards, and/or KPIs. You need to know what stories the numbers are telling you and how to use that information to make help your Principal make decisions, or to make decisions on your own. By increasing your financial literacy, you will know what numbers are important to the business and what questions to ask to get the information you (and your Principal) need to make the best decisions for the company. Get started with books like Finance for Nonfinancial Managers or Financial Intelligence: A Manager’s Guide to Knowing What the Numbers Really Mean.

2. Market Awareness

Market awareness is all about understanding how your company fits into the national and global landscape. What do you know (or not know) about your industry? What is the size of the market? Who are your customers and clients and what do they want? What are your major lines of business and how do they compare to your top competitors? What are the biggest challenges in your industry (technology disruption, government regulations, shrinking demand, etc.)? How does your company fit into all of this?

3. Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking is an individual’s capacity for thinking conceptually, imaginatively, systematically, and opportunistically with regard to the attainment of success in the future. You need to be able to think both in the macro and micro and apply that thinking to your Executive’s vision and goals. I’m also a big fan of the strategic pause, which enables Force Multipliers to stop just long enough to switch from “doing” mode to “strategic thinking” mode. You can learn more about how to start thinking more strategically here.

4. Decision-Making

For leaders, decisions are their products. This means that a big part of your role as strategic business partner is helping to provide the information, questions, strategic thinking, space, energy, and connections necessary for your Principal to make high quality decisions on a regular basis—and it’s just as important for you to be honing your decision-making skills. This means understanding how to navigate decision fatigue, learning how to ask powerful questions, knowing when to pause to gather more information, and knowing how and when to use your best judgement to forge ahead. The good news is that decision-making skills can be learned with intention and practice. Check out Thinking in Bets and How to Decide, both by Annie Duke, for advice on how to make better decisions.

5. Leadership & Influence

Simply put, leadership is influence. As Force Multipliers, you need to learn how to lead your peers, possibly direct reports, and lead up to your Principal. It’s a tall order, yet it’s an important one for building your business acumen. You may be called upon at any time to sit in for your Executive, lead a committee or leadership team meeting, or help share the vision for a new change initiative. Force Multipliers must be ready to lead and ready to follow. In fact, all great leaders should have that skill. Click here to learn more about core leadership principles.

6. Problem Solving

Increasing your problem-solving skills will coincide with, and be a culmination of, all of the other business acumen elements. Becoming a strong problem-solver means that you need to understand your industry and company, the financials, how to ask great questions, make decisions, and how to think strategically. Each of those pieces will help you be able to see issues from a fresh perspective, understand what information you need or who you need to help solve the problem, and be able to confidently share your solution with your Principal or team. Force Multipliers are great at this and already highly skilled at finding a solution to any challenge that comes their way. They know how to get creative, use their contacts, and navigate seemingly impossible situations to get things done.

Here are few other books to check out if you want to continue to work on your business acumen:

Which element of business acumen should you work on first? What specific action will you take? Name it and schedule it into your calendar today!

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