Increase your business acumen

How well do you understand your company's business?  For many roles, it isn't critical to know the ins and outs of the business model, marketing strategy, sales targets, etc., and you can get by without really understanding the larger context you're operating in.  However, if you want to be able to ensure your team's viability in the short term and advance your career in the long term, it's worth your while to brush up a little on what you don't know.  Understanding the business can help you in your career even if you don't plan to stay at this type of organization or even in this particular industry.  Having worked at a startup, federal and state government agencies, higher education, management consulting, and international development. I can attest to the commonalities across industries and company size.  

The goal of this action item isn't to make you an expert at everything.  Besides the fact that it's unrealistic given the constraints already on your time, it's not really necessary.  There is a lot of benefit to being a generalist and knowing just enough to ask intelligent questions and see connections that the experts might not be able to see themselves.  If nothing else, learning the vocabulary of your company and industry will help you keep up in higher-level meetings.  

This action item is a bit sneaky in that, while it is not something you can complete in one sitting, it will help you increase both your knowledge and your network.  It may also give you material that you can share with your team, either as part of their general development or as part of your onboarding process for new employees.  It's well worth your time to track down the answers to these questions.

Note: These questions apply even if you are working for a nonprofit or government agency.  Any organization that wishes to maintain viability has to have a sustainable business model and serve its stakeholders.  

Part 1: Self-study

Review the questions and answer as many as you can based on what you already know and/or can easily find out.  This may seem elementary, but it's important to actually write or type out your answers to really get it clear in your head.  

 

What are the terms used to describe the industry sector in which your organization operates?  (Note: most organizations fall into multiple categories, - make sure you've identified all that apply.)

What are the significant "success metrics" for your industry?  (For example, revenue, number of employees, market share, industry ranking, ROI, etc.)

How does your organization compare to others in the industry on the success metrics?

What other organizations does yours compare itself to?  (Note: these could be competitors or role models, or both)

What are your organization's main sources of revenue?  

What are the main regulatory authorities that impact your organization's operations?  

What are the biggest challenges facing your organization in the next 12 months?  5 years?

How does your organization differentiate itself from others in the industry?

What are the significant trends in your industry right now?  How might those trends affect the way your organization operates?

What trends are affecting your organization's target market?  What opportunities does the organization have to adapt to those trends?

What  internal metrics indicate whether your organization is doing well?  In particular, what are the leading indicators (as opposed to lagging)?

 

Part 2: Informal Mentoring

Identify someone in your organization who might be able to provide answers or perspective on the areas where you were less clear.  This could be a peer or someone slightly above you in the hierarchy.  If you are at a small organization or if your company has an informal culture, you could potentially reach out to the senior executive for the area you're interested in.  In most cases, though, you're better off talking to someone who is somewhat of a specialist, which often means a peer.  

 

Contact the person(s) you identified and invite them to have coffee or lunch.  Explain up front that you are interested in getting a better understanding of their work.  This will help ensure that they show up prepared and make it more likely they will say yes.

 

Prepare your questions ahead of time.  Use your existing knowledge to create more nuanced and specific questions than those listed above.  This shows respect for your interviewee's time and will also impress them.  It will help to put you on move of an even footing as well, even though you're asking and they're answering.  You don't want to convey that you are a rookie who is completely clueless. 

 

After your meeting, determine whether you need additional information.  If so, repeat the process.  You could also use this as an excuse to make connections across the organization, and instead of gathering information, ask to confirm your current understanding.  

 

Part 3: Application

Now that you have a strong understanding of the fundamentals, it will be easier to build on that knowledge.  

 

Look for ways to apply what you've learned to understand leadership decisions.  When your organization announces new plans or results, analyze how that fits (or doesn't!) with what you know about the industry and the organization.  

 

When advocating for your team, try to use terminology that will make sense for the larger organization, not just your team.  Show how your team can advance the organization's strategic goals, not just carry out job duties.  For example, if you are asking for additional headcount, explain how having the additional person will make it possible for your team to make progress against one of the key internal metrics you identified.   "We'll be able to decrease the product development cycle by 2 weeks" is a lot more compelling than "my team is overwhelmed and needs relief."  This will increase your credibility and make it more likely that you will be able to get what you are asking for.

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This article has tips for how to keep up with your business acumen once you've identified areas that are important to focus on.

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