10 Activities to Improve Your Business Acumen in 2021

let's have a conversation that includes business acumen

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

One of the behavioral competencies in the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) competency model is business acumen. Organizations continue to be focused on economic recovery. It should be no surprise that we need 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 “hyperlocal” and “growth hacking” 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.

To stay up on what’s happening in the business world, I find it helpful to occasionally take inventory of the activities that I’m doing. I’m a fan of lists that remind me to step back and just get focused. So, here’s my list of suggestions for building business acumen.

  1. Read the right stuff. 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 this isn’t junk. This weekday 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 and they’re coming out with an HR focused version soon.
  1. Pick a topic you know nothing about … and learn. I’ve set a goal for myself to learn more about cryptocurrency. No, I do not plan to become a crypto trader. But given the number of governments that are starting to recognize cryptocurrencies AND the number of individuals who are starting to ask about being paid in cryptocurrency, I think it would be good to know more. In fact, I’ve recently joined the Workplace Intelligence expertise exchange where you can “pick my brain” and I’m paid in crypto.
  1. 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 too and watch your business acumen grow.
  1. 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.
  1. Take a massive open online course (MOOC). Speaking of learning, major universities offer free online courses called MOOCs. Two popular ones are Coursera and edX. I like to take at least one MOOC a year in a topic that has nothing to do with HR. Last year, I took a course about contact tracing – it was super interesting and at the time, I had no idea how relevant to HR it would become. 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.
  1. 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 how to access files from anywhere. I’m also learning more about cybersecurity.   
  1. 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.
  1. 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 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 bet that the sales department will be happy you did.
  1. 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.
  1. Identify a self-care activity that works for you. Some people might be saying, “What does this have to do with learning business acumen?” I say, “a lot”. In the middle of all the activities I’ve listed, you need to have some fun. 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 blockchain, disruption, and light-bulb moment. 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 Nashville, TN


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