How to build business acumen on a budget

The complexity, connectivity and pace of business today demand that employees and leaders understand their work like never before.

This goes beyond "corporate speak" and buzzword vocabulary; everyone in today’s organizations must have a working knowledge of the strategy and how that translates to the bottom-line. This is why business acumen is among the most searched and sought-after competencies by those looking to build their skills and an edge.

The good news is that an MBA is not the only option. There are countless ways to acquire the knowledge critical to success, even if time and funds are running short. Try these do-it-yourself strategies for developing business acumen.

Cast a shadow

There’s no better way to broaden your understanding of the business as a whole than scheduling time to shadow individuals in different parts of the organization. This efficient approach provides in-the-trenches insights and a clearer appreciation for how all of the components come together as an enterprise-wide whole. But it’s more than just the knowledge exchange. When I do this with my own consulting clients, the individuals chosen to be shadowed feel honored, respected and valued; and this can create connections and yield benefits long beyond the scheduled time together.

And don’t underestimate the value of shadowing sales and service professionals in the field. You’ll enjoy the double benefit of walking in the employees’ shoes while also gaining valuable access to the customer’s perspective.

Peruse publications

Read the trade magazines associated with your industry. (They are frequently just laying around anyway.) Sign up for RSS feeds from key sites and relevant bloggers. At first, it might just look like words swimming on a page; but within a few months, you’ll be amazed at how the language and concepts start to come together and make sense.

Listen and learn

Ask to listen live to or access recordings of shareholder and/or analyst calls. These are rich repositories of business insights that generally provide a deeper understanding of the ins and outs of the strategy and company finances.

Follow the money

Look online for low-cost (or even free) business finance courses. This is an effective investment of a few hours that will allow you to develop a command of the basic concepts and language. Then, put your working knowledge into immediate practice by offering to manage a budget -- maybe for your department or a project.

Stay alert

Set up a Google alert for one or two key competitors and keep track of what they’re doing. This provides a jumping-off point to learn more about your own business and provides valuable fodder for conversations with business leaders (another rich resource for building your business acumen).

Project yourself

Since experience is a great teacher, find small projects that offer visibility to different aspects of the business. Offer to help write a large client proposal. This provides connections with and an understanding of many parts of the business. It can also help develop your ability to "follow the money." Make yourself available to facilitate customer or supplier focus groups. Volunteer to analyze customer feedback data. Strategically selected projects can be among the most powerful ways to expand business acumen.

Get some class

If you’re inclined to invest in enrolling in a class at a community college, consider Introduction to Economics. These concepts are foundational to business and can inform other parts of your life as well.

The success of today’s organizations demands that everyone possess a deeper and broader understanding of the business -- making business acumen a core competency and learning priority at all levels of an organization.

 

Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog atJulieWinkleGiulioni.com.

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