Business Acumen: 7 Easy Things You Can Do to Understand The Business

Building your business acumen can be easier than you think.  Here are a few easy ways to build confidence when speaking with senior stakeholders by understanding how your business works. 

Last night I went to a lecture and networking event around the cybersecurity industry, and by the time the third presentation came around, “the pattern” emerged.  I see this pattern in most IT industry events, much to my dismay.  Every presentation had a bullet point, perhaps even a whole slide, that stressed the critical, vital, strategic importance of ‘speaking in business terms’ and ‘making sure you understand your business’… And all I could think is: There is a whole world in that grain of sand.

When I go into organisations to benchmark BRM Maturity, one of the things that I measure is the sales/consulting mindset and practices of the BRM Function.  I want to see how proactive they are in understanding the business context, how thoroughly they understand and analyse that context, how well they share that information, how well they automate the collection of that information.  I measure this in-depth because BRM’s are at the forefront of understanding ‘the world of the business’ and bringing that knowledge and insight back to IT, translating and acting as ambassadors. However, as I love to say to anyone who will listen, Business Relationship Management is Everyone’s Responsibility in IT.  And so everyone in IT should have focused on building and practice using business acumen.

IT Business Alignment/Convergence/Fusion is the name of my game, so yes, I am biased when I see these presentations.  It’s not a bullet point!  Business understanding is a whole competency, a mindset, a culture and is supported by many hard and soft skill sets.  I would love to see more focus on this one grain of sand – it’s so important!  Give all those IT professionals in the audience something to do, even small actions, which can help them start building business know how.  

That being said, here are a few easy things to do that I suggest for every IT leader, especially in business facing roles, to add to their routines in order to develop a consultative and sales driven mindset for your business.  If you have any questions or want to know more about developing this mindset in your IT team, let me know in the comments and I’m happy to reach out.

1. SET UP GOOGLE ALERTS FOR YOUR COMPANY & 3 COMPETITORS

This is an absolute must.  Google Alerts feeds you the latest online information (collected primarily from news sites and blogs) related to keywords that you specify.  Set up these alerts for your company and its top 3 competitors.  This will help you stay current on client and industry developments.  Don’t know your competitors? Use a tool like Yahoo Finance to do a search.  

Go here to get started.

2. KNOW BASIC FINANCIAL DATA FOR YOUR COMPANY

And when I say ‘know’ I mean off the top of your head.  Once I get past the CIO, often there is not a soul in IT who can tell me the answers to basic questions like “What’s your company’s total annual revenue?”  Some key numbers that you should know could include:

  • Market cap
  • Overall revenue
  • Gross profit
  • Margins (profit and operating)
  • Customer retention and satisfaction
  • Employee retention/turnover
  • Cumulative Average Growth Rate (GAGR)
  • Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortisation (EBITDA)

Memorising them doesn’t take long.  It will come in handy.

3. FAMILIARISE YOURSELF WITH THE CEO & SENIOR CORPORATE MANAGEMENT

There are many stories of IT folks having a casual conversation with an employee in the company cafeteria, dropping bombs on the latest IT project gone south, only to realise a week later that it was an Executive VP.  You can find most executive profiles on the corporate website or your intranet.  Look them up on LinkedIn.  Read them thoroughly and become familiar with the faces.  Not only will it prevent issues like the above, it will also help you understand and manage IT customer relationships.

4. FAMILIARISE YOURSELF WITH YOUR COMPANY’S COMPETITORS

This shouldn’t take more than a few hours.  Simply have a grasp on the following:

  • Who are the top 5-10 competitors
  • Relative sizes (e.g., number of employees, overall revenues)
  • Key products/services (especially what differentiates each competitor from your organisation)
  • General grasp of their strengths and weaknesses, competitive position

When I was in sales, I would use the following to get this information:

  • Corporate Websites, Annual Reports
  • Internal firm research reports (if available)
  • Analyst reports (e.g., Credit Suisse, S&P, etc)
  • Trade Magazines
  • Case Studies and White Papers, Industry Conference Announcements
  • Yahoo! Finance
  • Hoover’s

Periodically review this information to make sure you’re fresh.  While it’s important to know this info, it’s even more important that you don’t confuse one competitor with another.  Also, look for industry newcomers and startups – staying current on innovative practices is one way to be a thought leader.

5. READ A FEW BUSINESS BOOKS EVERY YEAR

In order not to boil the ocean, start with one.  Pick up a classic on strategy, management, economics, finance and marketing.  See if there are any bestsellers in the past 5 years that apply to your industry in particular.  You’d be surprised how few people in IT management I meet on a regular basis who don’t do this as a regular practice.  Your partners in business may even make you feel (or want to believe) that there is some magic to ‘business’ – don’t assume that people in the upper echelons of the business world have been imbued with great wisdom, knowledge and insight – secret data that IT can’t know about.  All you have to do is read!

6. READ WHAT THE BUSINESS READS

If there is a trade magazine, get a subscription.  Ask around to see if there is a particular media source that the organisation leans towards from an ideology or trade perspective (government news, Bloomberg, FT?).

7. MAKE NEW FRIENDS BUT KEEP THE OLD

How many people do you socialise with from the business side of your company?  Joining the company 5k, charity days or volunteering at other corporate sponsored events is a great way to meet colleagues from the business that you may never have crossed paths with before.  Corporate Softball Team?  Choir?  See what groups are available and if you are inclined to that particular activity give it a go.  If you like them, keep in touch with them, take the first step and invite them out to lunch or coffee.  Build up some trust and social capital.  Ask them about what they do, why it matters, why things work that way.  I spent years developing these types of relationships, and whenever I had a dot to connect or a question that I couldn’t answer, these friendly resources in the business were fantastic to tap into.

Anything else that you do to stay on top of Business Context?  I’d love to know.