It’s hard to be taken seriously by members of the leadership team if you can’t demonstrate a solid understanding of the business. As Marketing leaders and professionals, it’s easy to be focused and passionate about our work. However, if you’re looking to rise up through the ranks, business acumen is an essential skill that is pivotal to your credibility and influence, and thankfully, it’s a skill you can improve.
In the insightful words of author Rebecca Solnit, “Credibility is a basic survival tool.” Credibility is based on a number of factors, such as your expertise, reliability, and something known as believability. Each of these factors is tied to how well you understand the business and how well you help it move forward. Kevin Hogan, in his book The Science of Influence, tells us when you have credibility, you have influence. Business acumen helps you achieve credibility and one of its benefits, influence.
Before we delve into how you can build or refine your business acumen skills, let’s be sure we agree on what it means. Business Acumen reflects your ability to assimilate information from many different sources in order to make good decisions quickly and devise appropriate strategies. In our research over the years Marketers who consistently demonstrate business acumen are more likely to be considered among those who earn high marks from the leadership team for their ability to positively impact and contribute to the business. These marketers, while good at the details of Marketing, are also skilled at looking at the big picture. This capability enables them to see how the decisions they make affect the rest of the organization and effectively communicate with all the functional areas within the organization.
Four Ways to Cultivate Your Business Acumen
With solid business acumen you can more easily see and take advantage of opportunities and manage potential pitfalls. Here are four ways you can polish and demonstrate your business acumen.
- Serve as a member of the business team. This will require you to think of yourself as a member of the business team first and a marketer second. This statement has many implications. First, it may require that you increase your knowledge of how your company operates and what’s top of mind for your leadership team. Members of the business team know information such as the company’s annual revenues, profit, and losses, gross margin by product, most valuable customers, most significant competitors, key business priorities for the coming year or longer, and key industry and economic trends.
Perhaps this recent conversation with a CMO helps illustrate the point. This CMO mentioned that they were having trouble getting the ear of the CEO. When I asked what the CEO is focused on, “improving the customer experience” was the answer. I then asked, “What’s the business problem the company is trying to solve by addressing the customer experience? Is there a customer retention issue or a customer share of wallet issue that your leadership team feels is being affected by customer experience?” The CMO didn’t know but promised to find out. Using opportunities such as this to demonstrate business acumen and explore how your role can address the problem could positively impact customer experience.
- Remember you are part of a whole. A marketer with business acumen understands the overall workings of the organization. This often requires that you cultivate relationships with people inside other departments. Seek out and create these relationships as a way to learn more about what they do, how to work together, and how by collaborating, Marketing can serve the business better.
Back to my conversation with a CMO. As we talked further, I asked, “Who outside of the Marketing team has insight into customer experience, and how deep is your relationship with those people?” I was informed that the company is very siloed, organized by product lines, applications, and regions. While the CMO is responsible for new customer acquisition and cross-selling and upselling, the connections and conversations were primarily with marketers and salespeople in the field who support the business units and regions. It appeared to me that the team is a good service provider, but not necessarily a good business contributor.
What could the CMO do better? I suggested that it is probably time to connect directly with other customer-facing teams as well as the product line, business line, and regional managers and leaders. Concerns were raised about the time this would require and whether it would mean stepping outside the lines. I said, “You are investing the company’s time and resources. How do you know you are making the right investments?” Developing and honing your business acumen isn’t something you do when you have a few extra minutes. You must make a conscious decision to dedicate time to develop this skill.
- Be in the Know. Read everything you can from other departments within the company and everything you can about your market, customers, products, competitors, and industry. Why? Because you need context for your decisions. When the opportunity presents itself, you want to speak from strength of knowledge and current facts. People perceived to have business acumen are people who perform thoughtful analysis, which often entails making connections between and among various data sets. Acquire as much relevant information as possible and use this information to make sense of the complexity associated with your industry and those of your customers. This type of information helps you to see potential patterns and how the future might unfold. Armed with this information you are in a better position to anticipate and make strategic recommendations.
- Manage performance from the perspective of the business – not the function. Most marketers have an extensive number of tools at hand to measure the “work of Marketing.” There’s a wealth of measurement data and ways to capture and report measures such as website, email, digital, and content marketing activity. Marketers with business acumen understand what metrics are meaningful and relevant to business performance and how to translate this information into action. They implement processes and tools that enable them to communicate more than Marketing’s performance. They are able to communicate Marketing’s impact on business performance.
Marketers who can combine business acumen capabilities with change-, time-, and people-management skills are valued for more than their Marketing talent – they are considered valued members of the decision-making team. If you are interested in moving up the ladder, move business acumen to the top of your skills development list. There are lots of great courses and books focused on business acumen skills development.