Over the last few weeks, I have been developing a Twitter strategy for one of my company’s clients. They are an online events business, and we are helping them with their marketing, so I have been learning about hybrid and online events.
The reason I can bring myself up to speed so quickly is that I have spent ten years working as an assistant and I have become very good at developing business acumen! I also hopped from one industry to another, so I had to learn how these businesses were organised, the jargon that was used and the different codes of conduct each industry sector had. I had to understand all of this to support my boss effectively.
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I think it is so crucial for assistants to have good business acumen because without it I don’t see how we can support our managers or move up the career ladder.
What is business acumen and how do you get it?
I like this definition of business acumen. It is from the Financial Times Lexicon:
In practice, people with business acumen are thought of as having business ‘sense’ or business ‘smarts’. They are able to obtain essential information about a situation, focus on the key objectives, recognise the relevant options available for a solution, select an appropriate course of action and set in motion an implementation plan to get the job done.
So that sounds easy to achieve right? Erm no, I didn’t think so either! Developing business acumen takes time, it has to be achieved through learning and training, and ultimately it has to be part of your ongoing development plan. Expanding your business awareness has to be constant.
Having strong business sense isn’t easy to develop, but it is incredibly vital for an assistant to have. We support people that have solid business acumen. They wouldn’t be in the position they are in without it! How can we help them if we do not have an understanding of their business, their strategic objectives and the pressures they face daily? The difficulty is that a lot of organisations don’t understand this need and do not offer assistants the opportunity to attend training courses or take time out of their day to build their business acumen. Many bosses do not see the potential in their assistants or the bonus of having an assistant with a good knowledge of the business and what that means in terms of the extra support they would receive.
So how do we develop business acumen?
There are of course ways around this problem, but it does mean that assistants will have to be particularly proactive in developing their business acumen. Trust me though it is worth the effort!
Firstly, is your manager supportive of your training needs? If so, well done! Ask that you attend training courses on the areas that you could improve, for example, business finance or process management. If your manager is supportive, then build business acumen improvement into your overall development plan and ensure you have an objective based on the more extensive business – such as working on a cross-departmental project.
Does your organisation have a graduate programme? If it does then ask to attend their initial training sessions on the industry. I did this when I first started working in insurance. There was so much jargon and codes of conduct, especially when working with Lloyd’s of London that I asked to attend an ‘Introduction to Insurance’ course which was in-house and specifically for the new graduates. I was the only EA on the course, but it was so helpful and didn’t cost my company a penny.
Does your manager subscribe to business magazines? If they do, this is great because you open their post and can read the magazines before giving it to them! Don’t worry I don’t think they will be offended that you are reading their magazine they will probably be in total shock that you are taking an interest! Not only does this help with your business knowledge it also gives you something to talk to your boss about, which is great when you don’t have a lot in common.
This brings me to a critical point! Read everything!! I love Julie Perrin’s blog on business acumen for administrative professionals because it goes into detail on what assistants should be reading and how to create the time to read. Reading business material does not cost your company anything, and I honestly think it helps enormously.
Do you take minutes at meetings? Again this is another fantastic way to increase your business acumen. In a previous role, I managed 12 Committees all of which had a particular interest in different areas of accountancy. I attended all of the Committee meetings and took all of the minutes. During the meetings, I would listen to what everyone was saying and take notes on anything I didn’t understand so that I could research it later. I would also talk to the members during refreshment breaks and read all of the supporting documents along with their regular newsletters. Oh my goodness, by the end of the four years I worked in that role my knowledge of accountancy was extraordinary! I once attended a networking event for one of the Committees and talked to a new member for half an hour before he realised I wasn’t an accountant (thank God!)
Lastly, do you attend meetings with your manager? This task will bring you into contact with the company’s decision makers, and you will be privy to their conversations and how they come to make decisions. Ensure you listen to these people. If you know why decisions are made in the company, then you can start to make choices about your everyday work following the same strategy as the executive team. This will massively increase your knowledge and keep you focussed on improving your business acumen. When it comes to your review, you can demonstrate to your manager that not only do you understand the company’s strategy but you are also implementing it into your work by thinking strategically. This depth of knowledge will be impressive because they might not believe you consider the bigger picture.
Understanding the bigger picture, where your boss fits into it and in turn how you can help support their goals is a fundamental requirement of a great assistant. Developing your business acumen will also give you a fantastic foundation and allow you to move up the career ladder and gain a well-deserved promotion.
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