For employers, sound commercial awareness is a key requirement. Here’s how to improve your knowledge and understanding of the business world.
1. Know what it means
Also called business acumen, commercial awareness is about understanding how a business works, the wider industry in which it operates, and the external influences – economic, political, technological – that impact it, as well as the part you can play within it. No matter what your role in a business, it’s important to have – and to be able to demonstrate – an understanding of how it operates. Commercial awareness is a key skill on most employers’ wish lists, and you’ll no doubt be asked questions that put it to the test during any recruitment process to start your career in accountancy (or when you’re looking to progress to a more senior position). It shows that you’re interested in the role and the company, that you’re motivated and proactive, and that you can hit the ground running.
2. Do your research
As a basic requirement, you’ll be expected to have thoroughly researched any company or client you’re interested in working with. The first step is the company’s own website, particularly the news pages and the annual report (if there is one), which should give you a good insight into its values, priorities and performance. You should also talk to any contacts you may have who already work there, check and follow social media feeds, and do a simple Google search; perhaps even set up a Google alert for news. A SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) can be a useful tool for assessing a particular business and your understanding of it. Finally, it’s good practice to check out a company’s competitors too; where are they performing better or worse, and why?
3. Stay up to date
Once you have developed a sound understanding of a company and its competitors, it’s important to look more widely at the landscape in which it operates, and the external factors that may affect that business or sector. There’s an overwhelming array of content out there, so a good place to start is respected sources such as the FT and Economist, as well as ICAEW Insights and the ICAEW UK Business Confidence Monitor. If you prefer to listen to rather than read or watch the news, try a podcast such as The Economist: Money Talks, FT News Briefing or ICAEW’s More Than a Number. As well as keeping up to date with the bigger global financial and economic picture, concentrate on more in-depth news and analysis in the areas that interest you most; that way you’ll be able to form your own opinions and demonstrate your understanding of the issues affecting your industry or sector.
4. Get some experience
Any practical work experience can help improve your commercial awareness, even if it’s within a different industry. Part-time jobs, voluntary work and internships are all great ways to develop a deeper understanding of a business or organisation, so don’t be afraid to ask plenty of questions and take on complementary tasks (managing a budget for a student society, for example). Once you’re in a training role, make the most of the experience: take the opportunity to work within different teams and departments, learn from the people around you – especially those responsible for making commercial decisions – and attend industry talks and events. After any new experience, think about what you learned: what skills did you develop? How did you overcome challenges? Did you add value or suggest any improvements? And what might you have done differently if you were in charge?
5. Keep it going
Commercial awareness should form part of your ongoing professional development throughout your career, keeping up to date with a constantly evolving economic and political situation, and embracing opportunities to assess and improve your own understanding and performance. The higher you rise within an organisation, the more important commercial awareness becomes – and those opportunities for progressing into more senior roles won’t come along without it. Good commercial awareness enables you to make a positive contribution towards the success of a business, spot opportunities for improvements, demonstrate your commitment, and keep yourself and those around you motivated.
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Visit Careers+ for more career development advice. It’s an ideal place to help you start your career in accountancy, or if you’ve already started your journey as an ICAEW CFAB or ACA independent student and are looking for the next step