You are at the point of your career, where you are ready to jump on a managerial or even senior executive position. But how do you demonstrate to a prospective employer that you are ready for this? The common wisdom says that you need to demonstrate strong business acumen.
But…if you ask ten people to explain business acumen, you’ll likely get ten different responses. Some will emphasize the leadership and communication aspects, while others will say that you need strong administrative and strategic thinking skills.
And both groups will be right. This post will explain what business acumen is (with examples) and explain how to develop it.
What Are Business Acumen Skills?
Business acumen indicates your ability to understand and navigate various business situations.
Business acumen skills, in turn, describe your combination of general and role-specific knowledge about different organizational processes. Business acumen skills include
a combination of analytical, strategic thinking, and other cognitive abilities that enable a person to understand, manage, and lead others in the workplace.
In other words: A person with high business acumen understands how different things are done and why — and can apply this knowledge in decision-making. They’re “business savvy”, meaning they understand common business processes and operational practices, plus can provide insights into improving these.
Business acumen also assumes having strong interpersonal skills. “[People with developed business acumen skills] should be able to assess what outcomes count as successes and failures for individual groups, what metrics to assess them by, and what standards to hold them to”, The University of Seattle notes.
So Is Business Acumen A Soft Skill?
Yes and no. Business acumen indicates your ability to understand and respond to various business scenarios — be it new market entry or business model changes. These strategic actions require deep theoretical and practical knowledge of management, sales, business development, and business administration practices.
But such major initiatives aren’t a one-person’s job. So soft skills such as negotiation, communication, leadership, and mentoring are also part of the business acumen competencies.
Who Needs Strong Business Acumen Skills?
People in C-suite and managerial roles are expected to have solid business acumen competencies. But people in other roles also benefit from this skill set. For instance, 84% of employers believe that business planning and business acumen are important qualities for a sales manager. Another research study argues that people in PR and advertising roles lack business literacy.
In fact, a Consultancy UK study notes that 41% of companies say that “business acumen” is the most lacking skill when sourcing new talent.
So if you are a mid-level employee, gearing up for an executive or managerial role, giving concrete professional acumen examples on your resume and in your cover letter can set you apart from the competition.
Examples of Business Acumen
Business acumen denotes your savviness to make the right business calls and successfully deliver on ambitious plans.
And because this knowledge is a cumulative result of your practical experiences, theoretical education, and personal attributes, it can be hard to convey when writing a resume or optimizing your LinkedIn profile.
The best way to demonstrate your business acumen on a resume is to sprinkle in examples from different skill areas and then pepper these with several achievements, indicating the “products” of your savviness.
To help you with both tasks, we’ve made a handy business acumen skills list you can get back to when you are working on your job application.
1. Strategic Thinking
Strategic thinking stands for your ability to rationally and meticulously analyze different factors to determine the most likely outcomes of your actions. In other words, you can discern how your actions (and those of others) can contribute to the stated goals and what issues can derail the success.
As the above example indicates, strategic thinking is part of the wider group of analytical skills. But this ability also requires certain technical skills, especially around data analysis, project management, and business process modeling.
To communicate your strategic thinking abilities on your resume, try using the following keywords:
- Data analysis
- Risk analysis
- Risk management
- Business planning
- Data and metrics interpreting
- Systemic analysis
- Cost-to-benefits analysis
- Action-oriented business solutions
- Vision development and execution
2. Analytical Acumen
Analytical acumen represents your ability to identify, articulate, and solve a wider range of problems, make sound judgments, and make data-backed recommendations.
People with high analytical acumen can easily challenge assumptions, spur innovative, ideas, and make good decisions even in uncertainty. In other words: Analytical acumen indicates your ability to combine creativity with analytical thinking in the business context. And that’s a rare skill: One in five Millenial workers lack analytical acumen skills.
To highlight your analytical acumen in your job application materials and during an interview, try using the following phrases:
- Skilled in making analytic arguments
- Have the ability to validate assumptions
- Challenge current thinking
- Seek different perspectives
- Develop alternative outcomes
- Apply imaginative thinking techniques
- Data-drive scenario planning
3. Financial Acuity
It’s impossible to talk about business administration without mentioning the finances. You may be an innovative and creative thinker, capable of generating bold, but unrealistic, ideas.
Being business savvy also means determining which opportunities are feasible to pursue budget-wise, and estimating the potential return on investment.
Or in the words of Steve Jobs:
“I’m as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.”
Financial acuity indicates your proficiency in financial matters such as budgeting, cash flow management, financial analysis, and profit & loss management among others. People with strong financial acumen can effectively interpret financial data and overlay it over business operations to make sound, effective decisions.
Show a prospective employer that you have sufficient financial acuity to understand the cost implications of different strategic decisions and the ability to find new revenue streams.
Here are several keywords you can use to describe these qualifications:
- P&L management
- Cash flow projections
- Financial analysis
- Financial forecasts
- Opportunity cost analysis
- Operational cost optimization
- Pricing strategy development
- Corporate assets management
- Treasury management
- Company valuation techniques
- Capital budgeting
4. Market Orientation
Market orientation (also known as commercial acumen) stands for your ability to understand the general industry and specific market conditions a company is dealing with. This is mostly a practical skill, that people in an array of marketing, sales, and executive roles need to possess.
Why? Because businesses are mostly competing on customer experience (CX) these days. Moreover, 75% of consumers expect brands to know why they purchased their product, and 52% — whether they were satisfied with it. Gaining the above knowledge is impossible without deep market knowledge.
To demonstrate your general market acumen and ability to turn it into follow-up actions, add the following skills to your resume:
- Target audience research
- Customer segmentation
- Competitor research
- Customer listening
- Customer experience management
- Sales funnel optimization
- Go-to-market planning
- New product launches
- Product lifecycle management
- Brand management
- Sales forecasting
- Contract negotiations
- Vendor management
- Pricing strategies development
- Customer psychology
Depending on the type of resume template you’re using, you can highlight these either in the featured Skills section or organically mention them in bullet points for your Work Experience section.
Being innovative is another skill that’s hard to relay in simple words. After all, innovation comes in many shapes — from novel academic research and technological inventions to slight, but powerful changes in standard operating procedures.
Laura Furstenthal, a McKinsey consultant, further elaborates on what it means to be innovative in corporate settings::
“Innovation incorporates delivering net new growth that is sustainable, repeatable, and substantial. You can focus on new products, markets, customers, or business models, but however you measure it, innovation has to increase value and drive growth”.
Showing that you can achieve the above, especially in the current times of major societal and economic shifts, can make you a highly attractive hire.
Here are several “power words” for describing your innovative capabilities on a resume:
- Creative problem-solving
- Business model transformations
- Processes redesign
- Operational realignment
- Organizational structure changes
- Validated learning
- Iterative design
- Rapid prototyping
- Ideation and creativity
- Future-trend analysis
- User-centered design
- Entrepreneurial mindset
6. Business Strategy Development
Business strategy development is one of the central business acumen skills. To get to an executive position, you need to demonstrate knowledge of different planning frameworks and analytical tools you use for modeling and reaching the desired outcomes.
Your mental “strategy development kit” will differ a lot depending on your background. For example, technical managers would be more familiar with Sprint planning and Scrum, while retail executives rely on The 3 C’s or MECE frameworks.
Apart from bringing up your theoretical knowledge, it’s also important to demonstrate that your strategy brings tangible business results. The best way to do so is by listing your accomplishments in the work experience section of your resume.
For example, as a Senior Marketing Manager, you could write this:
Developed a new digital marketing strategy for product x. Q3 2021 results: 2X lift in aided, brand awareness, +120% increase in website traffic, +$350K bump in sales, compared to Q3 2020.
Check more resume examples from our website to get even more ideas!
7. Conceptual Skills
Conceptual skills represent your ability to understand, analyze, and synthesize complex ideas into more digestible, easy-to-follow actions. You can not only see the “big picture” e.g., a new product launch but also determine all of the steps towards achieving it e.g., “market research”, “competitor analysis”, “brand positioning and differentiation” and so on.
According to the Future of Jobs Report from the World Economic Forum, employers named the following skills as “core” for their workforce:
- Analytical thinking
- Creative thinking
- Resilience, flexibility, and agility
…And all of them are examples of conceptual skills, worth including in your resume and LinkedIn profile. Here are some more keywords to use:
- Problem conceptualization
- Critical analysis
- Systematic review
- Understanding of organizational dynamics
- Cause-and-effect relationship analysis
- Visionary leadership
- Big-picture perspective
- Trend spotting and analysis
- Openness to new ideas
- Mental resilience
- Adaptability and flexibility
8. People Management Skills
As we mentioned earlier, business acumen is a combination of hard and soft skills. Apart from understanding the business dynamics and processes, you also need to recognize the people behind those workflows. Knowing how to inspire, mentor, manage, engage, persuade, and sometimes challenge other people is a critical skill for leaders.
People management skills describe your abilities to effectively manage and lead others toward a shared goal. Examples of crucial people management skills include interpersonal skills, conflict resolution, delegation, emotional intelligence, self-management, and others.
Gallup also highlights that the following people management skills are important to have for good managers:
- Relationship building: Ability to create trust, align people, secure buy-in, and promote teamwork.
- Talent development: Help others discover their strengths through coaching, mentorship, and timely feedback.
- Change management: Ability to quickly navigate uncertainty, adjust goals, and help others adapt to new operating conditions.
- Critical thinking: You know how to collect, evaluate, and discern available information to make better decisions.
- Strong communication: Share information regularly and consistently, ensure everyone’s in the loop, and doesn’t experience any information asymmetry.
- Focus on accountability: Take responsibility for your performance as well as that of your team.
All of these soft skills deserve a good spot on your resume!
How to Improve Business Acumen
Business acumen isn’t a single skill, but a collection of job knowledge and wider cognitive abilities well-rounded candidates have. So there’s no universal course you can do in an afternoon and call it a day.
Development of stronger business acumen knowledge and skills requires consistent efforts across several areas.
1. Start Learning More About Your Current Employer
Surprisingly few employees, especially in low to mid-level positions, think about how their current company operates. Off the top of your head, can you tell:
- How does your employer make a profit?
- What drives the decisions behind the current business strategy?
- Which actions are the most important priority for this year?
If you’re trying to get the answers, you definitely need to improve your general business acumen. Peruse corporate documents, describing the company business model, organizational structure, and key product/service lines. Review recent internal memos about company changes, announcements, or new strategic plans. Speak to more senior colleagues about the decision-making process and strategic vision to get a clearer picture.
Once you can answer the above questions about your company, try to evaluate others in your industry. How does the competitors’ business model differ? What makes their products/services different? Which projects they may be pursuing and why?
With a bit of research, you’d be surprised to find that a lot of this information is available publicly. Earning call transcripts and investor reports, in particular, have ample data about a public company’s revenues, key product lines, and strategic actions for the short- and long-term.
2. Build up Your Theoretical Knowledge
It’s hard to claim savviness when you lack fundamental knowledge about business administration, financial analysis, or strategic planning.
Today, you no longer need to go to a business school to get that knowledge. Instead, you can sign up for free (or affordable) online classes to build up your business acumen. “Financial Acumen for Non-Financial Managers” course from the University of Pennsylvania and “Financial Markets” from Yale are great ones to start with.
Also, here’s a couple of business acumen books we can wholeheartedly recommend:
- “Scaling Up” by Verne Harnish
- “The Great CEO Within” by Matt Mochary
- “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School” by Mark H. McCormack
- “The Hard Things About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz
3. Improve Your Customer and Market Knowledge
Customers and competing businesses shape the market. Comprehensive business acumen means that you understand the impacts of both on your industry and particular companies.
Experienced professionals always keep tabs on the latest trends (and the best ones can even predict those before others!). To improve your market knowledge:
- Subscribe to industry analytical reports. Firms like CB Insights and McKinsey publish comprehensive market intelligence for free.
- Follow industry leaders and journalists on social media to get the latest scoops on industry events and happenings.
- Attend conferences, workshops, and local networking events to exchange insights, broaden your perspective, and make new industry connections.
Also, zoom in on what the customers are thinking, how they act, and what drives their current behaviors. You can start by evaluating the customer sentiment around your company by checking Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT) reports, customer service queries, and doing some social listening.
Likewise, you can find a lot of customer research online, published by large research firms and accounting companies. Do your research and make it a habit if you want to increase your business acumen.
FAQs About Business Acumen Skills
Below are answers to several common questions about business acumen.
How Do You Demonstrate Strong Business Acumen?
In the context of a job search, you have two opportunities to demonstrate your business acumen. First, through your resume by listing relevant skills — analytical, organizational, and financial among others — enforced by specific accomplishments. The types of results you’ve achieved in the previous positions are the best demonstration of strong business acumen.
Next, you also have your cover letter — a document, where you can further elaborate on your achievements. For example, share a quick case study of a project you did or a “before-after” story, illustrating the professional impacts you’ve made.
How Do You Describe Business Acumen On A Resume?
Business acumen is a multi-pronged skill set. So the best way to describe this quality on your resume is by highlighting several skills, which comprise it. These include your analytical and problem-solving skills, strategic thinking, business strategy development, financial planning, and reporting among others. This post provided you with plenty of business acumen skills examples.
How Can You Improve Your Business Acumen Skills?
Through training and continuous practice. Business acumen skills are deeply rooted in your industry knowledge, so you do need to know your market(s). But at the same time, it’s a hard skill, requiring knowledge of business management and administration. So depending on your budget, you might start by picking up several books and attending free meetups/mentoring groups. Or take paid professional training programs or even a postgraduate degree (MBA) if your budget permits.