Business Acumen: The key to career advancement


Have you ever wondered what it is that you need to do to transition from middle management to a more senior role? You work hard, you do great work, your team like you but still you are being passed over and senior roles remain elusive.

And clearly the statistics confirm you are not alone in this struggle.

Women represent about 50% of middle management and professional positions, but the percentage of women at the top has stagnated below 20%.

We know that organisations with significant representation of women at the top do better than those that don’t. We know that more and more women want to take a seat at the leadership table. But still women struggle to make their mark in the type of numbers that will really make a difference.

So what’s going wrong?

Obviously there’s no one simple answer to this complex question. There’s work to be done to minimise unconscious bias. There’s work to be done nurturing the pipeline of talent. There’s work to be done to make it more appealing for women to participate more fully at the top.

And there’s no shortage of advice being offered to help women create change at a personal level.  This advice includes being more assertive, acting with confidence, speaking up, taking bolder career choices and expanding their network.

These are all important and I share this exact same advice often with the women I work with… however, it’s not enough.

The difference between languishing in middle management and being considered for the top roles is... business acumen

But many women are failing to focus on building business, strategic and financial acumen.

Why are so many women missing this point?

It’s not because we don’t have or can’t develop business, strategic and financial acumen. It has more to do with the fact that very few women are clearly told how essential these skills are for reaching the top.

For some reason it’s assumed that we already know how.

Susan Colantuon in her TED Talk: The career advice you probably didn’t get, suggests that it’s a basic expectation by senior leaders.

However, when Susan asked an audience of 150 women “How many of you have ever been told that the door-opener for career advancement is your business, strategic and financial acumen, and that all the other important stuff is what differentiates you in the talent pool?” only three women raised their hand.

It’s clear it’s something we need to give more focus to.

How to demonstrate business acumen

1. Learn to love the numbers. Never undermine your credibility as a leader by demonstrating your lack of financial acumen. Learn about the numbers and speak about them in a way that demonstrates your depth of knowledge. Identify and focus on the key metrics and embrace financial knowledge as a major part of your strategic decision-making.

2. Focus on what matters most. As a leader, you must focus on what matters most to the organisation. Too often I see women getting bogged down into the day to day busyness and losing sight of how they are contributing to achieving the strategic business objectives.

Prioritise your diary to allow time each week to focus your energy on those activities that will move you and the business closer to achieving the results that matter.

3.  Develop your strategic thinking. Remember that your high-level technical skills do not necessarily translate into being seen as a leader. To be considered for the next high-level leadership opportunity you need to demonstrate big picture thinking.

You must have a broad awareness of the organisation, an understanding of the strategic direction and the ability to see opportunities, innovate and make strategic decisions.

Ask yourself:

Are you consistently demonstrating your financial, strategic and business acumen?

  • Do you understand where your organisation is going?
  • Do you know what the over arching business strategy is?
  • Are you clear on what the financial targets are?
  • Do you understand your role in moving the organisation forward?
  • Are you demonstrating your potential for leading the business, not just leading the people?

To close the gender gap at the top, we need to build business acumen.

We must focus more on developing and demonstrating our understanding of business financials, know where the business is heading, and clearly align our day to day activities to delivering the business imperatives.

Get out there. Get strategic. Focus on what matters most. And open the door to your career advancement by demonstrating your business acumen.


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