Why is commercial acumen so important for a finance career?

By Robert Half on 12 June 2018

Commercial acumen can go by many names including business savvy or commercial awareness.

They all describe the same qualities – a strong understanding of the business world and an organisation’s market and environment, backed by a ready grasp of what the company needs to do to succeed.

This article explores what commercial acumen is all about, why it matters to employers, and how you can use a job interview to show hiring managers that you have the commercial acumen needed to successfully land the role.

Commercial acumen – hard to define, essential to have

Commercial acumen is about know-how. As a guide, candidates who have commercial acumen understand how markets work, have insights into the trends or technology that are reshaping markets, and can identify how a company can tap into these trends to streamline performance, grow market share and outperform the competition.

For finance professionals, commercial acumen means being financially literate and being able to read financial statements. It involves recognising how different actions or strategies can impact a company’s profitability and cashflow.

It may sound like a tall order. But at the core of commercial acumen is being able to look beyond your immediate role or department, and take a big picture view of the organisation, while still aligning that view with the company’s strategy and values.

Why is commercial acumen so sought after by employers?

Clearly, candidates who possess commercial acumen can add considerable value to a business.

An intimate understanding of how markets work allows professionals to recognise opportunities for the company to explore new markets, work with changing legislation, or simply become more profitable. Understandably, these are all qualities that are highly sought after by employers.

Demonstrating your commercial acumen

It’s one thing to have commercial acumen, but you also need to be able to showcase it to hiring managers. And that starts with having a strong understanding of the organisation that you are applying to work for.

The internet is a useful tool to learn about the structure of the organisation, what it does, who its customers are and the industry or sector it operates in. It can also help you research wider issues that may affect the company and its market – on a local, national and even global scale.

A company’s website is just one port of call. Make a habit of reviewing news sites to discover any issues or challenges the organisation faces. At a minimum, take the time to research who the company’s customers are, any threats it is coming up against such as technological advances, shifting customer preferences, environmental and sustainability issues, or any economic factors that could impact the organisation and its market.

This research will be valuable in your conversations with a hiring manager, allowing you to stand out from other candidates by delivering responses tailored to the company rather than providing generic answers.

As commercial acumen is often built up through experience, when you come face to face with a hiring manager, refer to your involvement in different projects. This can demonstrate your understanding of the business world while also allowing the hiring manager see that you take new learnings from every on-the-job engagement.

Be prepared to also provide practical examples of times when you have shown your commercial acumen in a practical setting. This could be an innovation you suggested, however back it up with firm results such as a 10% return on investment or a 5% reduction in costs.

Improving your commercial acumen

If you are just starting out in your career, or you feel your commercial acumen isn’t up to scratch, the good news is that there are steps you can take to develop your business savvy.

First and foremost, stay abreast with the financial press and current affairs. It’s a low cost way to familiarise yourself with the wider business community, and gain an understanding of the current economic climate and how it is impacting different businesses.

Importantly, think about what you have learned from your previous job experience. It’s easy to get caught up with the day-to-day micro matters of a role but true commercial acumen means being able to see how small steps taken by one department can impact the company more broadly.

It can also help to connect with a mentor. Many professional associations can put you in touch with a mentor, and it can be a great way to leverage the skills and experience of a more seasoned professional in your field.

Commercial acumen is a skill that will never go to waste. By taking the time to develop your commercial acumen you have a better chance of securing the role you want, and enjoying long term success in your chosen career.

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