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Business Acumen Skills: How To Develop Savvy Traits To Succeed At Work

    Young businessman in a blue suit adjusting his tie and feeling good about himself.

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    The ability to be able to deal with a difficult business situation and skillfully lead it to a good outcome — business acumen skills — is easier to achieve than you think. The problem is that what is commonly taught in leadership training does not actually make us better managers. We find out what is needed for increasing our business acumen but never taught how to achieve those skills.

    The result is that we waste out time on things that don’t produce noticeable results. And we move on in our careers often stuck in the same place. If you feel stagnant as a leader, it is because you have been listening to the wrong advice. But learning a productive leadership system is easier than you think. We will show you easy ways to turn around any business situation in to a winning one.

    What Are Business Acumen Skills And How Do You Acquire Them

    The essence of business acumen is the ability for a leader to get tough shit done in an organization. Period. The ones with the real business acumen skillset will achieve quick and consistent results. No matter what project they undertake. On the surface these battle-hardened leaders may lack the text-book business skills. They may not even have an MBA (gasp!).

    On the contrary, what a business savvy person will have is a unique winning skillset filled with abilities that build on each other. One or two individual skills won’t suffice on their own, even if they are at an expert level. The correct combination will come together to be able to take any tough business situation and skillfully turn it around to a better outcome.

    The good news for us is that in none of the areas will you need to be an expert. You don’t have to spend too much time training yourself. We will work with the ever efficient 80/20 rule. Get up to about 80% competent on each skill with only a 20% effort. We will cover easy ways to develop yourself to this above-average level in each area.

    Guide To Quickly Improving Your Business Acumen Skills

    Follow these 6 easy steps that pinpoint the critical 20% effort you should put in to take you to an 80% performing level as a successful executive. This is the quickest way to increase your business acumen skills. And stand out as a fearless and successful executive at work.

    People at work around a laptop celebrating a business success while pumping their fists in the air.

    1. Develop A Winning System To Become A Business Savvy Leader

    Don’t set goals for your line function or group that you manage. Goals focus you in one direction and objective only. You will miss the other possibilities for your team if they spend their energy and time on a fixed target. Plus, business goals usually rely on meaningless metrics. Complete project ABC by December 31st. But what if the project is done by January 10th? Is that so bad? Not really. But a team that had a December goal will feel like they let people down.

    People who have strong business acumen skills tend to develop a system or a process for getting things done. Part of their winning process could be to set an example of a strong work ethic and the team follows the lead. An ancillary part of the system is removing obstacles to decision-making and empowerment of teams. This allows employees to move through the project at lightening speed. As a result, most projects are completed in a reasonable time and quality.

    Winning systems consist of a toolset that give you the best chance at achieving a positive outcome. For difficult business situations, a team that knows how to plough ahead through resistance will outperform another that is used to meeting arbitrary deadlines.

    2. Embrace Failure And Create Your Own Luck

    Several pink post-it notes with one in the foreground held by someone's hand that says "Run A Usability Test."

    For the leader with the right business savvy sense, failures are never feared. They are looked at through the lens of what has been learned by the team. Not failing at times is an indication of a team that is not willing to take risks and try new things out.

    Think back to some of the things you feel ended badly with the desired outcome not met. Are there any skills you picked up in that failed venture? You will almost always pick up important lessons and abilities from these setbacks. Each one will be added to your winning system and skillset. Ready to be used in the future when you may least expect.

    Also, breakthroughs come as much from luck as they come from the application of dogged pursuit of business school principles. The more you try out, the more opportunities for learning and success you create.

    3. Say Yes To Difficult Tasks To Develop Better Business Acumen

    Rearview shot of people in the audience raising their hands as they watch a presentation.

    Put yourself in difficult situations and don’t turn down a task if you feel it has a low probability of success. These are actually win-win situations. If it does not work out, you have the long-shot odds to protect your downside. No one will seriously fault you for the failure.

    On the other hand, you will grow in your overall abilities from the experience. There will be strong lessons learned from this that will be useful later for you. See point #2 above. It is the same principle of developing your winning system to increase your odds of future success.

    4. Get Used To Being Embarrassed

    Many people get nowhere because deep down they are afraid of failure. One way to de-sensitize yourself from this fear is to put yourself in potentially embarrassing situations. Sing at office functions. Organize funny team-building events. Blurt out answers even if you are not fully sure.

    A man in a blue t-shirt and blue jeans on a stage in front of a large audience giving a talk. There are several large TV screens on either side of the auditorium.

    When you willingly put yourself in situations where you may look bad, you are getting your brain used to the negative feeling. You are exercising it to withstand potential ridicule. The more you do it, the less the pain. Eventually your mind loses its fear of the unknown.

    Your emotional brain will soon stop holding you back and second-guessing your rational reasons for taking risks in the business world. In this liberated mindset, amazingly easy and confident leadership will flow from you. Unleashing your inner technical knowledge from your field of expertise to devastating effect.

    5. Learn To Simplify Things In Business Situations

    The enemy of a sticky business challenge is a leader or team that overthinks or overcomplicates each path. This is where teams get slowed down and even stuck. A good leader knows how to step in and clear away the fog that come with this approach. The worst leaders are the ones that actually propagate this approach and contribute to it.

    Brown Scrabble letter blocks that spell out the phrase "keep it simple."

    If you are in a larger organization, chances are that their is built-in complexity in most of the processes. Decision-making matrices may be completely non existent in smaller companies. In any case, the sausage-making on a project can get messy and chew up unnecessary resources.

    Smart leaders apply the art of business simplification to everything. The path to success is usually through the simple application of the right ideas. Once a discussion reaches the 5,000-foot level, a good leader will quickly and emphatically shut it down. And re-focus the team on the higher-level stuff that needs to get done.

    A business savvy leader will know how to bring things back up the the 30,000-foot level. Usually that is your only job. Your team members know how to sort out the smaller details. Trust them on that. When conversations delve to the minor details, use the same metaphor of a plane’s cruising altitude. Get your team focused on the main objectives again.

    6. Grow A Sixth Sense To Your Business Acumen Skills

    Develop a keen business sense to pick out winning ideas. At the same time, be able to recognize flawed thinking in others.

    Women and men sitting on a couch and chairs in a business meeting discussing a situation at work.

    Sniffing Out Winning Ideas

    A good business leader knows which ideas to back and which to pass on. Then, there are some ideas that have the potential to provide a major impact. But will require less risk or effort. If you are able to pick these out from the many options before you, you will go far.

    The ideas that produce results are often overlooked ones. Finding the right solutions to issues requires a counterintuitive approach to judging plans. Think about who is against your idea and why. If you see irrational efforts to block your plan, it may be a sign that this is something worth persisting with.

    Finally, don’t hesitate to test out new ideas. Do so confidently. In fact, learn to A/B test things in your approach to solving business challenges. Doing so will give you additional avenues for success. Plus, you get immediate feedback from the path that did not work well.

    Spot Flawed Thinking In Yourself And Others

    Many people have never been taught how to think. Flawed concepts and practices are often assumed to be correct. Everyone is doing it, right? So it must be the way to do it. Employees easily become ingrained to bad ideas. Thinking, falsely, that they must be true since their use is so widespread.

    Our best recommendation for learning how to spot unproductive thinking is to read the book, “LoserThink,” by Dilbert comic creator, Scott Adams.

    Cover page of Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America by Scott Adams.

    Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America

    By Scott Adams, Portfolio/Penguin, New York, NY 2019

    A guide to spotting flawed thinking in yourself and others. The New York Times bestseller from Dilbert creator, Scott Adams. Read a review of “Loserthink” here.

    How To Develop Business Acumen Skills

    People who have a keen sense for business situations are usually those who do things differently. You will notice them use methods that are counter-intuitive to what is generally taught in business school. Or done by others. These business savvy techniques won’t be found in leadership books.

    Tall white pillars on either side of a passage with a shining white light in between them.

    To summarize, the four pillars of a strong business mindset and savviness are:


    Develop Systems

    Have a set of winning skills that combine well together.

    Develop in yourself and your team a set of complementary skills. Together, these will be able to overcome most business obstacles. And plough through to success.


    Take on challenges

    Take on difficult tasks and de-sensitize your team to fear.

    Train your team hard. Push them to stretch their expectations of what they can do. From the difficult tasks come the useful learning. People develop crazy skills when they are reaching for impossible odds.


    Simplify everything

    Remove complexity in all your processes.

    Keep things simple. Don’t reward those who like to complicate things. They get into the weeds and slow the whole team down. Actively remove all blocks from your team.


    Spot Mistakes

    Recognize flawed thinking in others that inhibits your business plans.

    Our education system is geared towards teaching people what to think. Only a few know how to think. As a result, flawed thinking is rampant. Avoid these traps and teach your team how to think for success.

    Developing Business Acumen Skills: Inspire Teams And Lead From The Front

    Lastly, never forget to appreciate every individual on your team. Put their needs above yours. Make things about them, not you. You become the best leader by standing with your direct reports, not looking down on them from a manager role.

    Understand what the actual blocks are that hold them back. And show them how to overcome the obstacles so that any business objective is achieved no matter the odds.

    Finding Leaders With A Business Savvy Mindset

    Genuinely good leaders in business are rare. Many trick us by adopting the right dress, jargon, and bravado. But these are mostly smokescreens that the fakes put out. They appear successful by relentlessly touting their few wins. And their real skill is having enough loyalty up the chain that their many mistakes are covered up.

    Real business acumen skills are more elusive. If you look at corporate executives around you to learn how to be more business savvy, you will pick up the false qualities. Many of us are left behind in the workplace because of this. No one teaches us how to develop an authentic business acumen mindset and skillset.

    We spend years wondering why we are left behind in the workplace. And then trying even harder with the same wrong strategies with even more frustration. But if you look hard enough, you will spot a select group of leaders who have developed a quiet but effective business sense. They have learned that simple steps are needed to get things done. Particularly, when the going is rough. The step above will teach you just that. Try them out and see how your work life changes around you.

    Best Business Acumen Books To Further Hone Your Skills

    There are some good books that can guide you further in developing your business acumen skills. But beware of just any business leadership book. Many can be a waste of your time. Here is a list of the best business acumen books for a leader that is just starting out in management.

    An interesting book to learn to be politically savvy in the workplace is:

    Savvy: Dealing With People, Power And Politics At Work

    Jane Clarke, Kogan Page Limited, London, UK 2012.

    Savvy: Dealing with People, Power and Politics at Work

    Our Rating:

    Rating: 4 out of 5.

    Shaun Mendonsa, PhD is an influencing expert and pharmaceutical development leader. He writes on the topics of influence and persuasion, and develops next generation drugs in human pharma by advising international pharmaceutical CROs and CMOs. He can be reached at [email protected].


    Business Acumen; Business Savvy; Leadership Development; Career Advice; Talent Stacks; Loserthink; 80/20 Rule; Systems; Public Speaking

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