Building Business Acumen

December 28, 2014

Over this last year, I have felt quite fortunate to be able to mentor some emerging healthcare leaders.  These individuals are intelligent, driven and they actively dedicate their time and energy to career development.  Yet, they commonly describe that it is a lack of business acumen that is impeding their career progression.  For the purpose of this piece, I will define business acumen as being the knowledge and understanding of how a particular industry works; and for also having a keen perception of what the growth opportunities might be within that sector.

These mentees are classically well trained, with good undergrad degrees (and in some cases also have good graduate degrees) from our country’s finest Universities.  They have honed a number of technical skills and competencies in their particular field of study.   But, they find themselves languishing in a ‘dead-end’ career path.

Does This Sound Like You?

You don’t seem to know enough about [the] business in general… some of the statements and suggestions you make don’t pass the business practicality test.  It may also mean what you’re suggesting is known not to work and you are unaware of that.

…You don’t know enough about this specific business and industry.  That usually means you don’t understand the agenda, issues and concerns of the people you serve inside your organization, and you make comments and have suggestions that don’t match their priorities.  Your contributions are limited because you don’t see priorities as they do… unless you walk a mile in their shoes, they’re not going to pay attention to you.  (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2013, p. 26)

So How Does One Develop?

Stephen Xavier (2014) suggests that there are two paths to learning and development: the traditional academic approach, which can produce a series of graduates who are strong in theoretical (yet weak on practical) knowledge; and learning as one goes – inching along one’s career path with “the “seat of the pants” approach… without any focus or structure” (p. 343, para. 3).

In contrast, there are a number of different ways emerging leaders can sharpen their business acumen and achieve their subsequent career aspirations:

  1. Get informed on industry-specifics: try reading industry-specific journals; following industry-specific business leaders; reviewing the annual business plans of organizational goliaths within your sector (or alternatively attending their Annual General Meeting); and attending conferences that attract the best and brightest from your particular industry.
  2. Mentoring and coaching: seek insights from those that you respect from within your field. If you struggle to find a suitable leader who can serve as your mentor or coach, consider hiring an executive coach who will assist you with your specific development needs.  Of note, there are a number of well-respected mentorship programs that already exist. Take for example, the Canadian College of Health Leaders. The offer their members access to their National Mentorship Program, at no cost, in order to allow individuals the opportunity to “learn to expand their current thinking, become more self-aware and emerge better prepared to lead” (Canadian College of Health Leaders, 2014, p. 3).
  3. Stretch: volunteer (a) for roles, (b) for tasks or (c) to serve on Committees that are outside of your area of expertise.
  4. Network: foster relationships with those outside of your current department or organization. Try understanding the perspective of the policy-makers and funders, or the perspective of the national or provincial association leaders that govern your industry.


Works Cited

Canadian College of Health Leaders. (2014). National Mentorship Program Handbook. Retrieved from Canadian College of Health Leaders:

Lombardo, M. M. (2013). FYI For Your Improvement: A Guide for Development and Coaching, 5th Ed. Lominger International: A Korn/Ferry Company.

Northouse, P. G. (2012). Leadership Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc.

Xavier, Stephen. “Developing Emerging Leaders: A New Solution to an Old Problem.” Business Strategy Series 8.5 (2007): 343-9. ProQuest. Web. 28 Dec. 2014.