Business Acumen for Executive Assistants

In this article, author Jan Jones discusses how executive assistants can develop business acumen.

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I’m interested in developing my business acumen. I’ve been an EA for many years. I know my job, but I don’t feel I have business acumen, at least not the way you talk about it. How can I develop that ability and apply it to my role?

Jan Jones: I’m happy to receive your question because I tend to wince when I see newsletters, or social media posts for assistants, defining business acumen as knowing the business you are in. That’s true, but it’s too narrow a definition, and only one aspect of it. Business acumen comes from a wider comprehension and experience of the totality of business. It takes time to develop and master the complexities of business, to bring it down to the fundamentals, which is where you put your focus, just as the most successful CEOs and business owners do.

In its original sense, business acumen seems almost like instinct, but it comes from knowledge and skill. Business acumen comes from applying what you know. It’s practical, lived-through, on-the-ground experience, that helps you to develop your ability to size up situations, and confidently make decisions based on your evaluation. That experience gives you a kind of sixth sense. It tells you quickly and accurately if something will pass muster. I like to call it a good BS meter, because people with strong business acumen are not easily fooled, or taken in by fancy talk and tricky maneuvers.

Acumen provides clarity on whether something is genuine or not, makes sense or not, is worth pursuing or not. Even though it seems like it is innate, acumen is a learned skill. Its expertise is based on experience. It can be developed over time. That being the case, every assistant can develop business acumen beyond the scope of their role or business.

For example, when it comes to the EA role specifically, you, and many of us who have built expertise through extensive experience in the role, can recognize someone who has tried-and true experience, as opposed to those who’ve never done the role, or who may be new to it. Their practical know-how is lacking, and you sense it right away. You have a quiet confidence in knowing what you know, because you’ve done it. Your experience backs up your instincts. It’s time-tested. You’ve proved it by doing it repeatedly, so when it comes to the EA’s job, you know who and what passes the smell test. When it comes to the EA role, I’m confident many EAs have developed the specific business acumen required to do the job. Now you should expand that specific skill further into business in general. The principles are the same. They just need to be applied more widely.

Revered management guru, Ram Charan likens business acumen to “street smarts.” There are universal laws of business and it doesn’t matter if you are a CEO or a street vendor, as Charan discusses in his book, What the CEO Wants You to Know. Subtitle: Using Business Acumen to Understand How Your Company Really Works. In the book he gives examples from his childhood in India, watching his father and uncles running their small business. This book should be on the reading list of any EA who wants to develop their business acumen. You won’t find a better teacher than the illustrious Dr. Charan, who provides a comprehensive understanding of business essentials, in an easy-to-understand manner.

People with good business acumen keep the big picture in mind at all times. They keep their finger on the pulse of business. They are not bystanders. They are active participants. To successfully support your executive, you need to be the same way and grow a broad-based understanding of business. Develop a bigger picture vision so you can understand the intention of business and the language of business.

Start with your company. What business are you in and can you explain it simply to an outsider? How does it make money? Who are your customers? Who are your competitors? What challenges is your business facing? Do you understand how your company makes strategic decisions? (This information may be less accessible to assistants who don’t support a CEO, but consider asking your manager to explain how they make decisions at their level). What is your business’ competitive advantage? How should your company innovate to keep its edge? Who are the key players in your organization? What influence do they have? How can you learn from them? What else is coming across your executive’s desk that you should understand more fully?

These are things you’ll need to understand generally to start building your business acumen. Some level of business savvy is required in beginner and mid-level EA positions, and is a must for senior-level EAs. It’s okay to start slowly. No one is saying assistants need CEO-level acumen. (If they are, it will need to come with a hefty salary increase). With practice you will gradually build up your understanding. Ask questions, read widely. Be curious. As you deepen your comprehension of your company, you will automatically understand business more broadly as well. You’ll start noticing patterns and trends. You’ll understand conversations that are going on around you that you didn’t understand before, or you ignored before.

When your executives are talking about issues such as the economy’s impact on your business, financial data, growth strategy, revenue generation, expansion plans, customer retention, innovation, communication, conflict resolution, talent management and other matters that occupy your CEO’s thoughts, you’ll have a clue as to what they are talking about. You might even feel confident enough to join the conversation. You’ll realize business is a universal language, not exclusively for the elite. Even street vendors speak it, often more fluently than white collar workers. Business acumen is business literacy.

These topics that occupy your CEO’s time, are issues that you already come across in your day-to-day work, but you may not have paid much attention. Understanding what’s happening and why it’s happening, will increase your productivity because you will be more focused on priorities. You’ll improve your time management skills and increase your self-assurance. When these simple steps are put in place and followed relentlessly, your street smarts and business acumen will blossom.

When you develop your business acumen you have a solid foundation on which to develop other skills. The proof will be in the work you deliver. It always gets down to the fundamentals, as I keep saying to EAs. The fundamentals are the bedrock, the building blocks on which your expertise is built in the EA role and beyond.

Some business acumen skills seem more relevant for executive assistants than others. For the purpose of this article I’ll focus on those here, but don’t let that hold you back from developing a broad range of skills you consider relevant for your business acumen. I realize that there are many different levels in the EA role and not everyone will have the opportunity to put all these things into practice on a daily basis. But if you practice these skills, by the time you get to higher levels, you will already have developed them. If you decide to start a business, you will already have reduced the learning curve. Building your business acumen is building your brand, especially when you start to put what you are learning into practice. People will start to take note of your performance.

– Problem-Resolution Skills: A major component of business acumen, especially when unexpected problems arise. Sometimes a problem can be resolved quickly. At other times, it may require some digging to find the source of the problem and fix it so it doesn’t happen again. Learn how to identify problems and come up with workable solutions. You can practice this when problems arise at work. Think about how you might solve them. Pay attention to how your executive or team solved it. What steps did they take? What can you learn from that? Were they effective problem-solvers, or did they stumble? You can learn a lot from observing how your colleagues take action.

– Strategic Thinking: Richard Rumelt wrote the critically acclaimed book, Good Strategy Bad Strategy. I’ve long encouraged assistants to read this book. From Rumelt I learned that at its most basic, “Strategy is an exercise in problem solving.” As an EA, you certainly know this to be true. Solving problems is something you do all day long. First define the problem, then figure out the best way to solve it. As you resolve your day-to-day challenges, keep the word strategic in mind and use it to focus your thinking. 

Financial Literacy. “Finance is the way businesses keep score,” says Harvard professor Richard Ruback. What do the numbers on a financial statement represent? What does a balance sheet tell you? How do you prepare a budget? EAs responsible for activities that require expenditures probably know the answer already.

While you may not need to do anything specific with financials, it will tell you the state of your company, which will help you to understand why certain decisions are made. Assistants who work with mid-level management may not have access to their company’s financials. But that should not stop you from learning about it. Ask someone in your finance department to walk you through the basics of a financial statement, or go to YouTube and look at the video tutorials. The Adam Fidler Academy offers a 2-day training on Finance for EAs.   

Analytical and Critical Thinking: Gathering and analyzing data so you can piece information together and understand how different divisions in business function separately and interdependently. Analyzing data helps you to develop your critical thinking skills. To be a critical thinker, learn to explore different scenarios and don’t be afraid to go where the evidence takes you, even if it contradicts your biases. Exceptional business acumen requires courage. Critical thinking requires “intellectual honesty and sound judgment,” as John Dewey who coined the term in his book How We Think, wrote in 1910.

Customer Focus: The EA’s immediate customer is the executive and team you work with. What are their requirements and preferences? How can you anticipate and make sure they have everything they need to get their job done? What are their habits? What are their patterns? Start from these basics and build so you can play effectively in the bigger marketplace, meeting the needs of your company’s customers, or your own customers one day, if you start a business.

– Communication Skills: You are constantly communicating on behalf of your executive. Make sure your communications are clear, to the point and relevant. Be respectful of people’s time when you communicate. Be friendly and show empathy when people come to you for information and guidance. Remember, communication includes good listening. Look up from your desk when people approach you and engage fully with them. Don’t listen with one ear, and then ask them to repeat everything they just told you in an email.

Business acumen is a desirable skill, but it is a rare skill. Surveys show that businesses want employees with business acumen, but it’s not easy to find. A lack of business acumen limits our ability to implement strategy, so you can see why businesses want it. Business acumen requires a growth mindset. It adds depth to your business experience. Developing your business acumen will inevitably place you in a position of leadership and influence. Because it is a rare skill is precisely why you must work on developing it. It’s the surest way to set yourself apart from others in business.

©The CEO’s Secret Weapon. The ideas expressed in this article and any text extracted from “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” are the intellectual property and copyrighted to Jan Jones. All rights reserved. No unauthorized usage or duplication by any means is permitted without the express consent of the author.

Author: Jan Jones

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Jan Jones is the author of “The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness.” The book has received widespread acclaim from executives and executive assistants worldwide. Jan spent 20+ years as an esteemed international executive assistant to well-known business people, including Tony Robbins, the world’s #1 business and life strategist. Jan continues to champion the executive assistant profession with her writing, consulting and speaking. She offers timeless, practical advice that is relevant to the day-to-day role of the executive assistant. 

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The CEO’s Secret Weapon: How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness

Jan Jones

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