By William J. Hayes, managing editor, Pennsylvania CPA Journal
The millennial generation brings a great number of strengths to the accounting workplace. Among those are expertise in technology, insight into leveraging social media for growth opportunities, and the energy and enthusiasm they bring to their jobs. According to Adanma C. Akujieze, CPA, vice president of finance for Larson Group in Selinsgrove, Pa., there is one area where millennials can use some development: business acumen. Before you get upset, millennial readers, know that she’s a millennial herself. I recently sat down with Akujieze to discuss this topic.
PICPA: How do you define business acumen, whether it pertains to millennials or others?
Akujieze: In my opinion, business acumen means an aptitude for transforming raw knowledge and data into practical action and, ultimately, beneficial results for any business. It is evidenced by daily decisions that are intuitive and often rooted in interconnected facts about the internal and external influencers of an organization.
Are there factors that may make business acumen development a challenge for the millennial generation?
Ironically, the increasing interconnectedness of the world through technology can be an impediment to millennials’ development of business acumen. Among young professionals, the entrepreneurial mind-set is strongly encouraged (which in and of itself is not a bad thing). But this causes most to feel the need to become an expert at everything. So, the resulting slew of information (more so opinions than facts) available on every technology platform causes some to feel overwhelmed, and in others it encourages doubt as a quality/virtue. Then, there are those that just “gather and store.” Essentially, they consume and feel empowered by all available information, without pressing in to separate substance from fiction/opinions.
Would failure to develop business acumen be a hindrance to career growth in the accounting industry?
Absolutely. In my experience, “accuracy” and “accounting” are synonymous. The mind-set I described above does not promote accuracy as a key skill. Another dimension is that with growing automation within transaction processing, organizations are doubling down on business insights and service as the main value offerings from their accounting teams. I also think that by communicating predominantly through text and email we may be missing out on opportunities to delve into topics and, consequently, losing out on valuable chances to gain the knowledge that we can only effectively achieve through in-person conversations.
How important do you think the role of a mentor would be if one is trying to grow in this area?
Mentors are critical to the development of business acumen. I read recently, “A mentor you have to impress is useless. No one wears a tuxedo to surgery.” This really resonated with me because I use the phrase “help me understand” frequently in communication with my mentors. I look to them as the model for most of what I aspire toward. So, I believe seeing and hearing about my mentors’ experiences with successful (and perhaps some not so successful) business decisions will help expand my capacity for sound operational, financial, and technical decision-making (i.e., business acumen).
There is a temptation to shut down when outside of work. But when developing business acumen, how important is it to be up on business news and read books on business and personal development?
I am finding that successful organizations rely heavily on outward-facing (market) research in their strategic planning processes. That’s an indication to me that a good way to grow and be recognized as one who adds value is to stay on the pulse of the market. Mentors can be of great help here. I have never read a book recommended by a mentor that I did not find enriching. I would also encourage any habitual “skimmers”: take the time to read. There are some things that need only be skimmed and quickly reviewed but work to retain your appetite for focused reading when necessary. Fight the urge to jump to the next thing after a few seconds. Another great way to develop business acumen is through community board service that provides an opportunity to interact with other business professionals. In these stewardship settings, good board members often demonstrate leadership skills and business acumen that can be emulated in the office setting.
Certainly, these skills will benefit your own career and your employer, but also the clients you serve. Is it important to know what clients want and expect from you when growing business acumen skills?
It’s another key aspect of this topic. For those in the consulting or public accounting world, understanding your client’s vision and values, as well as their organizational culture, will go a long way. Finance processionals in industry serve internal clients. So, taking steps to build relationships and a rapport with internal clients will ultimately benefit the entire organization.
Part of business acumen is just knowing how your employer makes money, what their key products and services are, etc. It may sound crazy, but not everyone knows this. How do you grow this sort of big-picture knowledge base?
Spend time with the operations teams. Just as you would perform a walkthrough of financial processes, do as many end-to-end operational walkthroughs as your employer gives you the bandwidth for. Ask to ride along to client visits; do what you can to see your financial data through the eyes of the operational staff. You and your employer will be better off for it.
How do you know when you have reached the appropriate level of business acumen to perhaps look for a promotion? How do you measure it?
Determining for ourselves that we have “arrived” is the beginning of complacency. Instead, we should rely on 360-degree feedback to gauge our development of business acumen, even when we need to seek out this feedback proactively. If we keep an open mind, indicators and cues all around us will show whether we are on the right track. I remember sitting in meetings early in my career, marveling at the “genius” ideas of everyone around the table, and wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Today, I still marvel and celebrate the ingenuity of others, but one thing is different – I see them marveling at and celebrating mine too.