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Training & Learning

Why Business Acumen is an L&D Professional's Most Underrated Skill

A finance department leader reached out to me once to help him develop training for his  internal clients on how to understand the organization’s financial statements. I was early in my learning and development career, and when I received this request, I panicked. As their L&D partner, I knew how to build an effective training module, but I knew very little about financial statements and what they mean. I wasn’t sure who the best person was to ask, or even what questions to ask at all. The project ended up being costly due to the time and effort it took to build.

From that experience, it became clear to me that if an L&D professional does not come to understand the bigger picture about how the business is run, they are going to miss out on crucial skills, relationships, and opportunities. In this article, I will share how gaining broad knowledge about the business helps L&D professionals be more effective and efficient. You’ll learn how being curious and asking questions will give insights to build relationships and further your career.

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Bringing diverse backgrounds into L&D

People tend to stumble into learning and development from other (and sometimes very different) career paths. One way is through learning about the role from another area of an organization. Someone may have been the subject matter expert in their department, and through mentoring and training new and existing employees, they could see the opportunities that existed for them by becoming a formal development professional.

Past jobs of L&D professionals
Past jobs of L&D professionals
Research by 360Learning shows that most (78%) of L&D professionals have not worked their whole careers in this field.

Another way that people tend to get into L&D is through traditional K-12 teaching careers. These teachers sometimes find that they could be more fulfilled when working with adults, and much of the instructional design and facilitation expertise that they already have is easily transferable to an L&D role.

For me, it took some zigging and zagging through career paths in television and journalism, sales and marketing, and HR administration to find that L&D was a great fit for my desire to contribute to an organization. But like many others, I had a lot to learn. So I dug in and got my hands dirty. I found mentors and leaders to give me feedback, I experimented (and made mistakes), and found areas that I excelled in.

As my L&D knowledge and confidence grew and people began to depend on me, unfortunately my ego began to grow as well. What I didn’t realize was that I was so focused on building my L&D toolkit, I was unintentionally ignoring everything going on around me. Other departments and employees had knowledge and experiences to share with me, and I wasn’t interested in any of it. While I was busy writing content, designing e-learning, and facilitating training for my audiences, I didn’t know that I was losing out on building a critical skillset - business acumen. This was going to eventually get in my way, as we’ll see, below.

Broad knowledge means better results

In any industry, having broad business acumen, or an understanding of key business issues and practices, is highly beneficial. Organizations need people who understand the basics of planning and strategy, operations, finance, marketing, sales, and the internal and external forces that influence these areas. 

In learning and development, we need to be responsive and adaptable to the needs of our organization. We need to be able to translate strategy into learning programs, break those programs into engaging learning moments, and then be able to prove that those learning moments are making a difference. This is no small feat, and it can only be successful if there is an understanding of how the business works. The benefits of having business acumen in learning and development include:

  • Strengthened communication. When you are working with a client or SME that has a very different background from you, you will be able to connect with them on the basics of business and begin speaking the same language. This builds trust and shows your value from the beginning of the relationship.
  • Keeping you focused. Whether working through a needs assessment, writing training content, or facilitating a session, knowing what other parts of the organization cares about will help you stay focused on delivering learning that will make an impact.
  • Encouraging innovation and creativity. It’s easier to think big when you understand the principles of business. Knowing and understanding your organization’s strategy provides guardrails for trying out new learning methodologies that connect directly with what the business is trying to achieve.
  • Making better decisions. Using knowledge of what makes your organization profitable will drive better efficiency where it really matters. It will be easier to see through the clutter of options when making a decision about what deliverables you will provide to your client. You will have better-honed instincts and move more quickly.

What can you start doing right now to build your business acumen? You can start by doing what I like to call “moving up and out of your defined role”.

A mindset of curiosity

What can you start doing right now to build your business acumen? You can start by doing what I like to call “moving up and out of your defined role”. This means peeking your head up and looking at what’s happening around you. Put yourself in the mind of a student of your own organization. This can mean reading marketing content, press releases, financial statements, and annual reports. Some of these things are not easy to translate; but don’t worry, the people that created them love to explain what they mean.

Moving up and out also means keeping up with what is happening in your organization’s industry. For instance, one of my organization’s vertical markets is the cannabis industry. I had (and have) a lot of learning to do to understand the current and future state of cannabis in the United States, so that I can better relate to our customers and support the sales and marketing teams with their development. To try to stay ahead, I’ve signed up for cannabis industry newsletters and keep up with our customers on Instagram. I network and connect with other L&D professionals in this industry. When I don’t understand the how or why of something, I am not shy about speaking up and asking a lot of questions. The insights I gain about what our customers care about help me make stronger connections for our employees in their learning programs.

Looking outside of your role also means consistently wondering what is going on internally. This means cultivating a mindset of curiosity, which fortunately is something many L&D professionals already have. A curious mind means you are regularly asking “why” and “how”:

  • Why does the finance team use the software that they do? How does it inform their decisions? 
  • Why does the marketing team choose that particular target audience profile? How can you use that information in your training initiatives? 
  • How does our supply chain team navigate global supply issues?
  • How does the executive leadership team hold their strategy sessions? How will the results of those sessions impact employees all the way down the line?

Of course, doing all of these things could run the risk of people thinking you are nosy or operating outside of your job description. I’ve sometimes been told to “stay in my lane”. However, that nosiness is providing me with knowledge, skills, self-awareness, and creativity. It’s strengthening relationships and helping me see my organization from other perspectives. It’s decreasing conflict because I’m sharing information more openly, and listening more carefully. It’s shaping me into an even better learning and development professional by building engagement in my work and helping my organization achieve its goals. Chances are, if you follow a similar approach, it will do the same for you, too.