“Don’t send me any more psychologists! I need a coach who understands business!”

This was the cry of one of my clients a couple of years ago who was fed up with the local executive coaches, all of whom were apparently recycled clinicians. When I came to CCL as a coach 10 years ago, the majority of coaches, even at CCL, were mental health professionals who loved working with leaders. Many were and are outstanding coaches because they have the socratic interviewing skills that encourage those they coach to think more deeply, reflect on how they affect others, and develop greater self-awareness; all of which are critical abilities for self-development as a leader. At the same time, their lack of familiarity with the realities of managing a business could frustrate the leader who didn’t want to spend time educating the coach on real life. For a number of years now, CCL has recruited coaches with real world business experience. Sometimes they have to learn to throttle the advice and stories based on their own experiences, but they “get” the world their coachees operate in.

In setting standards for CCL coaches, I’ve given significant thought to what business acumen is and how it is developed. It’s clear that just having business experience doesn’t give that to you: there are plenty of business leaders who need more of it, too. Here are four of the key pieces of business smarts that make a coach useful to the business leaders they coach:

1. The most important bit of business acumen is always the understanding of how a particular company makes its money. What does it create and offer that customers want to pay for? How is that different from others who are trying to convince customers to pay them for similar or related services and products?

2. The second element is knowledge of the marketplace in which a company is selling. Who are the competitors? What are the dynamics that drive relationships in it?

3. Element three is the business: Do you understand the interlocking chain of activities and functions that it takes to make a business work? This is the system of essential operations that is the business: sales, marketing, research, supply chain, purchasing, human resources, learning and development, production, etc.

4. Fourth element is language: Do you know the secret language of business? The club handshake? The etiquette of spreadsheets? This is a dynamic language, always in flux, and it requires continuous language lessons. For instance, in the U.S. the top dogs are called “executives,” but in some parts of the world, the “executive” is the staff person who executes what his or her seniors direct.

What’s your experience of business acumen? I’d love to hear how you frame the business background needed to effectively work with top leadership. Talk back to me.


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