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How to develop commercial awareness

Lynn Elesy

Careers Commentator
A lack of commercial awareness is one of the most common reasons why graduates fall short in the interview process.

What is commercial awareness?

Commercial awareness, or business acumen, involves understanding how the business world works. As a job candidate it includes understanding the company you are applying to. Employers want candidates to demonstrate a clear understanding and a keen interest in how their company operates, which means to be successful you need to familiarise yourself with the company’s products and services, departments and divisions and the different roles they offer. It also requires understanding the market the company operates in. For example ask yourself: 

  • Who are the major competitors and how do they differ from each other?
  • How is the industry performing overall?
  • What important deals have happened recently?
  • Are there big trends affecting the sector?

Commercial awareness is also about having a big picture understanding of the major issues affecting the economy, politics and the business world at large. We live in an interconnected world, so every headline you read, whether economic, social or natural, may have ripple effects across the industry, company and role you are applying for.

How to develop commercial awareness

Commercial awareness isn’t something you can pick up the night before an interview. It takes time to learn. Here are some ways to start building your knowledge base.

1. Take a close look at any work experience you have done and look for answers to the following:

  • What exactly does the company do?
  • What are their main products or services?
  • Who are the main competitors?
  • Why is this company different?
  • What makes the business successful (or not)?
  • What issues is the company currently facing?
  • What issues will affect the business in the future?

2. Consider extracurricular activities.

Think about any activities you are or have been involved in, from a commercial perspective. For example:

  • Have you managed a student society, newspaper or campus club? This would probably involve dealing with commercial issues such as budgeting, costs, expenses, attracting new members (marketing) and implementing a sponsor campaign (client relations and customer services).
  • Have you ever organised an event? What was your strategy? How many attended? Was it a success? If not, why?

3. Get involved in a business-focused student society or group or professional association.

4. Stay on top of the world, business and industry news.

Start reading a daily paper, The Economist, The New York Times or WSJ along with specialist trade and industry publications, newsletters and websites.

5. Attend employer-led skills sessions run by your careers service.

6. Meet and chat with as many professionals as possible.

From friends to family to university professors, never be afraid to ask lots of questions and discuss relevant issues.

Above all, remember that all businesses – and the markets they operate in – are constantly changing; being commercially aware means staying on top of new developments and keeping abreast of current events.