No matter your role or industry, understanding your business will help you succeed more quickly in your job. Here are some tips for acquiring this knowledge without breaking a sweat:
If you were heading over to your company to meet people there for the first time, you would do your research in advance. You would want to know current details on the business’ mission, vision, and goals, as well as its operations and challenges. As an outsider, you might check out the website, the most recent annual report, financial and product press releases, and your favorite business news outlets. You would skim industry and trade publications online.
As an insider, you may have access to the firm’s strategic plan, which you should try to get a hold of if you can. This document will usually list key goals as well as development, communications, and staffing plans, and you do not need to be a highly-placed executive to map it to your daily responsibilities. And the more granular you can get, the better. If you work with the marketing department, for instance, ask for a copy of its individual annual plan and budget, competitive analysis, and any status reports it regularly delivers to the CEO.
When I worked in a massive Fortune 500 company, I did not take nearly enough advantage of internal educational resources. In fact, I never talked to people in other departments at all unless I had an immediate issue to address. Please do not repeat my mistake.
If there is an area you know little about – such as accounting, human resources, or procurement – introduce yourself to someone who has worked in the group a long time and ask if she can tell you more about that aspect of the business and what she does on a daily basis. Ask how her group measures success and what skills hiring managers look for in her area.
Far too often, companies encourage a top-down flow of information, which means that your point of view is handed to you by the CEO, and then your boss. Step out of your box by joining internal task forces or committees and attending executive briefings where you get to hear a different story. If your boss is going to a senior leadership meeting, ask if you can attend and take notes.
Jump on any and all opportunities to take a stretch assignment in or make a lateral move into a different department or office, and join a third-party professional association in which you regularly come in contact with your colleagues in similar organizations.
Possessing a solid understanding of your ideal customer has a direct relationship to your level of understanding about your own business. And of course, it will also help you better serve that client and snag future clients like him.
Approach a client with whom you have a great relationship and have built up rapport and trust, and tell him that you want to do an informal survey so that you can improve your results. Take the client to lunch or dinner and ask about his company’s present situation, including strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Get his take on the company’s leadership, operations, human resources, and marketing strategy. Let the conversation flow freely, but do not demand confidential information or spend too much time on information you could have easily found online.
Finally, it can never hurt to enhance your business acumen in general. If you don’t already have an MBA, coursework in areas in which you lack experience may make sense.