Commercial awareness is one of those topics that invariably provokes yawns and groans from students; many assume that it’s relevant only for those seeking corporate careers. Well, think again. Anyone who plans to enter employment, regardless of sector, needs to know what it means, why it matters and how to find it!
Ok, but what is it?
Commercial awareness is not just an understanding of how businesses make money. It’s also about what customers want and what problems or challenges there are within organisations and job sectors. I think this quote from Nick Sellers, Warwick grad, sums it up nicely.
Commercial awareness doesn’t have to be intimidating but it is important to realise that whatever career path you choose there is going to be commerciality involved somewhere… Your local corner shop is worrying about the big supermarket opening down the road. You bought a new laptop for university and got persuaded to take it ‘on finance’, and your sport society had to ask you for one extra pound this year to balance the budget. We’re all connected to a business in some way, so use it to become more aware. A part time job could be your window, or take a step back and remember that your Students’ Union is a multi-million pound business with lots of opportunities to get involved and learn.
(Nick Sellers, Merlin Entertainment)
There’s no catch all definition for commercial awareness, but if you think of it as the ability to view organisations from a business perspective you won’t go far wrong. Yes, you might be headed for a career in the arts, but don’t get complacent. Take galleries for example: there are investors, budgets, clients and overheads to consider. And that’s before you factor in economic climate, government policy and current trends.
Does it really matter outside ‘big business’?
Yes, yes and yes!
It’s easy to confuse the profit motive with commercial awareness and assume that more ‘ethical’ career choices (if you’ll excuse the loaded term) remain unsullied by commercial considerations. The opposite is true. Take the third sector: charities have to be accountable for their spending and try where possible to offset admin costs with fundraising activities. Matt Rodgers, a Warwick history graduate who now works for Cancer Research UK, has this to say:
My history degree has been useful in my time at Cancer Research UK; presentation, research and persuasion skills are regularly required to help me deliver on my objectives. These skills are put to best use when coupled with a solid business understanding, such as understanding market trends and supporter motivations to identify opportunities to grow our income. We have to think about the most efficient way to use our supporters’ money to fund future research whilst maintaining a cost ratio that is acceptable for our generous supporters.
(Matt Rodgers, Cancer Research UK)
Maybe you’re interested in teaching? In which case you’ve got to think beyond the confines of the classroom. You also need to be aware of external influences and political pressures that affect education policy, and therefore practice. If you haven’t got a firm grip on current (and commercial) affairs you’ll come unstuck. Consider the following:
- Is the government investing more or less in the education budget?
- What will this mean for recruitment and selection and teacher training?
- What of the current government concerns about educational disadvantage?
Being able to answer these questions confidently and knowledgeably will give you the edge over other candidates during the interview and selection process.
Ollie Longworth, former Warwick graduate and Senior Graduate Recruitment Officer- Attraction, TeachFirst, says
Successful applicants to the Teach First Leadership Development Programme are aware of the national problem of educational disadvantage and can articulate how they will help us address it.
(Ollie Longworth, Teach First)
How to develop commercial awareness
There are some short term fixes to help you develop commercial awareness: read a quality broadsheet, watch some of the more accessible TV programmes like BBC’s Business Lunch or tune in to topical radio shows like Wake Up To Money (5live) or Money Box (BBC Radio 4). The best approach though is to try and integrate some of the following activities into your student experience. If you can gradually absorb commercial awareness through things you do, it will feel less ‘alien’ when it comes to applications and interviews.
Get some work experience
- There’s no better way to find how organisations and companies work. Try to get some work experience in a relevant sector and take every opportunity to talk to colleagues across different functions. It’s really helpful to develop a 360 degree overview of company operations.
- Don’t despair if you haven’t got a glamorous internship lined up – you can still make part time work count. Working in a shop, bar or family business can still give you a valuable insight into commercial realities (budgets, accounts, tax…).
Tap into your networks
- Start with LinkedIn. This is a great way to tap into professional and sector networks and build your knowledge. There are 1000s of special interest groups on LinkedIn, so there’s a good chance you’ll find something relevant to join.
- Make the most of your contacts. It’s easy to dismiss friends and family but they can be an incredibly rich source of information. What about that friend who’s just finished an internship, or the one who heads up Enactus?
Get stuck in
- Join student societies. It doesn’t have to be business or finance related to make a difference. Whatever club you’re a member of there’s plenty of opportunity to get involved with budgeting, marketing, fundraising and sponsorship – all ‘commercial’ activities.
- Try volunteering. Ok, it might not seem an obvious path but consider this: project leaders in Warwick Volunteers have to manage a budget, allocate resources and organise events.
Research, research, research
- Use all the online information at your disposal to research sectors, companies and organisations. Check our pages on researching jobs for useful links and info. The Gateway has some easily digestible articles and tips to enhance commercial awareness. BizEd is another and has a fantastic glossary of business and financial terms.
- Attend employer events on campus – there are plenty – and keep an eye out for commercial and business awareness sessions run by some of our recruiters.
And finally, don’t just ‘consume’ information – you need to understand and apply what you’ve learnt. Employers are looking for candidates who can make connections, draw conclusions and understand the world around them. They want evidence – give it to them!