By Paul Vorbach, Managing Director, AcademyGlobal Pty Ltd
The Oxford Dictionary defines acumen as ‘the ability to make good judgments and make quick decisions’. According to the dictionary, the word is derived from the Latin verb ‘acuere’: ‘to sharpen’.
The acquisition of financial acumen hinges on the combination of many factors, including on-the-job experience and continuous learning. Whilst such learning may begin with a university degree, research shows that specialised training addressing specific training needs is more effective. Context matters: the ability to understand and decipher the interplay between numbers, people, process and technology on an organisation-wide dimension and scale is critical.
It is intuitive to believe that for an organisation to be successful, well-intentioned staff will possess an understanding of what generates profit, and in turn act in a manner that supports its maximisation. Conversely, when employees are not trained in financial acuity, it follows that poor business decisions are more likely.
From correlation to causation
Importantly, causal links are now increasingly being identified to test the long acknowledged correlation observed between the financial expertise and the firm’s financial policies and performance. Fortunately, it is clear that financial acumen is a skill that can be learnt.
A major conclusion of these studies suggests a strong positive association between financial literacy and financial outcomes. Further, recent empirical evidence suggests a strong correlation between financial literacy and behaviour (Cole, Sampson and Zia, 2009), and that an important determinant of stock market participation is financial literacy (Van Rooij, Lusardi and Alessie, 2007).
The literature also suggests that individuals with more financial knowledge are more likely to engage in a wide range of recommended financial practices (Hilgert, Hogarth and Beverley, 2003).
More recent international academic studies suggest not only that management practices are important drivers of firm-level productivity, but also that managers with financial expertise allocate their firms’ financial resources more efficiently.
Specifically, managers with financial acumen hold less cash, apply debt more thoughtfully, and are more sophisticated in using appropriate discount rates when evaluating projects. They are also more effective at communicating with analysts and more successful at acquiring access to outside financing when facing limited credit supply (Custodio, Mendes, and Metzger, 2016).
Financial acumen is complex. To create economic value for an organisation, you must understand and manage multiple financial indicators around goals, products, stakeholders, platforms, resources, regulations, geographies and time zones, and markets effectively.
Being able to understand not only the numbers in your financial statements, but also to deploy and manage your limited resources of people, time, and funding; while adhering to governance, risk management and compliance requirements and regulations, keeping up to date with competitors, recalibrating new technologies, and delivering to customers at higher levels of quality, can be truly daunting.
Financial acumen can be evaluated across three pillars: financial, business quality and global skills (Theodotou, 2014):
1. Financial skills include strengthening core financial literacy concepts and metrics, streamlining processes such as budgeting, forecasting, and reporting, and stepping up compliance.
2. Business quality skills sharpen your ability to keep your house in order and work efficiently by managing costs and resources, focusing on process quality, standards, tools, and metrics, driving efficiency, shorter cycles, managing resources, and understanding technology trends.
3. Global skills include analysing local, regional, and global markets and product trends, deciphering competitive intelligence, understanding the importance of governance, risk, and compliance; building a sound corporate responsibility strategy and a broader sustainability strategy for the growth of your organisation into the future.
The common thread in all these functions is a keen understanding of the numbers in your line of business. Mastering the numbers enables sound and timely decision-making. Developing these skills, and more importantly seeking cross-pollination amongst them, is an indispensable criterion for success for both the individual and the organisation.
Training interventions to consider
· Intensive single-day training session for department heads. The facilitator discusses finance basics. At the end of each day, ask each department head to turn in a list of areas in which they have not been speaking the same financial language (Theodotou, 2014).
· After the training session, assign each department head the task of speaking with employees in their departments about financial acumen. Encourage them to use simpler language, for those employees who lack a background in finance.
· Assess current investments and profit figures against the current budget. Are the numbers the same? If not, what is the cause of the discrepancy? Initiate a plan to reconcile the numbers by the end of the next quarter.
· As a business manager, evaluate the financial reporting structure used by each department. If not consistent, assemble a team to identify which items need to be consistently reported, and then create and distribute templates so that during the next reporting period the financial results are accurate.
· For one month, send staff members a weekly email newsletter of tips to improve financial acumen. Include key terms and definitions relevant to the organisation and industry, answers to frequently asked questions, and examples from real-world scenarios.
After senior management roles at Deloitte and Citi, the author founded AcademyGlobal in Sydney in 2004, an executive development firm with assignments ranging across 20 countries on 5 continents.
Adomako, S., and Albert, D., (2014). Financial Literacy and Firm performance: The moderating role of financial capital availability and resource flexibility., International Journal of Management & Organisational Studies, 3 (4).
Cole, S, Sampson, T and Zia, B. (2009). Financial Literacy, Financial Decisions and the Demand for Financial Services. Harvard Business School Working Paper 09-117.
Custódio, C., Mendes, D.M, Metzger, D. (2016), Financial literacy of managers and efficiency of capital allocation in corporations, International Growth Centre, viewed 21 February, 2017, http://www.theigc.org/project/financial-literacy-of-managers-and-the-efficiency-of-capital-allocation-in-corporations/
Hilgert, M., Hogarth, J and Beverly, S. (2003). Household financial management: the connection between knowledge and behaviour, Federal Reserve Bulletin, 89(7): 309-22.
Theodotou, M., (2014), 3 Financial Acumen Skills You Don’t Want to Ignore, American Management Association, viewed 21 February 2017, http://www.amanet.org/training/articles/3-Financial-Acumen-Skills-You-Dont-Want-to-Ignore.aspx
Van Rooij, M., Lusardi, A. and Alessie, R. (2007), Financial literacy and stock market participation, NBER Working Paper, 13565.