Commercial Awareness

I’ve never been one for Careers Talks. I always thought: well, I’m only interested in journalism anyway. It’s only in my final year (sod’s law) that I’ve realised what a great resource the talks hosted by the Careers Centre really are. They aren’t just about specific career paths; they are about general knowledge, being suddenly introduced to a route you’d never realised you’d like, and being given useful tips.

One such talk was given by PwC’s Laura Cobb in the Windsor building, on the 4th February, who gave a talk on commercial awareness. Now before you turn the page, hold on – commercial awareness is crucial regardless of which industry you want to work in. She defined commercial awareness as firstly being aware of the economic and commercial pressures that are facing the industry you want to work in. So even if you want to be a journalist armed with only your English degree that taught you nothing about finance (as my bank balance often laments), knowing about and coming up with creative solutions to solve falling sales, and a way to make the most of online news, would be pretty important in your line of work. Even if you wanted to be a chef, you’d need commercial awareness; the credit crunch has made people less likely to eat out, and so to encourage customers you would need to develop deals and discounts to maximise value. Employers are on the look out for commercial awareness, and if you show that you’ve researched and thought about ways to tackle the company’s problems, you will make for an impressive interviewee. It demonstrates your commitment to your chosen industry.

Commercial awareness is also about having a knowledge of business issues (surely the credit crunch didn’t pass you buy?), an ability to form opinions on issues (employers like people who think…) and an appreciation of business stories and their impact on a wider scale (for example, do you ever think Toyota’s reputation can be rebuilt?). All of these topics are potential interview questions (whether for an internship or a graduate position).

So how to develop your commercial awareness? If you have a part-time job, you could think about the problems your manager faces, and what you would do in that position. If you’ve had a previous work experience placement, you could speak about how the company was run from grass roots to Head Office level, how it is perceived in the press, the risks it faces, its unique selling point, its competitors. Consider what you would do if you were Managing Director. Analysing your experience in this way proves that you have made the most of it. If it is a global company (or even if you have been travelling on a gap year and therefore may have seen or interacted with global companies), you could also think of the ways in which the business interacts with people from other organisations of other countries, and how the management structure changes or stays the same from coast to coast. Another suggestion Laura put forward was to learn by example; think about where you have observed strong leadership skills and good management, and what it is that makes that person/group so successful. Consider also the turn-over of staff; a low turn-over might suggest either job satisfaction (Penguin) or stagnation (Toyota), and a high turn-over may suggest either a highly innovative company that wants its employees to have knowledge of several departments (most big law firms), or a company that is run terribly badly, where the employees cannot wait to get away (I will veer on the side of tact in this instance). Keep up to date with business stories, and when it comes to an interview, make sure you can speak fluently about recent stories that have interested you.

If you a truly committed to working in a particular industry or company, you should research and think about that industry as carefully as when you write an end-of-term essay. Regardless of whether or not you want a career in business, the issues Laura raised are useful – particularly in this climate – in whatever area you want to carve a place out for yourself. I expected to spend the hour bored, but instead, was given a wealth of handy hints and tips on a plate, that I would have never got otherwise. So next time you see an advert for a Careers talk that you think isn’t you, don’t use that as a reason not to sign up; it should be the reason why you DO sign up. You’ll be surprised – but hopefully commercially aware. So thanks very much PwC!

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