Business, Organizational and Leadership Acumen - Lessons from my career journey by Sudha Ranganathan

Automatic Summary

How to Grow Your Career: From Functional Acumen to Leadership Acumen

In the various stages of our careers, we all go through learning curves, make mistakes and, importantly, grow from them. In this blog post, which is based on a 18-year long career in marketing, I’ll share three practical tips that can help you navigate your own career journey. This advice comes from my own experience—from starting as an entry-level manager to leading large teams at LinkedIn.

Functional Acumen: The Foundation of Any Career

At the start of my career, my proficiency in my work got me promoted. I was doing everything right and demonstrating functional acumen on a day-to-day basis. But then, to my surprise, my peers started rising to senior positions while I seemed to be stuck. One of my first managers taught me a hard but crucial lesson: Early in your career, you are rewarded for doing good work. But to progress further, you must cultivate business acumen.

From Functional Acumen to Business Acumen

Business acumen involves prioritising what's impactful to the business over what you're assigned. It's figuring out what drives growth in your business and aligning your team's OKRs to drive said goals. And it's about setting boundaries so your time isn't consumed by urgent requests that may or may not directly impact the business. Here are three steps to building your business acumen:

  1. Know the key levers that will help your specific company or business grow in the next couple of years.
  2. Understand how your team's OKRs can directly impact business objectives.
  3. Prioritize and set boundaries to focus on tasks that impact the business and resist being distracted by less significant tasks.

Organizational Acumen: Being Able to Influence Decisions

Gaining business acumen wasn't the end of my career growth. Now that I could prioritize, I needed to learn organizational acumen—the ability to influence decision-making. To achieve this, I developed what I call the "Architecting Influence Framework", which involves these three steps:

  1. Understand the decision maker and the decision at hand.
  2. Understand their current belief and the gap between that and what you want them to believe.
  3. Bridge this psychological gap through priming, prewiring, and storytelling.

Leadership Acumen: Bringing Out the Best in Your Team

The final stage of career growth is cultivating leadership acumen—knowing how to manage and bring out the best in your team members. One way to exemplify this skill is through the "Four Gs Framework", which has four primary goals:

  1. Glow: Create psychological safety, show care and support, and appreciate your team's skills.
  2. Grow: Stretch your team and hold them accountable.
  3. Get Things Done: Unlock barriers, know when to coach, teach or do, and reward invisible work.
  4. Go Their Own Way: Foster autonomy, support flexibility, and encourage career mobility.

By focusing on functional, business, organizational, and leadership acumen during different stages of your career, you'll be better able to navigate your personal growth and take meaningful strides in your professional journey. Remember, your growth depends on your willingness to learn and adapt to new scenarios throughout your journey in the professional world.

Video Transcription

I'm just gonna talk to you and we're not gonna use any slides. So I'm hoping that this is gonna be fun.So when Anna asked to make this about a story, uh I, one thing that came to mind is sometimes I feel like personal stories can be very me centered. And what I wanted to do was make this very youth centered. I wanted to make sure that all of you could walk away with, let's say three practical tips on the lessons that you can apply to your own career journey. And so that's exactly what I'm trying to do today. I'm gonna use some stories from my experience to tell you the important lessons that I learned about navigating a career successfully all the way from when I started as an entry level manager, all the way to now when I lead really large teams. So let's get started. Like Margot said just now, my name is Sa I have had a marketing career spanning 18 plus years now, I've lived in Asia at the beginning of my career, working for Procter and Gamble in the Singapore headquarters. I then moved to North America about 12 or so years ago. And I started my, we are there in uh a company called Nielsen, which is a vendor firm.

So I got a lot of experience with diverse categories and I was completely flummoxed by the brand new personal and professional exposure to culture in North America. After those first couple of years, I moved to paypal, I worked in the financial services segment and then I say was my lucky break to come work at linkedin. I've been at linkedin for the last seven years. And all of that time, I have worked across these businesses that we call our hiring and learning solutions, which is basically now known as the Talent Solutions business. Around this time that I was working on linkedin. I got really passionate about something and I realized this is also my superpower. Uh It's what I call codification. It's the ability to look back at stories and patterns and make sense of them. And it's the ability to give a name to patterns so other people can walk away with re applicable lessons. And what I want to do today is start from the beginning of my career, tell a couple of stories and codify the key lessons that have informed me in how I grow from entry level to senior leader.

And I'm hoping those are lessons that will serve you well in your career journey as well. So let's start at the very beginning. Story number one, I'm starting my career at tractor. It's been only two years. I have just been told that I got promoted and I am extremely excited. All of the feedback tells me that I'm functionally very astute. I'm an expert on my subject matter and I'm really good at getting things done. And I'm thinking to myself, I am set. This is my path to growth. I just need to do more of the same thing and I'm gonna get to where I need to cut to two years later. A lot of my peers around me are growing into more senior positions. And I'm kind of sitting here wondering what's going on. I was doing exactly what I thought I was meant to be doing. I was very good at it. I was demonstrating incredibly functional acumen on a day to day basis. What went wrong here. And this is when one of my first managers at Proctor pulled me aside and gave me a really great dose of a very hard reality. He basically said early in your career, you're going to be rewarded for doing really good work, you're performing, you're doing the th things that are assigned to you and you're demonstrating what we call functional acumen.

And he said, so that if you want to move from here to the next stage of your career, what you need to cultivate is what we call business acumen. It's the ability to not just work on the things that you are told are important. It is the ability to figure out for yourself what is going to be most impactful to the business and to find a way to prioritize that and stay focused on that. Now, this lesson stayed with me for the rest of my career. And when I went from job to job and I moved more and more senior, I realized the the disproportionate role that business acumen plays in career growth. So lesson number one for you to walk away with today, my early career lesson and it has been repeated to me in a recurring way throughout my career. Is that functional acumen is a really great starting point. You have to be very, very good at demonstrating functional proficiency in your job family at the beginning of your career. However, while it is necessary, it is not sufficient to grow any further. And one of the key skills that you need to accumulate in your arsenal is what we call business acumen and very simply put, I break down business a into three things. Number one, it's the ability to know what drives growth in your business.

What are the key levels through which your specific company or business will grow in the next couple of years. Number two, it's how to figure out aligning your team's OKRS or your own OKRS to drive those very business objectives. And number three, and I think this is the most important one. It is to find a way to hold the priority around those to set boundaries around them. So your time is not being pulled into urgent requests that may or may not directly impact the business. So those are my three subst steps to business acumen. Number one, know what the business priorities are and how you can drive them. Number two, understand how your team's OKRS can directly impact business objectives. And number three find a way to prioritize and hold boundaries around focus areas and don't get distracted by the small stuff. So that's the first lesson from my career is moving from entry level to more senior levels involves going from f functional acumen to business acumen.

Let's cut to my second story and my second lesson sort of late in my time at Proctor by now, I was a senior manager and by this time, um I was starting to work on really important projects. And so I was brought in to say, hey, how do we prioritize what we launch over the next three years in this category that we play in. There are so many ideas, we have a sense for which ideas are big or small. But for the last three years, we make decisions as a leadership team. And then every time we get out of January into the next couple of months, we change our mind about the decision. And this is what led me to understand what I call the second big lesson in career development. It is to get to the next level in your career. After functional and business acumen, you need to cultivate something that I call organizational acumen. Basically, this is the ability to influence decision making and to help those decisions stick in my story. The way that I did it with my leadership team is I felt like these folks needed to have some skin in the game and they needed to feel like they were part of the process of making those priority calls. So those priority calls would stick.

So it was not going to be sufficient to go into this off-site meeting and just present them. What I thought our top three ideas should be with really data driven rationale because we had done that for three years and it had failed. What I realized was that we needed a very different approach here. So I created this gamified session where I basically said, hey, you guys here are a lot of our options. I filled in some information on, let's say the attractiveness of each of these ideas and I filled in some other parameters that I think you should be evaluating yourself on. Are these feasible to do? Uh Are they a great fit with our brand and our capabilities? And then I turned them into little groups, set them out into some workshops and said each group come back to me with your top three ideas. And what was really uncanny? Is all of the groups came back with the same top three ideas. And of course, these were not dramatically different from the ideas we had landed on previously. But what we had done now is because each of the teams felt a stake in narrowing down that top three list, they stuck with those ideas and we were able to implement them with diligence over the next few years.

So the key to what I call organizational influence I have realized is is this uh a is this framework that I call architecting influence. And there are three steps to this. Number one, understand who your decision maker is and what is the decision that you're trying to influence them to make differently. Number two, this is really, really important. So listen carefully. Number two, understand what their current belief is that drives their current decision making.

And what is the gap between that current belief and the belief that you are trying to land with them based on everything that you know, the difference between these two beliefs is what I call the psychological gap that your decision maker is currently sitting on, which brings me to number three, proportionate to the psychological gap.

You have to invest in pre wiring, priming storytelling, gamifying to bring them along and make this decision, their decision, not just your recommendation. So those are my three steps for what I call organizational acumen. And in that I introduce this framework called the architecting influence framework.

And basically, if you're trying to influence important decisions and make them stick, think of three things. Number one, who is the decision maker and what is the decision that they're trying to make? Number two, what is the psychological gap between what they believe today about that decision and what you want them to believe differently? And number three, the larger that gap is the more priming pre wiring and storytelling, you're going to have to do so you can really help land the decision with them and you can help that decision stick over the course of my career. One of the thumb rules that I have now developed around organizational acumen is I tell all of my teams and all of my peers that instead of devoting 90% of our time and energy to doing the work and developing the recommendation and then 10% of our time to helping land the recommendation think of this very, very differently.

Start with understanding what the psychological gap is for the decision that you're trying to influence. And then if it is a large psychological gap, you want to make sure that the doing is about 50% of the total project time. But the influencing the priming prewired the storytelling, all of that is another 50%. So you want to allocate the right kind of time and bandwidth, engage the right influencers and allies to the decision maker. So you can actually land your decision. So stepping back, we started with early career functional acumen, then moving to a slightly more senior level demonstrating business acumen from there on being able to navigate decision making. So not only being able to use business acumen to prioritize what you're trying to influence, but then being actually able to influence decisions and make them stick. We talked about organizational acumen and this architecting, architecting influence framework. And then this is my final lesson that I want to share with you today based on my career journey. This one I think is gonna resonate with all of you because if you were just to think to yourself about the sorts of leaders that you have reported up to or been managed by throughout your career, I think that you will all instantly agree with a couple of things.

Number one, managers have a profound experience on the employee experience and employee engagement and employee productivity and employee well being. And considering that we spend what about 30% of our time at work and managers profoundly influence that I would say managers can really make or break your daily experience just given how big work is part of our daily experience. And over the years, I've had the the pleasure, the privilege and sometimes the misfortune of experiencing several different types of managers. There were the really great ones that had my back that knew exactly how much to let me jump into the deep end and just went to come in and rescue me because I was failing. And then I've had these others that have taken credit for my work that would never put me in the senior forums that have not demonstrated trust that have not created psychological safety. And somewhere towards the middle part of my time at linkedin, about two years ago, I started to realize, hm, there's a pattern here.

This is my codification, instinct, kicking in and basically going OK, there's so much literature on how someone can be a great manager and it is so much easier to see that play out than to create a formula that every manager can use to replicate what greatness looks like. And so that's exactly what I decided to do. I created what I now call the four G framework and I copyrighted it because I felt like this is a really great, simple digestible way for people to remember how to be great managers. And in my four G framework, which Margo will bring up in in just about two minutes when I ask for a cue. Um in the four G framework, there are four GS really. And basically the whole point is that there are four things that managers need to help their employees do to get the very best out of them and to make sure these employees want to come back and work for you in the future. And Margo, if, if you are listening you just want to scroll to the second last slide in this deck and I'm happy to do that too. Thank you, Margo. I'm sorry for all the scrolling folks. Here you go. Here's what I call the four G framework. The first G is a Glow. Glow is all about creating psychological safety, showing care and support for our people and amplifying and appreciating the skills that they bring to the table.

The third one is particularly important because often our people have these implicit superpowers, the things that they're really good at doing that, they don't even know that they're doing really well. Our job as managers is to make that implicit superpower an explicit skill, give it language, give it appreciation and try and get these people into roles and projects that bring out their best skills. So that's Glow number one, number two, you can see on the top right is what I'm calling. You grow. This, this G is all about stretching people and holding them accountable. And in this, a couple of the key ingredients that I talk about are providing constructive feedback in really productive ways, creating productive stretch. So helping people operate at that zone that is somewhere between the comfort zone and the danger zone uh where they can learn new things, but without feeling too scared or at risk. And the third element of growth is having these regular career conversations. So you're not just fixated on whether your person is staying with you for the next one year or not. You're thinking about their overall career journey and investing them investing in them as a full person.

The third G is what I call get things done in your bottom left on the screen, get things done is all about helping with execution. And there are three elements here. The first one is what I call unlocking barriers and creating boundaries so people can keep their focus on their work. Number two, knowing the difference between coaching, teaching and doing this is a really important one. And depending on the seniority and proficiency of the person you're managing, you want to know how to flex between coaching, teaching and actually doing something alongside them. And the third thing under get things done, you're not able to see it over here is what I call reward the invisible work as so many women in tech, you especially recognize that there's a lot of invisible work that many people, especially women and people of color put in at work in organizations.

And often this invisible work is important to helping the organization thrive and helping the business move, but it is not recognized or rewarded. And so an important part of getting things done is rewarding the people that are doing invisible work. And finally, number four, which I think is also the most controversial of my four Gs is what I call helping people go their own way. Another two elements here that are not very controversial, which I call fostering autonomy, helping people get things done their own way. So long as everyone's clear on the outcomes and held accountable to them. And the other one that's really simple here is supporting flexibility, helping people do their work wherever and whenever it suits them. So long as again, the desired outcomes are met, but the one element of go their own way that is particularly provocative and also really hard to do is what I call encouraging career mobility, which is basically supporting your people in moving on to their next play, even if it's not on your own team, even if it's on another team in the same company when the time is right for them, not when the time is right for you.

This is a particularly hard one because we can get attached to the people that are strong performers. But these are also the people that speak very quickly and start to get really bored. Would you rather that they stay in your larger organization and continue to contribute or would you rather that they leave you and go away? So the four G manager for me became the key to now what I call leadership acumen, which is when you are a senior leader who's managing other people. How do you know to bring out the best in them? And I use this four G framework to do exactly that. So to quickly recap everything that we spoke about today. I started by telling you how functional acumen was the foundation of my career journey as it will be for anybody, regardless of job family. Then I moved to telling you three other types of acumen that really helped me grow through my career. And I'm hoping you will be able to incorporate into your way of operating as well. The first of those three was called business acumen, knowing what's important to the business orienting your work towards it and being able to prioritize it. The next was what I call organizational acumen.

This is understanding how decisions are made and being able to influence decisions using the architecting influence framework, which is knowing who your decision maker is. What do they currently believe and what is the gap versus what you want them to believe and finally doing the storytelling and the priming to bridge that gap. And then finally, I spoke about leadership acumen, which is the ability to manage and bring out the best in your people. So they want to do their best possible work and grow in your organization if you'd like to connect with me on linkedin, here is a QR code that you can use to very simply connect with me. I'd love to hear your feedback on some of these stories. I'd love to hear which of these lessons felt particularly relevant, resonant or actionable for you. And with that, I'm gonna wrap and pass it back to Margo in case you have any questions?

Oh my goodness. When you just did your recap, the amount of things that you managed to cover in a short period of time is very surprising to me so well done. Um And we do have some questions coming through. I'll leave your QR code for just a minute here while people are still grabbing it and then we can just have a chat, you and I, but sometimes we're getting as we're getting started. Um, a lot of really, really nice comments, people saying, you know, mind blown and, and lots to take away, um maybe a softball to get us started here. So do you have any book recommendations or resource recommendations for some of these specific principles that you were talking about today?

Yeah. Well, I, I need a, I, I have a lot more in the leadership acumen criteria. I would say. Uh I would highly recommend a book by Kim Scott who is ex Google. Uh She wrote this book called Radical Candor. That is a really great primer on how to provide constructive feedback to your people because I think it's something everyone struggles with. Another book that I highly recommend for people managers is Liz Weissman's book Multipliers. So those would be my two book recommendations for Leaders.

Uh I would also read up there's some really great literature out there by Amy Edmondson on Psychological safety Safety. And I think there's some great stuff on linkedin as well on that topic. And then finally, Liz Weissman also has a really great book for individual contributors that's called Impact Players. Also highly recommend.

Wonderful, that's perfect because some people were even specifically asking about psycho psychological safety and some of those specific pieces. So I think you've covered them all there wonderfully. Um We do have another question here asking um how do you try being composed or self controlled and not being impacted by influences around you from others progression in their career or when you're at various steps of your career?

Such a great question, I applaud you for having the courage to ask this. Uh because you know, you, it can land in very different ways. Here's what I'd say to you. Um Be curious in that, ask a lot of questions about how these other people have progressed on in their career, talk to both them and their managers. So you can understand what this person demonstrated to be able to get there. If you start by asking questions and being curious to understand you, you will have a more open mind rather than responding to what you're seeing. Because what I want to remind you is the second part of my answer. The outer story that we see about people is not always the inner story. You don't know what tradeoffs they've had to make and you don't know what they've had to do. You don't know what losses they face early in their career, for them to be able to shine bright and grow so quickly in this job that you're seeing them in. So you never really know the full story, don't assume their outer story is their inner story. Also a really great lesson when you're on Instagram. So be curious, ask questions, seek to understand what your gaps are and understand what the tradeoffs are that this person has made that you may or may not be willing to make and go from there.