The Mysterious Essence of Commercial Awareness

The graduate recruitment pages of the top law and accounting firms all agree on one thing – they want you to have commercial awareness.


Of all the qualities which they look for, when working with our clients at Interview Advantage we’ve found that this one causes more angst and confusion than others. Why? Largely because it’s undefined. You don’t know what to prepare for or how to prepare for it. Should you read all the back copies of the FT you can lay your hands on in the library? Switch to reading Economics? Launch a startup so you can tell the interviewer that business is in your DNA?


The answer is no. Don’t panic. Commercial awareness is less about what you know than about your sense of curiosity, seeing the big picture, looking at things through different eyes and asking the right questions. Read on for some practical guidance, and for an explanation on what commercial awareness, broken down into its five essential elements, actually means.


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1.         Taking an interest in others


Law and accounting firms look for potential when recruiting graduates. A crucial quality on their wish list is client-facing ability. Their major clients may be multinational businesses, but winning and serving those clients is all about personal relations with the people who make those businesses tick. How you build strong business relations is at the heart of commercial awareness.


If you ask a business leader about the top four things she wants in her advisers, the list may well look like this:


  • Listening skills
  • Understanding my business
  • Making me feel valued
  • Ability to focus on the things that matter


What this comes down to is that clients want to know that you’re interested in them as people and in their business. They prefer that you show your interest by asking questions and getting them to talk. They’re less interested in hearing how fabulous you are.


Good questions are those that demonstrate curiosity as well as personal and business knowledge. The great thing is that you don’t need to know a great deal at the outset. Asking: “What keeps you awake at night?” or “What are the most important issues on your radar right now?” are sure to get a business person talking. You’ll be demonstrating a personal interest, which will draw them in, and they’ll end up telling you a lot of what you need to know to ask good follow up questions and understand their business. These are also good questions to ask at the end of an interview. They will show you are people-oriented, and that you have client-facing potential.


2.         Walking in different shoes


To show someone that you’re focused on them and their organisation, research helps. With the right kind of research, you’ll ask the right questions. You’ll also show that you’ve made a special effort, which is a mark of genuine interest. The aim of the research should be to understand both the organisation’s business – how it works and how it makes money – and how it’s seen through the eyes of those who work there. Speaking to people who know the organisation will give you personal insights that will help you come across as someone who genuinely wants to understand and walk a mile in another’s shoes. That will sell you far better than hours of googling.


So if you’re applying for an internship or graduate job, do your research by talking to a partner of senior manager and a recent recruit. Use your university’s alumnus network, or your own contacts, to reach the right people. Discover how your future employer’s business works, the challenges facing that business and what makes it distinct from the competition.


3.         Curiosity and engagement


Important as it is to focus on people, it also helps to have some broader business knowledge. You can’t be expected to know everything when you’re applying for a graduate job, so what should you concentrate on?


The best thing is to pick something that you find interesting – it might be a business sector or trend, a company or personality, an aspect of current affairs – and read about it regularly over time so that so that it becomes your ‘thing’. That way you can write about it in your application and talk about it at interview. This will demonstrate two essential qualities that employers look for: curiosity and engagement with the world. Curiosity about current affairs and the way business works are essential ingredients of commercial awareness. If you’d like some more specific pointers on the sorts of topics that are worth getting to grips with, have a look at this article, and then this one.


4.         Seeing the big picture in the detail and connecting the dots


The ability to take in a large amount of information and see the big picture emerge from the detail is another quality that employers seek out in graduates. It too is part of commercial awareness. A good way to hone your skills is to read an article and then summarise it, starting with the key issues and why they strike you as important. Because you will be dealing with numerical information as well, it helps to have the basics of understanding company accounts and some grasp of statistics under your belt.


It’s also good to practice making connections between the article and other things you may be interested in, including future trends. For example, you may read a piece about the challenges facing a supermarket group while also more generally following the Brexit debate. There are certainly connections and predictions to be made there.


5.         Finding solutions


This leads to the last essential element of commercial awareness that I want to mention: the ability to discuss and think things through in a balanced, solution-oriented way. In a commercial context, this is about being on top of the subject (the facts and figures), familiarity with the business background, understanding the client’s wishes and ability to come up with practical options. It is also about articulacy and the ability to express your views confidently. To get those skills to where you want them to be there’s no substitute for practice, both with friends and in a more structured, formal setting with professional graduate recruitment coaches.




How would I summarise commercial awareness, in a sentence ? I believe that it’s a state of mind: being curious about people and the world in which they work, being able to understand issues behind details, and seeing possibilities and solutions. That’s really all there is to it. Much of this can be acquired through practice, and will come naturally with experience.


Our team of graduate recruitment experts at Interview Advantage can work with you through these issues in structured tutorials, and provide you with the practice you need.


Contact us for your initial no-fee, no-obligation conversation where you can see if we are the right team to help you better your commercial awareness.