According to research conducted by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise two years ago, international trading partners find New Zealanders to be nice people with good business ethics, but lacking in business acumen.

This absence must come at a cost to New Zealand Inc as opportunities are lost and businesses involved in international trade fail.

Sir Roderick Deane, who has been chairman of several of New Zealand's largest companies, observed: "We are not tough enough. I don't know what it is about our culture. We are so trusting of people, because in all the time I was in business, I can hardly remember anybody ever letting me down - even a competitor or a supplier - in the sense of not keeping their word in New Zealand.

"It happened once or twice, but it was rare. I trusted people, they trusted me, and although lots of things got documented and people knew how to cut deals, we weren't as aggressive and we weren't as tough and vigorous and rigorous as, say, Australians or Americans."


Some New Zealand organisations are beginning to invest in programmes aimed at increasing their capability.

Fonterra, for example, has invested in working with international experts in a range of business-acumen disciplines and has a programme for mid-level managers that aims to assess and develop acumen in future leaders.

A starting point for development is reaching agreement on the term "business acumen". The NZTE study seems to have a range of interpretations. Some respondents see it as business etiquette, while others see it as an inability or unwillingness to partner for mutual gain.

Management consultant and author Ram Charan defines it this way: "The art of business acumen is linking an insightful assessment of the external business landscape with the keen awareness of how money can be made - and executing the strategy to deliver the desired results."

What we need to do now is identify the skills and competencies that lie beneath this to recognise these capabilities at the time of selection and promotion decisions - and incorporate them into new development programmes.

Simon West, chief executive of Ezibuy, thinks about business acumen in tiers: "There is a base-level technical skill, and over time that becomes supported by people skills. Then, there is the ability to think creatively, commercially and strategically about the business."

While financial skills matter, West says, it is the insights those abilities generate, more than the analytics themselves.

It is telling that Charan describes business acumen as an art.

Many would agree that it is a mixture of technical skill and intuition.

Ralph Chivers, chief executive of the New Zealand Institute of Directors, observes that a large part of business acumen is intuitive.

"People with business acumen are intuitive - either they are naturally intuitive or they have developed it," Chivers said.

"They understand how different components actually affect value or the business itself: what looks good, what looks bad.

"They have a feel for whether something will take the company in the right or wrong direction."

Cynthia Johnson is the founder of consulting company Muritai21 and is an organisational psychologist with more than 20 years' experience in the public and private sectors.