August 24, 2023|Kim's Blog, Management Skills|
Book review: All you need to know about commercial awareness by Christopher Stoakes

I facilitate various workshops designed to increase commercial awareness. For young professionals. And it’s good to be able to recommend reliable sources of information at those sessions. This short (130 pages) information-packed book was revised in 2019. And I commend it to those looking to initiate their commercial awareness journey. And it’s particularly valuable to those working in professional services firms. So here is a Book review: All you need to know about commercial awareness by Christopher Stoakes.

About the author

Christopher Stoakes was originally a lawyer. He has also been a management consultant, a marketing director and a financial journalist. And he has taught on MBA courses. So it makes him an ideal author on the business of professional services firms – whether for technical expert/fee-earners or marketing/business development professionals.

I met him many years ago when he worked at Stephenson Harwood. He was an early pioneer in professional services marketing. I invited him once to facilitate a junior professionals’ networking event for an accountancy practice – where he talked about one of his other books “All you need to know about the City” (latest version updated in 2022). He’s also written a book called “Get to the point – how to write well at work”.

Overview of “All you need to know about commercial awareness”

This is an ideal book for those entering the world of work. There’s even advice towards the end on how to get your first job – with suggestions on what questions to ask at interviews. And for those starting work as a professional adviser, there’s insight into obtaining work through delegation and guidance on meeting your first client. This is followed by ideas on how to build your brand and networking guidance. (See also this book written by a corporate lawyer: Book review – Great networking by Alisa Grafton (

It’s also ideal for those working in professional service firms (with knowledge workers) for the first time – there’s a chapter on how PSFs operate with insights into the partnership model. Learn the difference between work-in-progress (WIP) and lock-up. And there’s a pragmatic guidance on pitching, pricing (six things clients consider, a table of alternative fee structures) and a simple project management methodology. There’s even an overview of the strategic benefits of different types of clients (linked to Key Account Management strategy).

Business and strategy It’s a great business primer. From the ideas of Peter Drucker on the theory of business, McKinsey on culture, Porter’s Five Forces on competition, Boston Consulting Group product portfolio matrix to de Geus on scenario planning and Kaplan and Norton’s Balanced Score Card. There’s an overview of the main functions in a business and organisational design – to support cross-functional collaboration. Then the typical professional advisers that are used by a business are described.

Finance The debt and equity chapter summarises different business formats (including private and public companies and partnerships). Debt, interest and dividends are explained. And the important distinction between cash and profits is highlighted. Then there’s help to read income statements, balance sheets and cash flow reports. With explanations of depreciation, amortisation, factoring, asset finance, loans, guarantees and derivatives.

Marketing The author clarifies the difference between business development, marketing and sales. And touches on segmentation and sales force automation. There are passing references to brand management, digital agencies and data mining. There’s practical guidance on pitching and pricing too.

Government There’s a brief explanation of the role of the public sector and nationalisation and privatisation. The purpose of the central Bank is described with an exploration of the highly topical relationship between interest rates and inflation.

There are illustrative examples from all manner of businesses: Rick Stein, McDonalds, Walt Disney, NASA.

At the start of each chapter is a list of all the buzzwords that are explained. So you can easily zoom-in to those of most interest. The book is a fantastic jargon buster. For example, B2B, FMCG, SWOT, USP, PESTLE, MNC, IPR, FTSE, IPO, VC, MBO, ERP, BPR, ROCE, PPP, NGO, PFI, OBS, GDP, SLA, VFM. (How many do you know?). It speeds through an incredible number of commercial and financial topics and explains the key terms. This provides the reader with sufficient understanding that they can then go on to explore those concepts in more detail using other sources.

The book’s style and simplicity is elegant and refreshing. And it’s concise. I was told that you can tell a great expert if they can explain great complexity with ease. The author achieves this brilliantly. It’s a pleasure to read. 


I’m not the target audience for the book, but these were some of the ideas that jumped off the page:

  • “I think business is actually about customers, competition and innovation”
  • “So for me, strategy is a plan and a list of priorities”
  • The 3Ps of PSFs = Pitch, Price, Project Management
  • Venture capitalists see the informal sources of initial capital as the 3Fs (family, friends and fools)
  • Two out of three businesses fail before they are five years’ old
  • Stephen Mayson’s RULES on the levers of profitability: Rate, Utilisation, Leverage, Expenses and Speed
  • David Maister’s view that all professional services are prone to commoditisation through the 3Es (Expert, Experience, Efficiency) and clients buy fee-earners for their “faith, trust and confidence”.
  • “The best pitches aren’t all presentation. Instead they are one-third presentation and two-thirds Q&A”
  • “Passion beats polish every time” (in pitching)
  • Feedback model BOOST (Balanced, Objectives, Observed, Specific and Timely) and from National Institute of Trial Advocacy: Headline, Replay, Rationale, Prescription
  • Time management advice: Head, Desk and Door
  • Analyticals, Leaders and Visionaries (the difference between the professions and business leaders)
  • Four aspects of leadership from Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones: ACES (Authenticity, Community, Excitement, Significance)
  • “Commercial awareness is a mindset”

Book contents

The building blocks of business

  • What business is really about
  • Strategy: A sense of direction

Money and accounts

  • Debt and equity
  • Accounts

Beyond business basics

  • The business of Government
  • How organisations are organized

Professional services firms

  • How professional service firms work
  • The 3Ps of PSFs

Your role in business

  • How to get your first job
  • Meet your first client

Developing your career

  • Building your brand
  • What is commercial awareness?

The next public commerciality workshop (for marketing and business development profesionals) is in September through PM Forum