ACCA’s long-awaited first Strategic Business Leader (SBL) exam has now been sat. The examiner’s report for September, which you must read, provides general guidance on gaining technical and professional skills marks, and a systematic review of performance on every question.

1. Knowledge is irrelevant unless it’s applied to the requirements

Stating technical knowledge by itself scores no marks in SBL. However, there were many instances in September of candidates seeing a topic in the question requirements and writing down what they knew about the topic without applying their knowledge to the question or to the company. Thus in Question 3(b) candidates who wrote what a risk committee did scored no marks unless they showed it was an advantage of a separate risk committee, which was what the question required. In Question 4 candidates who just presented a detailed theoretical explanation of big data scored no marks for it, as their answers did not discuss the opportunities and costs for the company, which was what its board wanted.       

2. Keep the requirements in mind when reading the exhibits

Many candidates in September made insufficient use of the material in the exhibits, sometimes only using material from one exhibit in each answer. One of the first things you should do when reading the exam is to fix the question requirements firmly in your mind and keep referring back to them when reading the exhibits. Doing that will mean that you can link the material in each exhibit to every question requirement to which it relates, and thus make full use of exhibit content in your answers. Watch out particularly for exhibits like the extract from the annual report  in the September exam that contain a range of information, as you’re likely to use material from that exhibit throughout the exam.

3. A model may not be the best structure for an answer

Models can sometimes be a good way to organise your answer, but following the question requirements or the content of the exhibits may be better. Question 1(a) required discussion of financial and non-financial factors, but many candidates instead used the suitable, acceptable and feasible model to structure their answers. Sometimes this meant that some factors were over or under-emphasised, maybe repeated, so candidates would have done better to use financial and non-financial factors as the basis for organising their answers. In Question 3(a) candidates who used an ethical model to structure their answers often only discussed a few of the issues and made their discussion of the ethical problems more theoretical than it needed to be for the recipient.

4. Remember the recipients

As your answers will always be prepared for specified recipient(s), you must keep firmly in mind what they need or require. For Question 3(a), CC’s chairman indicated that she was worried about the attitudes and planned actions of its chief executive, so the answer should have focused on these topics. The tone of the answer should also be influenced by its recipient. In Question 2, answers should have included encouraging comments that would help motivate the junior member of staff, whilst making clear how the document should be improved.          

5. Avoid long paragraphs

Many September answers contained long paragraphs without headers splitting up the answer and were thus not professionally presented. Remember that the recipient of your answer needs to see each point clearly. Including many points in the same paragraph will not help them do so.  Any paragraph that has more than four good sentences is likely to be too long, even if it covers a point that has been developed enough to earn two marks.      

6. Head paragraphs clearly

Using headers is not just heading up the answer as briefing notes, memo or whatever is required. Paragraph headings within the answer make it much clearer for the recipient. Using subheadings help keep you focused on writing about the right areas and ensure you cover the necessary range of points. Headings can also save time by making it clear quickly that you are switching to a different point.

7. Say why as well as what

A common weakness of September’s answers was stating material from the exhibits without explaining why it was significant in the context of the question requirements. If you’re quoting details from the case study, you should always think ‘I need to show why this is important ’. This should mean you go on to explain the significance of the information you have included to the decision or situation.  

8. What’s different is what’s important

You need to focus on what is significant for the specific decision or situation being covered in the question to score high marks. Making comments that apply generally won’t score marks. Thus, for example, in Question 1(b), saying that the strict timetable would mean that the company had to keep time taken under control would not be rewarded, as the company should do this on all contracts. To say however that the company would find it difficult to keep time taken under control because of the weather and terrain challenges that this contract posed would score marks, as it related to the difficulties that applied to this contract.

9. FM for the figures

Candidates could score highly in Question 1(a) on the financial issues relating to the contract by using a range of knowledge from the Financial Management (FM) exam. Candidates should have questioned how reliable the profit and cost figures were, considering whether calculations using different assumptions should be prepared to assess the figures’ sensitivity. The timing mismatch between costs and benefits should have led to discussion of possible liquidity problems and whether discounted cash flow should be used to appraise the project. Comments in the exhibits about gearing and the government guaranteeing debt finance should have led to analysis of the best way to fund the project, bringing in balancing of financing and dividend requirements. 

10. Skills not being rewarded can be valuable

Although you must clearly demonstrate the professional skill being rewarded for the question part, using other professional skills can also help you gain marks. Thus in Question 1(b), to demonstrate commercial acumen, candidates needed to use scepticism to ask questions about the objectives set by the government – Were they realistic? Were they compatible? Could what the company did make any difference to whether they were achieved? In Question 2, showing good communication skills by adopting a helpful approach to what the junior had done should have resulted in clear explanations of what the document was lacking and what improvements needed to be made. This would have earned technical marks and also the professional skills marks for demonstrating scepticism, by challenging the information provided in a justified way.

Finally, don't forget the Ethics and Professional Skills module...

The pass rate for candidates who took the Ethics and Professional Skills module before sitting the exam in September 2018 was 73%. This proves that doing the Ethics and Professional Skills module first maximises the chance of passing the SBL exam.

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