The new ACCA Strategic Business Leader paper is New with a capital N. It’s very different from anything you’ve sat before and demands a different approach. You can’t fluke success – this paper is the pinnacle of the ACCA qualification. So you’re here because you’re wondering exactly how to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader or, even better, how to pass with flying colours.
This guide is for you, to help you navigate the new ACCA Strategic Business Leader exam – and enjoy all the benefits it will bring you in your career once you’ve passed.
How to Pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader: The Ultimate Guide
Let’s get straight to it. Here’s our comprehensive guide on everything you need to know to sit, and pass, ACCA Strategic Business Leader. Skip to the section that you need or read from cover to cover.
Here’s a list of contents:
- Exam Format
- Question Sample
- Syllabus Guide
- Exam Technique
- Study Tips
- Final words
The Business Dictionary defines Strategic Leadership as the process of using well-considered tactics to communicate the vision of an organization. Strategic business leaders will help manage, motivate, and persuade others to work towards that same vision, to help drive change or create structure in a business.
From September this year, the ACCA are set to introduce a new paper that helps you build these skills: ACCA Strategic Business Leader.
ACCA Strategic Business Leader is essentially about having the technical, strategic and professional skills to guide the business in the right direction, from the top level down. Things like:
- Understanding problems in-depth before planning a logical solution
- Holding concentration for long projects
- Reading and digesting lots of material relatively fast
- Analysing all information critically, to make better informed decisions
- Tailoring your tone and language depending on who you’re talking to
- Learning there’s no strict right and wrong – in this exam and your career
- Properly preparing reports, memos, presentations etc to a high standard
- Preparing for future work discussions so you’re ready to handle anything
As our expert tutor Peter Wooley says, ‘this is a work-based simulation, and your professional skills are being tested just as much as your technical skills”.
In a nutshell, ACCA Strategic Business Leader gives you the skills you’ll need if you aspire to progress through the ranks of business – and to add more value to the organisations you work with.
“[This is] a completely new examination with a leadership focus, which would test not only a student’s ability to apply newly acquired syllabus knowledge to a business scenario, but also to demonstrate a range of practical leadership competencies required of future professional accountants with serious career and management ambitions.
The new ACCA Strategic Business Leader exam will replace the previous P1 and P3 exams, which had their last ever sitting in June 2018.
The ACCA have recently changed the names of all the exams, replacing the F and P format with full titles. In those cases, the content of the course has not changed – but for the new SBL exam isn’t a straightforward amalgamation of P1 and P3. It’s a completely new exam that has a new syllabus and style.
That means you’ll need to study this new syllabus even if you already passed one or other of P1 or P3 before the deadline.
The new exam is designed based on extensive industry research. The ACCA works closely with global employers who hire ACCA accountants, to find out which skills they want their new recruits to have. The ACCA Strategic Business Leader exam reflects exactly that, helping you build exactly the strategic leadership skills employers want to see.
For more detail on exactly the skills you’ll build with ACCA Strategic Business Leader, scroll to the syllabus guide section of this guide.
ACCA Strategic Business Leader is an Essentials paper within the Strategic Professional module. Overall there are four modules to the ACCA qualification, plus your professional experience qualification:
Accountant in Business
Corporate and Business Law
Audit and Assurance
Ethics and Professional Skills:
Ethics and Professional Skills Module
Essentials – Strategic Business Leader
Essentials – Strategic Business Reporting
Options – Advanced Financial Management
Options – Advanced Performance Management
Options – Advanced Taxation
Options – Advanced Audit and Assurance
Plus Professional Experience Requirement
Being a Strategic Professional exam, ACCA Strategic Business Leader is one of the most complex exams in the ACCA portfolio. You take your ACCA exams in module order, so ACCA Strategic Business Leader comes after all Applied Knowledge and Applied Skills papers.
However, you can take the exams within each module in any order. This means you can take your ACCA Strategic Business Leader exam immediately after your Applied Skills exams, or you could sit all your Options papers and Strategic Business Reporting first.
At LearnSignal, we recommend this latter option. LearnSignal’s Head of ACCA, Alan Lynch, has spent a long time talking to the ACCA on this (he’s even delivered exam technique webinars on behalf of the ACCA, so he knows what he’s talking about!) and has sat the paper himself, and feels strongly that the ACCA Strategic Business Leader syllabus calls on knowledge from other papers. In other words, taking all your other exams first means you’re most likely to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader.
Although the exams have changed and there have been no ACCA Strategic Business Leader sessions to assess, looking at the pass rates for the Professional level exams show how much students can struggle here:
Applied Knowledge and Applied Skills papers (previously Fundamentals) have some pass rates at the 60%, 70% and even 80% mark. These later papers fall far short of that, often with more than half of students failing the paper.
Luckily, you’re here – which means you want to learn how to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader. And passing ACCA Strategic Business Leader certainly isn’t impossible.
Lots of students believe the ACCA is ‘out to get them’ somehow, and looking for them to fail. That’s not the case, and if you put in the hard work, you’re committed to your study, and you use the endless resources the ACCA – and LearnSignal – offer, you’ll be able to earn that pass.
Read more: How difficult is the ACCA really?
So don’t be disheartened. Keep reading, and you’ll find out everything you need to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader and take one big step closer to being a fully-qualified accountant.
ACCA Strategic Business Leader is a four-hour exam which includes reading, planning and reviewing time. It’s closed-book, so you can’t take any materials in with you. The pass rate is, as with other papers, 50%.
Overall there are 100 marks available – 80 for technical syllabus knowledge and 20 professional marks. We’ll talk about how you get those later in this guide, in exam technique tips.
There is only one section to ACCA Strategic Business Leader. This is a compulsory business case study, with all the questions (and sub-questions) relating back to that scenario.
“You’ll demonstrate the right blend of technical, ethical and professional skills [those required of a Strategic Business Leader] in the evaluation, synthesis and presentations of responses through the context of an innovative case study”.
This case study will be an in-depth business scenario that you might be expected to meet in your career as an accountant. As well as a general introduction to the business scenario, you’ll be given between 12 and 18 pages of mixed information, which could include:
- Annual reports
- Integrated reports
- Survey results
- Interview transcripts
- Briefing notes
These materials together form the picture of a business scenario. You use these materials to perform tasks like you would in the workplace. Successfully completing these tasks is how you earn marks.
For example, you might have to:
- Analyse and interpret data
- Analyse visual aids like heatmaps, flowcharts, etc
- Identify and resolve issues
- Draft business communications like reports, memos, letters, etc
- Create presentations with accompanying notes
- Make supported business recommendations
You might have to take on various leadership or management/consultant roles in relation to these tasks. So you might have to prepare a presentation as if you were an external auditor, for example, or analyse data as if you were the Finance Director. We’ll look more closely at what this means for you in our exam technique section.
You get these materials in the exam, so there’s no pre-preparation time. The idea is that you should spend time reading and digesting the material once you know what the requirements are, then plan and prepare your approach before writing your answers.
In other words, a hefty chunk of your four hours total should be spent digesting and planning this information – but that’s something we’ll talk about in the exam technique section below.
The ACCA Strategic Business Leader examination method more closely reflects the way your career will work, when you’d only spend time researching once you knew what you had to do – and often, you’d be working to a fairly urgent deadline.
Hopefully this section highlights just how different ACCA Strategic Business Leader is from previous ACCA exams. Read more about those differences – and what they mean for your study – in this article from Alan Lynch for the ACCA.
This should give you a little context over the sorts of questions we’re talking about here. For a more detailed walkthrough, scroll to the exam technique section of this ACCA Strategic Business Leader guide.
In the exam, you’ll first read a short introduction to the overall business scenario, giving you context. You’ll also find out which supporting material you’ve got. Then you have the case requirements, which are the questions you have to answer.
Here’s an example, from Specimen paper 2. First, the introduction:
Then the first question:
As you can see, you’re expected to complete the task – in this case, prepare a briefing paper – from a given perspective – in this case, a non-executive member and chairman of the NGC committee – about the scenario you’re given – in this case, about Rail Co.
You refer back to the introduction and the supporting documents you have to inform your briefing paper. Note, one of the things that makes ACCA Strategic Business Leader special is that you actually have to prepare the briefing paper. It’s not an exam ‘answer’, per se, but an actual task that would mirror something you might do in the workplace.
And there’s no strict right or wrong answer. Mirroring the real world, there are many solutions to the same problem and will achieve the same objective. The examiners don’t have to agree with your chosen solution; they only have to agree that it’s an option.
“The type of task requirements in Strategic Business Leader will always be practical in their nature and candidates will actually have to carry out activities as would be expected of a manager in the workplace.
As in the workplace when someone takes on senior or leadership responsibilities, where tasks are high level and non-routine and when a task has to be carried out, there is no detailed guidance of how exactly to carry the task out, only what the ultimate objective(s) of the task would be.”
ACCA Strategic Business Leader vs. P1 and P3
Let’s first address the big question on many students’ lips: exactly how does ACCA Strategic Business Leader relate back to the old P1 and P3 exams? Especially if you’re one of the students who started P1 or P3 but didn’t pass both before the deadline. Do you need to study all over again to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader? How different are the syllabuses really?
The answer is, pretty different.
“Strategic Business Leader has its own syllabus, covering the main capabilities of a senior manager or leader. Many of these were adapted from the existing P1, Governance, Risk and Ethics and P3, Business Analysis syllabuses, but with an emphasis on being more practical as befits a case study exam.
However, there are also new areas and an implicit assumption that candidates studying for Strategic Business Leader will bring forward the basic principles and main learning gained at the previous levels of the qualification.”
In other words, the content loosely covers the same areas but the format of the exam is different and you need to apply that knowledge in a different way. If you’ve already studied P1 or P3, you still need to start from scratch here.
‘Bringing forward’ Applied Knowledge and Applied Skills
This idea of ‘bringing forward’ the main principles you gained at previous levels of the qualification is important. ACCA Strategic Business Leader is designed this way to reflect the way a strategic business leader would actually work. As the ACCA put it,
“Because business tasks can be so wide-ranging and cover several aspects or functions, particularly at senior level, it is important to bring forward underpinning knowledge from the Applied Knowledge and Applied Skills examinations.
Many of the techniques examined at those levels may be applicable to the kind of tasks set in Strategic Business Leader and previous learning represents a body of knowledge and understanding that a candidate will have accumulated as a foundation for their study at Strategic Professional.”
As we said in the overview at the start of this guide, this means ACCA Strategic Business Leader is perfect to take after the other exams, because you gain knowledge throughout the ACCA qualification that is relevant here.
Almost every Applied Knowledge and Applied Skills paper – and Ethics and Professional Skills too – crops up in ACCA Strategic Business Leader, but the strongest underpinning knowledge comes from Accountant in Business (previously F1) (read our ultimate guide to ACCA Accountant in Business here); Management Accounting (previously F2); Corporate and Business Law (previously F4); Performance Management (previously F5) and Financial Management (previously F9).
Check out the ACCA’s complete table here, which maps each part of the ACCA Strategic Business Leader syllabus to past paper knowledge in more detail.
Don’t let that list intimidate you though. This isn’t an exam on everything you’ve learned so far, per se. You don’t need to worry about remembering all the theories, detailed rules and regulations, or extensive technical information.
Rather, ACCA Strategic Business Leader considers scenarios in a much broader way. Your ability to apply your knowledge in a meaningful way to complete the required task effectively is what counts here; not your ability to recite theories, techniques or formulas from past papers.
The ACCA give an example worth considering, showing how this works:
So in this example, you can see you’re drawing on past knowledge from Audit and Assurance (previously F8) but you’re certainly not expected to bring detailed auditing techniques into the mix. Rather, it’s about how your previous understanding of auditing would impact your decision-making as a business leader – not as an auditor.
This is why we say ACCA Strategic Business Leader is so close to what you’ll be doing in the real world. Unless you’re planning to specialise in audit, most business leaders will have a broad – but not deep – understanding of auditing and what that might mean for the business.
So that’s how the ACCA Strategic Business Leader syllabus maps back to Applied Knowledge and Applied Skills. Let’s now look at the topics ACCA Strategic Business Leader covers in a little more depth.
ACCA Strategic Business Leader syllabus scope
The ACCA Strategic Business Leader syllabus covers these areas:
- Leadership, communication and professional ethics
- Corporate governance
- Professional skills
- Technology & data analytics
- Organisational control
- Innovation and change management
The ACCA Strategic Business Leader syllabus and study guide gives 9 key learning objectives, from A to I:
The diagram below shows the links between each area, and is worth using to guide your study. (And of course, LearnSignal study materials are designed with this optimum learning path in mind. If you haven’t joined our community yet, get your free trial now)
The most interesting thing about this diagram is that it shows how important Professional Skills are to ACCA Strategic Business Leader. Other elements of the syllabus interrelate, but Professional Skills are related to everything. That’s reflected in the mark scheme, in which 20% of the total available marks are for professional skills.
We’ll talk you through what you need to do to get these in our exam technique section below, but suffice to say that you cannot pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader without them. This links back to the whole purpose of this paper – to give you the technical, strategic and professional skills to operate effectively in the business environment.
You won’t build a successful career in business – or add value to your employers – unless you have these professional skills, and ACCA Strategic Business Leader is designed to help you build them before you start your post-qualification career.
Download the complete ACCA Strategic Business Leader syllabus and study guide to read the syllabus in greater depth.
How to Pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader: Exam Technique
ACCA Strategic Business Leader is very different from previous exams, so your exam technique will be especially important. It’s not an over-exaggeration to say you won’t pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader if you don’t adapt your approach.
ACCA Strategic Business Leader consists of 80 technical marks and 20 professional marks. Technical marks reflect your understanding of the syllabus, awarding marks for knowledge and application in context. Technical marks test whether you know the syllabus well enough to complete the tasks effectively, basically.
On the other hand, professional marks test whether you have the professional and behavioural skills that you need as a qualified accountant and leader. They’re not related to the syllabus content so much as how you express that content. They prove you have the skills to operate in the workplace as a strategic business leader in the 21st century. These marks apply across the exam, to every question.
Knowing how these professional marks apply is crucial, because it means you can write your answers in the best possible way, to pick up these extra marks in the exam.
*Please also note, if you’re a LearnSignal member we have extensive tutor-led questions and solutions talking you through this – so you know exactly how to write an answer that picks up marks. If you’re not a LearnSignal member yet, you know what to do.
The professional skills for ACCA Strategic Business Leader fall under five main areas, which test three leadership capabilities each:
Communication – Inform; Persuade; Clarify
Do you express yourself clearly and convincingly, using the appropriate medium and being sensitive to the needs of the audience you’re communicating with?
Commercial acumen – Demonstrate awareness; Use judgement; Show insight
Do you understand the wider business and external factors that impact your own decision making? Do you use commercially sound judgement and show insight to help resolve issues and capitalise on opportunities?
Analysis – Investigate; Scrutinize; Consider
Do you thoroughly research information from a variety of sources, weighing up what’s relevant to give considered recommendations for appropriate action?
Scepticism – Probe; Question; Challenge
Do you dig deeper into all information presented to you, to fully understand the facts business issues in an ethical and professional way?
Evaluation – Assess; Estimate; Appraise
Do you weigh up information in a balanced way, using your professional and ethical judgement to predict future outcomes and make sound business decisions?
The ACCA have also put out five webinars on each professional skill, where an ACCA member discusses how and why this skill is relevant in the business world and a professional tutor teaches you how to demonstrate this skill in ACCA Strategic Business Leader. You can also find our very own Alan Lynch talking about exam technique in a webinar on this page, or you might spot him writing an article for the ACCA too.
The professional skills are broad and not specifically related to any particular syllabus content. They’re about how you conduct yourself, in a professional and ethical way.
These professional skills, therefore, aren’t examined in any one question but span the entire paper. As the ACCA say,
“As far as earning professional skills marks are concerned, depending on the particular skill being examined in the requirement, the examiner will be looking for that skill to be evident in how you answer the question in respect of the technical points you make”
In other words, you could know the syllabus inside-out and gain complete technical marks for an answer, but you might miss the professional marks if you don’t express yourself in the appropriate way.
So how do you show professionalism in your answers? Here’s how.
#1 – Be relevant
It’s tempting to write everything you know about a topic, to show you know the content really, really well. But that’s not professional.
Imagine. You’re a business leader, and a colleague asks you for your insights on an underperforming department. Instead of giving a concise, informed recommendation, you launch into a monologue about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the potential limitations thereof.
Sure, your colleague might think your theoretical knowledge is interesting – BUT that’s not what they came to you for. What they actually wanted to know was your take on their situation.
The same is true if you want to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader. Use your judgement to decide which points are most relevant and important for the situation, and talk about those.
If – and only if – you’re worried you haven’t made enough points for the marks (something we’ll talk about below, in the exam technique section) then you might decide to introduce something slightly less relevant at the end of your answer.
#2 – Link information
When you read the question, there are likely some obvious points that simply restate or use information you’re directly given in the scenario. There are professional marks available for not relying purely on these obvious answers, but integrating information from across the materials you’re given and from your deep background knowledge of the topic (including from Applied Skills and Applied Knowledge).
Let’s put it another way. When you really know your stuff, you’ll be reading a scenario and other bits of interlinked relevant information (both from the materials you’ve already ready and your own knowledge) will pop into your head. Underlying issues, relevant concerns; that sort of thing.
Bringing this information into your answer – as long as it’s relevant, as above – is a key way to show professionalism.
#3 – Avoid repetition
In a business environment, you don’t see top leaders endlessly repeating themselves. Those that do, never become top leaders because promotions fall to someone more incisive, who better understands the value of time.
So. To gain professional marks and pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader, avoid repeating points you’ve already made. You might choose to reinforce a previous point, or to build on it, but avoid straight repetition.
#4 – Do what you’re asked
This point should be obvious but professional marks are available here. This is essentially about correctly doing what you’re asked – whether that’s to evaluate, recommend, prepare, brief, summarize, and so on.
Recommending a course of action when you’re only asked to evaluate the potential options doesn’t show initiative. It shows you didn’t properly read and understand the instructions you were given. Or that you were trying to pick up brownie points, but this isn’t professional because it shows poor judgement and poor personal time management.
#5 – Build don’t blast
There are two ways of answering a question. One, where you blast out points in a scattergun approach. The second where you carefully and logically build an argument, with points that rest on other points like bricks and mortar. That’s why planning your answers – which we’ll mention again later – is so important.
That approach is professional, telling a coherent and compelling story that persuades listeners towards your perspective. To pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader well, these sorts of distinctions are important.
#6 – Use the appropriate structure and style
We’ve written already, ACCA Strategic Business Leader isn’t the same as other exams and these aren’t straightforward exam answers. Rather, you’re performing tasks. Tasks that you might genuinely have to perform in the workplace. They should look like that, in the exam.
For example, if you’re asked to prepare a report for the CEO. That report should be in the same structure and style as the report you would actually prepare for the CEO were you asked.
The same is true of language. If you’re talking to the CEO, use language appropriate for talking to the CEO. The tone and language you use should vary with your professional awareness of who you’re speaking to – you wouldn’t say the same things in the same way to shareholders as your finance manager, for instance.
#7 – Be factual, clear and concise
You don’t need to be eloquent or have a fantastic vocabulary to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader. You don’t even need a good grammatical style. The ACCA are well-aware that many students do not have English as a first language.
Rather, there are professional marks available for being factual, clear and concise. Straight statement of fact, in other words, will get you further than linguistic flair and elegance. The point is to communicate without room for error, in a way that’s convincing, credible and persuasive. This point is also why, for other papers, some of the best exam scripts are some of the shortest.
#8 – Don’t ignore the five professional skill areas
These tips are aimed generally, to help you build answers that overall give the impression of professionalism. However, to secure the available professional marks for ACCA Strategic Business Leader, you must also pay specific attention to the five areas we mentioned above.
In the exam you will be specifically told which professional marks are on offer – like this:
In this example, knowing what examiners are looking for under the communication skills heading will help you structure your answers appropriately.
Another example. Say you’re asked to demonstrate scepticism. That’s a clear marker that you should be looking to include constructive criticism, identify possible weaknesses, and highlight any possible threats or failings, in addition to completing the technical requirements for that question.
#9 – Don’t underestimate them!
Our final point, but one worth saying. Professional marks are worth 20% of the total exam marks and they also likely impact your ability to gain the technical marks. It’s highly unlikely that you’d score highly on technical knowledge if you don’t have the professional skills needed to express that technical knowledge.
So don’t fall into the trap of thinking these are ‘add-on’ or bonus marks. Professional marks – how you structure your answers and make your points – are vital to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader.
Professional Marks – An example
Let’s look at those nine principles in action, by talking through one of the ACCA’s examples.
First, the question:
Reading this question, it should be immediately clear that you need to prepare two presentation slides with supporting notes, rather than just write your answer long-form. Your audience is the DCS Company board so you need to choose language, tone and format appropriate to that audience. Your perspective is positive – highlighting the key benefits and opportunities for DCS Company and its customers if they use big data and analytics.
The technical marks come from your understanding of the benefits and opportunities of big data and analytics. The professional marks come from communicating this information following the main principles we’ve discussed above, with particular focus on the communication skills objectives.
The professional marks mark scheme for this question reflects that:
To gain maximum professional marks for this question, you need to select the most important and relevant benefits to DC Company and customers. There won’t be more points than necessary to be succinct. The points will flow logically, and have clear supporting notes that explain the bullet points you’ve chosen. You’ll present those points in a slide format, using bullet points.
Let’s look at what your answer might look like:
Notice how the model answer ticks all the boxes we’ve been talking about. This isn’t rocket science, if you’ve done the study and know the content.
The ACCA have several more example walkthroughs here – and we recommend you take time to read and digest them, as we have here. They’re one of the most valuable ways to prepare for your ACCA Strategic Business Leader exam.
Exam technique is a huge reason students fail the ACCA, and it’s a shame because it often happens to students who understand the course content well. That’s especially true of ACCA Strategic Business Leader because the exam is so different to anything that’s come before.
Here are the main principles of good exam technique for ACCA Strategic Business Leader. You can read the full Examining Team Guidance from the ACCA, or our breakdown below.
#1 – Good time management
ACCA Strategic Business Leader is a four-hour exam, which seems like plenty of time. But factor in the 12 to 18 pages of case study material, and you’ll realise it’s really not that long.
You shouldn’t be under miles and miles of time pressure, but this exam is designed to reflect the urgency and short deadlines of a working professional. Which means you will certainly be under some time pressure.
The ACCA recommend you allow at least 40 minutes to read the case study and plan your answers, leaving 200 minutes for the questions.
As for every other ACCA exam, we strongly recommend you allocate time proportionately depending on the marks available for each question. That means you take the time for the paper, subtract reading time, then divide by the total number of marks.
For ACCA Strategic Business Leader:
- Total time: 240 minutes
- Reading and planning time: 40 minutes
- Total remaining time: 200 minutes
- Total available marks: 100 marks
- Total time per mark: 2 minutes
However, for ACCA Strategic Business Leader the examining team point out that “as there are only 80 technical marks on the exam, this effectively increases to 2½ minutes per mark. This is because the 20 professional marks will be earned in the way you construct and present your answers, not for writing additional content”.
So you should know when you’re going into ACCA Strategic Business Leader that you have roughly two and a half minutes per mark. Other ACCA exams are closer to 1.8 minutes per mark so this should prove you’ve got plenty of time for planning and writing solutions. This is a long exam and you should use your time wisely, but it’s not hugely time pressured.
If a task is worth 20 marks, that means you should allocate 50-minutes to complete it. Break down those marks further, by allocating times to the sub-requirements too.
So take this question from specimen exam one:
Overall, 1a is worth 31 marks – that’s ~77 minutes. Of that, you should aim to spend 37-minutes on part i, and 30-minutes on part ii. Then four marks are professional marks, so you pick those up in the course of writing your answer, and don’t need additional time for them.
The ACCA share a helpful table breaking this down over their two specimen exams:
We recommend you make this quick calculation as soon as you open your paper and write it next to each question/partial question so you can’t forget.
Then you just have to stick to it, which is easier said than done. This means moving onto the next question when your time is up – not continuing because you just have one more thing to say. You can always come back if you have time left over at the end, but the best way to maximise your chances of passing ACCA Strategic Business Leader is targeting all 100 available marks.
As you’ve heard us say many, many times before: you won’t pass unless you attempt all the questions. It’s much better to try all the questions than do really comprehensive answers only for some.
#2 – Effective reading
Effective reading is absolutely vital to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader because the paper draws on so much broad material, and because questions can relate back to previous questions on the paper. If you misread something early on, it could impact your entire paper.
The ACCA recommend you approach reading in three stages:
- Read the opening introduction section for context
- Read the requirements so you understand what you have to do
- Read the various exhibits with that understanding in mind
This way, you know what the requirements are when you’re reading the exhibit material – so you can pull out the relevant information.
This order is really important. If you don’t read the requirements before you read the exhibit material, you’ll waste time reading the exhibit material then need to go back and reread once you know what you’re looking for. There simply isn’t time to do that.
It can be very helpful – and save time – to highlight and annotate key sections, so you can easily identify useful sections again.
Although heed this word of warning from the ACCA Strategic Business Leader examining team:
“Although I’m not going to suggest the best way of marking up your paper, as we all have own preferred systems, I would guard against over annotation. I could well imagine a candidate entering the exam hall with the full set of coloured highlighter pens and using a different colour for each question.
This might seem a logical system but if the candidate is then tempted to over annotate the exam paper it could end up resembling a piece of abstract art. Remember if you annotate everything you have annotated nothing – so be selective and prioritise appropriately when marking up the paper.”
#3 – Analysis, not just reading
If you look back to our discussion about professional marks, you’ll see that analysing the question is vital, so you do what you’re asked (not what you wish you were asked, which students are very fond of doing!)
So that means, you can’t simply read the requirements – you should read them critically. What are they asking? What are the keywords?
(The ACCA have a full list of the words you’ll see in your exams, and what they really expect from you. Check it out here – it’s great)
For every requirement, check you understand the following things:
- What do you have to do? (Evaluate, analyse, assess, persuade
- What format do you need? (Memo, presentation, report, graph?)
- Who is your audience? (Board members, external stakeholders, employees?)
- Who are you writing as? (Finance Director, internal auditor, consultant?)
Knowing this information will help you tailor your content in the right way to pick up marks. For example, if the question asks you to prepare a report for the board, you write appropriately (not too jargon-heavy but not simplistic, for example) for those requirements. In an actual report format, of course. From the perspective of the person – it can be helpful to think of ‘character’ – you’re stepping into.
These will be very clearly outlined for every question and if you get any of these elements wrong, you will lose marks – both technical and professional.
#4 – Comprehensive pre-planning
Remember the section on professional marks, where we spoke about avoiding repetition? This is one reason planning is so important. Because ACCA Strategic Business Leader is structured around one case study, questions can refer back to other questions. And your answers can refer back to other answers.
For instance, if you write about weaknesses in governance structure for one early question, you might bring that back up in a later question about social responsibility. Instead of repeating everything you said in that previous question (which would be considered time-wasting), you can cross-reference your earlier answer.
To achieve this, you have to plan your answers upfront so you know what you’ll be writing about – and what you can later cross-reference – for each.
What does effective planning look like?
- How many marks is this question worth?
- How many points do I need to make?
- What points are there?
- Which of these are most important and relevant?
- How should I structure these points?
- What previous knowledge and skills do I have that relate?
- Which exhibit material is most relevant here?
- What professional skills do I need to emphasise?
The examining team share an example answer plan, looking at the Rail Co. presentation example we spoke about earlier:
As you can see, the plan is written based around the requirements, giving headings that can structure your answer. Then you’d go to the exhibit material and populate the bullet points you’ve laid out.
On the question of how many points to make, the ACCA have this to say:
“Strategic Professional [marks are] usually [awarded] on the basis of one mark for each point, possibly with an extra mark for more fully developing the same point.
So if the requirement is worth 10 marks (8 technical and 2 Professional Skills) then up to 8 clearly different and appropriate technical points need to be planned, depending on how well developed each of the individual points are.”
So for instance, you might answer a 15-mark question with 14 different and appropriate points, one of which you fully-develop and expand based on your previous and related knowledge.
#5 – Succinct writing skills
We talked above about being sure you write enough to get the marks available. It’s also important the other way around; not to write too much. In the 15-mark example above, you shouldn’t only write seven points – but you also shouldn’t write 20, in the hope 15 will be right.
As the examining team say: “The exam is not an exercise in volume, but assesses the quality of the answer produced”.
This also means your points should be “short and to the point”, and you should try to structure your answers for clarity:
“In terms of structure, it can be very helpful to include headings and sub-headings, beyond those already in the plan, if they allow the target audience [and the marker of course] to easily navigate their way through your answer.
This also suggests a professional and organised approach to dealing with the complex array of business problems contained in the exam, which will undoubtedly impress the marker”
Overwriting or poor structure will ultimately only lose you professional marks as it shows your answer isn’t relevant or considered. And, we’ve said before, imagine what your examiner is thinking. They form a first impression of you early on – they probably know from your first question if you’ve likely passed or failed, just from how you express yourself.
That’s not to say they’ll mark you harshly – examiners are always fair – but you do set-up an impression as a great, or not-so-great, student. And you want the examiner in your corner from the moment they pick up your script.
Being someone who writes everything they know in the hope they’ve hit gold somewhere? Or being someone whose script is practically unreadable and barely has structure? Not the impression you want to give.
Plus time constraints mean you don’t have the time to write everything. Being succinct in your answers not only helps you gain professional marks, but it gives you more time to complete the rest of the ACCA Strategic Business Leader paper effectively. Win, win.
#7 – Try to stay calm
All of the ACCA is a big deal but ACCA Strategic Business Leader seems like a bigger big deal, somehow. Partially because it’s new, partially because it’s so totally different – and because lots of students will complete their overall ACCA with SBL, so it feels like the last door before you become a fully-qualified ACCA member.
Which all means, the pressure is on. And for lots of people, that pressure can mean you just don’t do yourself justice.
If you know you’re susceptible to stress, make especially sure you’re well prepared for the exam. That way, there can be no last minute surprises to throw you off kilter. Check, and double-check, and maybe triple-check for luck, our exam day checklist for starters – but also make sure you know all the content and are confident you can do a good job.
This advice stands for everyone, but taking a mock exam in exam conditions should also help mitigate stress. As should leaving ACCA Strategic Business Leader until last, because you’ve already done loads of exams and know what to expect.
The fact is, there’s nothing stopping you from succeeding with ACCA Strategic Business Leader – as long as you’ve done the work and read all the material.
The ACCA has worked incredibly hard to make sure students are well-prepared for the new exam, and there is an abundance of resources out there – lots of them linked in this guide. Knowing you’re walking into ACCA Strategic Business Leader armed with everything you’ve read is the best way to mitigate the natural stress of exam day.
You’ve heard lots of these tips before, because they don’t change much from exam to exam. Honestly, by this point you’ve hopefully got the hang of studying effectively and should hope to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader first time… but there are some specifics you should know about studying for ACCA Strategic Business Leader too.
#1 – You need 150% study time
Every student takes a different amount of time to study effectively, and everyone has different study plans. Some students start studying as soon as they’ve sat the last exam, while others wait until results to decide on their next subject.
That’s normally an alright strategy, at least if you know yourself well enough to know you can learn in that amount of time.
That is NOT the case for ACCA Strategic Business Leader. 12 weeks is the bare minimum to study this exam, and that’s cutting it fine. The ACCA have described Strategic Business Leader as needing at least 150% of the study time as the other Strategic Professional Exams.
If you’re following our general recommendation of 12 weeks study time per exam, that means 18 weeks. That might seem like a lot, but remember: once you take revision, practice questions and mock exams into account, you’re really not left with 18 weeks to actually study. (A study plan can help keep you on track).
So, when you do decide to study for ACCA Strategic Business Leader – make sure you leave plenty of time, or you’ll waste even more time having to retake. And this should go without saying given the extra length of ACCA Strategic Business Leader – but don’t combine with another paper in one sitting!
#2 – Take Ethics and Professional Skills first
The Ethics and Professional Skills module is very relevant, and you’re more likely to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader if you know the content from this module. This is true of other Strategic Professional exams too; we strongly recommend you take Ethics and Professional Skills after your Applied Skills module and before starting any Strategic Professional Exams.
In fact, we recommend you make ACCA Strategic Business Leader your last exam, because the syllabus draws so broadly on other areas. Having some professional experience under your belt will also serve you well, as you’ll have hands-on experience in the business environment to help bring the syllabus to life.
#3 – Exemptions beware
If you were lucky enough to have exemptions on earlier papers, this might feasibly be your first exam. Don’t let it be! It’s very inadvisable to take ACCA Strategic Business Leader as your first exam – not least because it demands 45-minutes more concentration than other papers; tougher than you think.
If you had exemptions on the Applied Knowledge and Applied Skills papers, you’d do well to repass the syllabuses for these papers before studying ACCA Strategic Business Leader. You might have studied to an equivalent level but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have covered the same areas in the same depth.
You don’t want to discover you lack fundamental knowledge when you’re three quarters of the way through your study time. Or worse, when you don’t pick up professional marks in the exam because you don’t have the depth of understanding the examiners look for.
#4 – Study the full syllabus
This is a short one – do NOT question spot. If we’ve said it once we’ve said it one thousand times, but this is especially true of ACCA Strategic Business Leader. Because you only get one case study with compulsory questions, you cannot choose what you focus on.
Often students feel like studying the full syllabus is frustrating when only a few areas come up in depth. Luckily with ACCA Strategic Business Leader that isn’t the case, because there are professional marks available for your depth of knowledge. Everything you learn informs that depth of knowledge, so you can bring in the things you know and are interested in (as long as they’re relevant!).
Because ACCA Strategic Business Leader has no right and wrong answers in the same way as other papers, you can choose what you focus on. An examiner might not agree with your recommendations, for example, but that doesn’t stop you getting the marks if those recommendations are justified from your knowledge and the scenario.
That means you have much greater flexibility in where you focus your answers and which knowledge you call on than other papers – so all your background knowledge will prove useful.
All of which is to say, you’re more likely to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader the more you’ve studied.
#5 – Practice as much as possible
As with every single ACCA exam, practice is absolutely fundamental to your success. Especially for an exam like ACCA Strategic Business Leader, simply reading content and writing notes isn’t enough to get the job done.
This exam is so heavily focussed on application, so knowing your notes simply isn’t enough. Instead, spend some time to ensure you’re familiar with the content on the syllabus – but then move onto applying that knowledge through questions.
For other exams, following a 12-week learning schedule, we recommend you cover all the material in 9 weeks – so you have 3 weeks for revision, including your mock exam.
For ACCA Strategic Business Leader, we recommend you cover all the material in 13 weeks so you have 5 weeks for revision, practice questions, tutor support. Take a mock exam in the first ten days or so during this time, and then you know which areas you need to recover.
#6 – Understand how and where you learn best
This seems like a basic point, but it’s an important one. Some people learn differently, in different ways and places. You might LOVE working in a group, for instance, but you need to be honest enough to work alone if you know that doesn’t work.
Hopefully by ACCA Strategic Business Leader you already know what works for you, and you’ve built good habits plenty of exams ago. Stick to what works, and be disciplined about working in a way that best works for you.
Read more: Should I study alone or in a group?
One thing you should definitely think about is integrating study with your daily life, with bitesize learning opportunities. That’s the principle we started LearnSignal around, that science proves people learn best when they learn bitesize, on-the-go, so they can take information in, without overload.
With LearnSignal, you get a comprehensive library of bitesize videos that you can watch anytime, anywhere, on any device – built around the ACCA Strategic Business Leader syllabus to help you learn in the most structured, supported way. Plus you get unlimited tutor support, if you need further help, as well as whole host more other features. And it only costs €89.99 per quarter, which is thousands less than some providers.
(And without tooting our own horn too much, it’s also a much more effective way to learn. Read more about the advantages of studying the ACCA online here).
#7 – Pay attention to the real-world
The ACCA have said they’re going to take scenarios, in part, from real-world goings on – which means it pays to have your finger on the pulse. You’re probably already pushed for time – especially if you’re working too – but time spent building your general finance and business knowledge is time well-spent.
Consider a subscription to The Financial Times, for example, or follow the likes of BBC Business. The biggest point of ACCA Strategic Business Leader is to encourage you to think how you will in the real world, with your colleagues – not as a student, with examiners.
Knowing and being able to reference relevant current affairs can help elevate your ACCA Strategic Business Leader script above the ordinary, into exceptional.
#8 – Become a LearnSignal member
OK, OK, we’re biased. But our students consistently say incredible things about us, like Augustė Žaliaduonytė who says “Learn Signal helped me like no other provider! I even studied at university in face to face classes which did not prove helpful! Extremely easy to understand and the programmes they offer are very good – Bootcamp and Coaching programme. The best thing about it is that is is super affordable! For under 90 pounds per quarter! Cannot ask for more!”
We’re an ACCA Gold Approved Learning Partner, so our study materials are proven to help students pass their ACCA. And even better, we’re a fraction of the price of the traditional providers.
LearnSignal is changing how people study, and helping thousands of students from all over the world pass their ACCA exams first time. That will be no different with ACCA Strategic Business Leader, and we’ve built a whole hub of resources especially for this new exam.
(Or hey, you might already be on your free trial. You can upgrade here, or if you’ve already upgraded, consider this a pat on the back. We can’t wait to help you celebrate when results day rolls around!)
How to Pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader: FAQS
If you’ve got admin questions about ACCA Strategic Business Leader, this is the section you need. If you have a question we haven’t addressed in this guide, please get in touch with us via this link and we’ll be happy to help.
Who has to sit ACCA Strategic Business Leader?
Any ACCA student who hasn’t already passed both P1 and P3 by the last sitting, which happened in June 2018. This is an Essentials paper, so you have to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader to qualify as an ACCA member.
What if I already passed P1 or P3 but not both?
Unfortunately there will be some students in this position, and it does mean you have to take ACCA Strategic Business Leader. Your mark from the P1 or P3 exam you’ve taken is effectively wiped.
Students in this position do need to study the new ACCA Strategic Business Leader syllabus from scratch, as the exams are very different. However, your work on P1 or P3 will prove useful in understanding many of the concepts here and the deeper knowledge you have will help you write deeper, more insightful answers.
Can I use P1 or P3 exam questions to practice for ACCA Strategic Business Leader?
Don’t do that. There is a lot of overlap with the technical content but there are much better ways to prepare – using the huge amount of information the ACCA and LearnSignal have produced specifically for ACCA Strategic Business Leader.
Is ACCA Strategic Business Leader a paper-based or computer-based exam?
ACCA Strategic Business Leader is only a paper-based exam right now.
How much does ACCA Strategic Business Leader cost?
Once you’ve paid your one-off registration (£79 in the UK) and annual subscription fee (£95 in the UK) to be an ACCA student, you then pay individual exam fees.
ACCA Strategic Business Leader costs between £180 and £298 in the UK depending when you register and for which sitting.
Discover the specifics of ACCA pricing for your country.
Then there are the fees to study ACCA Strategic Business Leader, which depends which tuition provider you choose. If you study with LearnSignal, we offer incredible affordable and totally comprehensive ACCA Gold Standard tuition materials for only €89.99 per quarter (and you can cancel anytime).
Where can I sit ACCA Strategic Business Leader?
ACCA Strategic Business Leader is only available as a paper-based exam, and is available from more than 400 exam centres in 170 countries. You can book ACCA Strategic Business Leader here, where you’ll be asked your country and shown exam centre options.
What resources are there to help me pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader?
The ACCA provides a huge resource library to help you pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader, many of them linked here. Check out the ACCA’s complete portal for ACCA Strategic Business Leader, including includes syllabus and study guide, guidance from the examining team, study support guides, retake guides, specimen exams and technical advice.
The mock exam is absolutely fundamental here because it helps you take the temperature of your progress, and guide your remaining study time to your problem areas. It also gives you a taste of writing – and concentrating – for four hours. That’s definitely something you should practice.
Then don’t forget to use LearnSignal’s comprehensive ACCA portal too. We’ve worked closely with the ACCA to ensure these materials are perfectly designed to help you pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader. For only €89.99 per quarter you get unlimited access to our expert ACCA tutor videos and content library, including mock exams, practice questions and unlimited tutor support.
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This comprehensive guide should give you everything you need to pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader, approaching this new exam with total confidence. If there’s anything you want to know that isn’t here, do drop us a line and we’ll be happy to help. Otherwise, we look forward to celebrating your results with you, when you pass ACCA Strategic Business Leader and take one big step closer to a successful accounting and finance career.