SBL: a very different beast

November 2020

Are you thinking about sitting the SBL paper? Then Ashim Kumar has some top advice on how to tackle this compulsory paper.

In September 2018, ACCA Professional papers, P1 and P3 were replaced by the Strategic Business Leader (SBL) examination. SBL is a compulsory paper; you must pass it! This brief article explains what to expect.

The objective of SBL

According the the ACCA’s own definition, it is to “demonstrate organisational leadership and senior consultancy or advisory capabilities and relevant professional skills”.

The SBL exam

SBL is a four-hour (unseen) case-study based exam, which will include one scenario on which all questions will be based.

In addition, it will contain substantial data in the form of ‘Exhibits’. The Exhibits may take the form of reports, press articles, company websites, minutes of meetings, memos and so on. The extra hour given to candidates in the exam is to allow the analysis of this large volume of data and identify facts relevant to each answer.

There will be up to five compulsory questions, each with sub-parts. Candidates will be required to answer from different stakeholders’ perspectives, e.g. project manager, internal auditor, etc.

Each examination will contain a total of 80 technical marks and 20 professional skills marks. Professional skills marks are awarded for communication, commercial acumen, analysis, scepticism, and evaluation.

A failure to demonstrate these essential skills in the examination, will greatly reduce the chances of success.

As we see, it is not enough to be technically competent; our clients and employers (and the examiner) rightly demand more from us. We are after all, highly trained professionals!

The SBL syllabus

SBL must not be seen as simply a merger between P1 and P3; it is a different ‘animal’ altogether. Although it does take some topics from P1 (Governance), and from P3 (Strategy), there are many additional areas included (Leadership). The core areas of this syllabus are leadership, governance, strategy, risk, technology and data analytics, organisational control and audit, finance in planning and decision-making, innovation, performance excellence and change management, and professional skills.

This is clearly a very broad syllabus and candidates will be expected to combine a knowledge of different topics to produce a comprehensive solution; much as you would in a real business situation.

Assumed knowledge

Candidates will be assumed to have a knowledge of:

• Ethics and Professional Skills Module (EPS).

• The Applied Skills papers (AB, LW, PM, FR,AA and FM). See here for more information on the SBL Competencies expected:

• The ACCA does not expect you to carry out detailed technical calculations from previous subjects; it does, however, expect you to be aware of, and apply principles and tools from earlier studies to a real-world problem. For example, the question may provide the NPV of a project and expect you to incorporate an analysis or critique of that information, in your answer.

Therefore, you need to know the implications of a positive or negative NPV and use that as a part of your answer to make a recommendation or, draw a conclusion.
So, you may say in your solution: “A positive NPV of $1m is prima facie support for the decision to accept a project; however, a number of other factors will also need to be considered.”

You would incorporate other relevant factors as provided in the question: for example relative size of the investment, possible competitor response, risk of obsolescence of this project, stakeholder response and so on. You would then provide a balanced recommendation, which incorporated all the issues discussed.

Exam preparation

The SBL examination is unlike anything that you would have encountered in your studies at Applied Skills or Knowledge stages; so we need to take a new approach in preparing for it:

1: Apply a combination of theoretical, analytical and practical tools in crafting a real-world answer. In fact, I advise students to use the state/explain/apply rule.

2: Understand how to present your answers in a professional way.

3: Reflect the highest ethical standards in your recommendations.

4: Read outside the subject. Quoting real-world examples to reinforce your points in the exam, will earn you professional marks; let’s pick them up.

5: Familiarise yourselves with the Examiner’s approach and suggestions on how to answer the questions. See here for more information:

6: You will need to practise treating the exam like a real-world scenario and not an academic exercise, approaching each question from the perspective of a different stakeholder, and applying professional skills when attempting your answers.

This is a challenging paper; pass rates are around 50%. Students need a tried-and tested approach to apply, if they are going to pass.

• Ashim Kumar is a tutor at