ACCA Strategic Business Leader: Exam Strategies for Success

It will soon be time for ACCA exam sessions again and if you’re writing ACCA SBL this year, then this article is for you. 

This professional skills module teaches you to demonstrate organisational leadership skills, strategic decision-making, data analytics, and ethics in complex business scenarios.  

The syllabus assumes previous learning from the essential technical skills in the Applied Skills exams where some of the core capabilities of SBL will have been introduced, leading you towards this strategic professional exam.

The exam then tests your advisory capabilities by giving you a case study to complete, making strategic recommendations based on the financial and business information presented in the case study. 

To pass this exam you need a structured approach guided by tried-and-tested advice from our experts. That’s exactly what we’ll provide in this article. 

Read our article, apply our advice and pass your exam first time... Go on, we dare you!

Familiarise Yourself with the Exam Structure

The ACCA Strategic Business Leader (SBL) exam is uniquely structured to assess a wide range of skills expected of a strategic business leader. This comprehensive exam combines technical knowledge in business and finance with professional skills and real-world application. Here's a detailed description of its structure:

Duration and Format

Length: The SBL exam is a single paper that lasts for four hours.

Type: It is a case study-based exam, which means that the questions are set within the context of a single case study.

Exam Content

Integrated Case Study

The exam revolves around a rich, detailed case study that simulates real business scenarios. This case study is designed to test candidates' abilities to apply their knowledge in a practical context.

Variety of Tasks

Candidates are required to perform a variety of tasks that a professional might face in a real business environment. These tasks can range from analysis and evaluation to making recommendations and decisions.

Assessment Criteria

Technical Knowledge 

The exam tests technical knowledge in key areas such as governance, risk, strategy, financial analysis, and organisational leadership.

Professional Skills

A significant portion of the marks is allocated to professional skills. These include analysis, scepticism, evaluation, commercial acumen, communication, and problem-solving.

Real-World Application

Candidates must demonstrate the ability to apply technical knowledge and professional skills in a practical, real-world business context.

Question Types

No Multiple-Choice Questions

Unlike some other ACCA exams, the SBL does not include multiple-choice questions.

Long-Form Questions

The exam typically includes long-form questions requiring detailed responses. These questions are designed to assess the depth and breadth of the candidate's understanding and their ability to apply it practically.

Here are the types of questions or tasks typically found in the SBL exam:

1. Analysis and Interpretation Tasks

Financial Analysis: Candidates may be asked to analyze financial statements, interpret financial ratios, or assess the financial health of the case study organisation.

Business Environment Analysis: Tasks might include analysing the external business environment, such as market trends, competition, or regulatory changes affecting the organisation.

2. Evaluation and Recommendation Tasks

Strategic Evaluation: Evaluating the effectiveness of existing business strategies or proposing new strategies based on the case study information.

Risk Assessment: Identifying and evaluating potential risks faced by the organisation and suggesting risk mitigation strategies.

3. Decision-Making Tasks

Problem-Solving: Addressing specific business problems presented in the case study, requiring logical reasoning and decision-making skills.

Prioritization: Deciding on the most critical issues or opportunities that the organization should focus on.

4. Planning and Implementation Tasks

Action Plans: Developing detailed action plans for implementing strategies or changes within the organisation.

Project Management: Outlining project plans, including timelines, resources, and milestones for initiatives discussed in the case study.

5. Communication-Based Tasks

Report Writing: Writing formal business reports or executive summaries to communicate findings and recommendations.

Presentations and Briefings: Crafting presentations or briefing notes for different stakeholders, such as the board of directors, employees, or investors.

6. Ethical and Professional Judgment Tasks

Ethical Dilemmas: Addressing ethical issues or dilemmas that arise in the case study, demonstrating ethical reasoning and decision-making.

Professional Judgment: Applying professional judgment to various scenarios, considering the ethical and professional standards expected of a business leader.

7. Integration and Synthesis Tasks

Cross-Functional Integration: Integrating knowledge from different business areas (finance, marketing, HR, operations) to address complex, multi-faceted business issues.

Synthesis of Information: Synthesising information from various sources (financial data, market reports, internal documents) to form a coherent understanding of the case study situation.

8. Creative and Innovative Thinking Tasks

Innovative Solutions: Proposing innovative solutions to business challenges, demonstrating creativity and forward-thinking.

Change Management: Suggesting and managing change initiatives, considering the impact on the organisation and its stakeholders.

Use of Resources

Open Book Format

The SBL exam is an open-book exam, allowing candidates to bring in ACCA-approved texts and resources. This reflects the real-world scenario where professionals have access to various resources while making decisions.


Total Marks: The exam is out of 100 marks.

Pass Mark: The pass mark is 50%.

Balanced Scoring: Marks are awarded for both the technical content and the quality of professional skills demonstrated.

Use the Pre-Seen Exam to Prepare

The primary objective of the pre-seen material in the ACCA Strategic Business Leader (SBL) exam is to acquaint candidates with the specific business environment and industry context of the case study organization featured in the exam. This preparatory material is available two weeks before the exam and lays the groundwork for understanding the more detailed information presented in the exam's exhibits.

Understanding the Context

The pre-seen material is carefully crafted to provide a comprehensive background of the case study organisation and its industry. This familiarity is essential for candidates to effectively interpret and apply the additional information provided in the exam. By understanding the context, candidates can better analyze and respond to the scenarios and challenges posed in the SBL exam.

Not a Syllabus Indicator

It is important to note that the pre-seen material is not intended to hint at specific syllabus areas or tasks that will be featured in the exam. Its purpose is to offer a foundational understanding of the case study's setting, ensuring that candidates are not disadvantaged by a lack of industry knowledge.

Structure of the Pre-Seen

The pre-seen information is divided into two main components: industry information and organisation-specific information.

The Industry Information

Each SBL exam case study is based on a particular industry or economic sector. The pre-seen provides detailed insights into this industry, and candidates are encouraged to familiarize themselves with this information. Even for those already acquainted with the industry, the pre-seen material is vital as it may present a simplified or modified version of industry facts specifically tailored for the exam.

The Organisation Information

The organisation featured in the pre-seen is entirely fictional and does not represent any real-world entity. The specifics of this organization vary with each SBL exam, tailored to suit the exam's requirements. Candidates are expected to thoroughly familiarize themselves with this information.

Preparation and Research

While candidates may research to understand industry terminologies and activities better, it is not a mandatory expectation. The SBL exam focuses on the fictional organisation, and the tasks are related to this specific context. Any independent research conducted should be seen as supplementary, aiding in understanding the pre-seen material but not directly influencing the exam responses.

How to Use the Pre-Seen Materials

Here are five tips on how to make the most of pre-seen materials:

1. Thorough Initial Reading:

  • Understand the Context: Start by reading the pre-seen materials thoroughly to understand the industry context and the specific organisation you'll be dealing with. Pay attention to the details, as they can provide valuable insights into the scenario.
  • Identify Key Information: Highlight or note down key pieces of information, such as the organisation's structure, market position, financial health, and any specific challenges or opportunities mentioned.

2. Contextual Research:

  • Industry Understanding: Conduct some basic research to understand the broader industry context. This doesn't mean extensive research but having a general awareness of the industry's current trends, challenges, and dynamics.
  • Terminology Familiarity: Ensure you're familiar with any specific terminology or concepts mentioned in the pre-seen materials. This will help you understand and analyze the information more effectively during the exam.

3. Critical Analysis:

  • Question and Critique: Don't just passively read the pre-seen materials. Critically analyse the information provided. Ask yourself what the implications of certain pieces of information might be, how they relate to each other, and what they might mean for the organisation.
  • Hypothesise Scenarios: Based on the information, hypothesise potential issues or decisions that might arise in the exam. Think about how you would address these using your technical knowledge and professional skills.

4. Practice and Application:

  • Apply Knowledge: Use the pre-seen materials to practice applying your technical knowledge and professional skills. For example, if you're given financial information, practice performing a financial analysis or if there's a mention of a strategic change, think about how you would plan and implement it.
  • Mock Questions: Create your own questions or tasks based on the pre-seen materials and practice answering them. This can help you think critically about the information and how you might use it in the exam.

5. Review and Reflect:

  • Regular Review: Don't just read the pre-seen materials once and forget about them. Regularly review them in the lead-up to the exam to keep the information fresh in your mind.
  • Reflect on Learning: After practicing with the pre-seen materials, reflect on what you've learned. Consider what areas you're strong in and where you might need further study or practice.

Maximise Marks During the Exam

1. Understand the Marking Scheme:

  • Allocate Time Based on Marks: Familiarize yourself with the exam's marking scheme. Allocate your time proportionally to the marks available for each question. For instance, spend more time on a question worth 25 marks than on one worth 10 marks.
  • Target Professional Marks: Remember that a significant objective in the SBL exam is to gain professional marks Ensure your answers reflect these skills, such as analysis, evaluation, and professional judgment.

2. Effective Question Analysis:

  • Read Questions Carefully: Take the time to thoroughly read and understand each question. Identify key requirements and what the question is specifically asking for.
  • Plan Your Answer: Before diving into writing, briefly plan your answer. Outline the main points you need to cover. This helps ensure your answer is structured, focused, and covers all aspects of the question.

3. Time Management During the Exam:

  • Watch the Clock: Keep a close eye on the time. If you find yourself spending too long on a question, move on and come back to it later if time permits.
  • Balanced Approach: Avoid spending too much time on perfecting one answer at the expense of others. It’s better to have all questions attempted reasonably well than one or two answered perfectly.

4. Quality Over Quantity:

  • Clear and Concise Answers: Write clearly and concisely. Long, rambling answers can waste time and may not earn extra marks. Stick to the point and ensure each sentence contributes to answering the question.
  • Use Bullet Points: Where appropriate, use bullet points to present your ideas. This can make your answers clearer and quicker to write.

5. Final Review and Adjustment:

  • Leave Time for Review: Aim to finish your answers a few minutes before the end of the exam. Use this time to review your answers, correct any obvious mistakes, and ensure you’ve answered each question as fully as you can.
  • Prioritize Unfinished Questions: If you have any incomplete answers, use the remaining time to add key points that can fetch you more marks.

Learn to Integrate Professional Skills and Technical Knowledge

Integrating professional skills with technical knowledge is a cornerstone of success in the ACCA Strategic Business Leader (SBL) exam. This integration is about applying technical expertise in accounting, finance, and business within a broader professional context, using skills such as analysis, evaluation, communication, and ethical judgment. 

Here's how to achieve this integration effectively:

Understanding the Synergy

  • Technical Knowledge: This includes your understanding of financial management, strategic planning, risk management, governance, and other business-related areas. It's the 'what' of your expertise.
  • Professional Skills: These are the 'how' of applying your knowledge. Skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, ethical reasoning, professional skepticism, and effective communication are crucial.

Application in Real-World Scenarios

  • Case Study Approach: The SBL exam uses comprehensive case studies. Here, you must apply your technical knowledge to analyze the scenario, identify issues, and propose solutions.
  • Scenario Analysis: Use your technical knowledge to dissect the case study, but rely on professional skills to interpret the information, assess risks, and evaluate the implications of different strategies.

Communication and Presentation

  • Report Writing and Presentation: Your ability to communicate findings and recommendations clearly and persuasively is key. This involves structuring your response logically, using appropriate business language, and tailoring the message to your audience.

Ethical and Professional Judgment

  • Ethical Considerations: Apply ethical reasoning to scenarios, demonstrating an understanding of professional values and principles.
  • Decision-Making: Use your technical knowledge to inform decisions, but apply professional judgment to consider broader impacts, such as sustainability, corporate responsibility, and stakeholder interests.

Reflective and Adaptive Learning

  • Continuous Learning: Integrate feedback from practice exams and reflect on how to improve both technical understanding and professional skills.
  • Adaptability: Be prepared to adapt your approach based on the specifics of the case study, showing flexibility in thinking and application.

Success is on it’s way

Well that’s it for us. We thought we’d lighten the mood with a joke before we go.

What do you call a trial balance that doesn’t balance? A late night. 

Ok, bad joke but we think late nights are all you have ahead of you if you don’t use our SBL exam strategies.  We don’t want that.  

That’s why we’re offering all new students our SBL course material at £149 for a limited time. Our expert tutor, Gary Dewey, currenty professor of Accounting at Durham University, will take you through all the ins and outs of SBL that are mentioned in this article.   

Count me in, I’m putting late nights behind me.

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