Most of us never had dreams of being a mathematician or economist; we suffered through algebra as a means to get to senior prom. But if you think you’re going to march up the ranks of management with no math, forget it.

So first, the bad news: You absolutely have to manage the math side of business if you are going to get ahead in your career.

The good news is that you don’t need to be good at math in school to be good at math at work. In fact, so much of workplace math is practical that people who are excellent mathematicians are at a disadvantage. Math at work is about spinning the numbers. And mathematicians are focused on finding pure truth. There is no pure truth in workplace numbers.

Job Hunting
Take, for example, your resume. The line that says, “Increased sales 50%.” That could be true. It could also be true that everyone else increased sales 65%, or that the next quarter you got fired for under performing, or that customer returns on those sales were an incredible 45%.

Numbers at work tell a story, and you pick numbers that tell the best story. You never lie, but you cannot tell every piece of information in the whole world, so tell the ones that suit you best.

The best resume is one that lists quantified achievement. So you should evaluate all projects in terms of possible numbers. If there is no way to show project victory in a number, do not take the project. And do not think for one second that you are in a career that does not require quantified success. Even a ballerina can use numbers: “Increased ticket sales 35% when I took over the lead in the Nutcracker,” sounds much more persuasive than “danced beautifully.”

Image Management
Once you land the job, the easiest way to let others quantify your failure is to go over budget; never, never, never go over budget. Always pad each line of your budget, because you can’t control everything and some costs will be higher than anticipated. This budget bloating will force you to cut line items from the start, but better to cut them at the beginning than be over budget at the end.

Before you go blaming your cost overruns on someone else, remember that your boss’s boss never sees your budget line by line and definitely doesn’t care about your finger pointing. She only sees your final number and whether or not you stayed within budget. The best way to manage your image among the higher-ups is to stay in budget no matter what.

Getting a Raise
Use numbers to negotiate your raise, too. When it comes to compensation, do your own research to present a rational, numbers-based explanation for why your salary is not in line with comparable salaries in your field.

If your company won’t budge, figure out which non-financial perks will equal a financial perk. (Finally! A use for high school algebra!) For example, extra vacation time is free to the company and a laptop, after tax deductions, is very cheap for the company.

If you want to get more comfortable with this kind of math, take a look here for help.

Presentations and Reports
This is my favorite book about numbers: How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrell Huff and Irving Geis. This book is a must for everyone. Each of us must use numbers to make our point. So we should all learn to present the numbers in the best light possible. Managing numbers is not about lying (this book title aside), managing numbers is about being smart about what you show people.

Innovative Thinking
Another must for everyone is Excel. It’s quick to learn the basics, and Excel provides endless fun for turning recurring fights with your significant other into statistically revealing graphs. I hate to plug Microsoft, but really, learning to use Excel teaches everyone — even English majors – to think about numbers in new ways. And new ways of thinking always opens up new avenues of achievement.

You don’t have to be a math star to present numbers well. But you do need to give time and thought to numbers on a daily basis so you can leverage statistics to bolster your career.

5 replies
  1. Savvy Working Girl
    Savvy Working Girl says:

    In addition to math essentials, I recommend you incorporate a few accounting essentials into your career.

    Extra vacation time is not free to the company. When an accountant pays an employee for time not worked an account is charged in the general ledger called vacation expense. Expense accounts are used, in most cases, to record costs. In addition to paying an employee for time not worked, the company may actually incur additional costs due to an employee's extra vacation. The employee's work still needs to be completed. He/she may need to work extra hours resulting in overtime pay to get his job done. Also, co-workers may work additional hours to cover for him in his absence. If his work is not completed there is always the potential for lost sales and lower productivity.

    I understand the point of your post is to get people thinking about benefits other than salary when negotiating your compensation package, but you are wrong about vacation time being free to the company and it isn’t always that simple.

    I am not saying don’t ask for additional vacation, I have received additional vacation in lieu of a raise higher raise in past employment. After the 2001 downturn and as more companies switch to PTO plans, I believe extra vacation is not a benefit handed over easily. Other benefits that are more readily given to employees are payment for additional training if job related, especially if asked for during a profitable period. This shows initiative plus the company benefits from your increased knowledge. My company has given laptops, but only to employees that are not in the office on a daily basis or travel a lot. Another benefit I’ve seen given is to for the company to pay an employee's high speed internet connection if they do a lot of work from home.

    Employees shouldn't be afraid to negotiate non-financial benefits, but they should know their facts up front.

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