manager who’s bad at numbers is panicking over budget process

A reader writes:

I am a new manager in a rather large department and am working on my budget for 2011/12. It’s due on Monday and I am in a panic because I am terrible with numbers. I look at the spreadsheets and break out into a sweat. Luckily, we have a wonderful accountant here who helps me out and has even been doing some hand-holding through this process, but I am having trouble focusing because of the anxiety surrounding the budget process. What advice do you have for a manager who is good with handling personnel issues, but terrible with working with numbers and budget forecasting?

I’m buried under a large stack of resumes, so I’m going to give you a short answer and then see what advice our readers have for you.

I’m not really a numbers person myself, but ultimately numbers and math are just a logic puzzle. And I bet you’re good with logic. My advice is to stop seeing this as numbers and spreadsheets and forecasts, all of which can be intimidating when you think of yourself as “terrible with numbers,” and instead see it as a series of decisions you need to make about how you want to prioritize your programs and resources. And then it’s just a logic problem to make it fit together within whatever constraints you have.

Also, I strongly suspect that you’ve convinced yourself that you can’t do this, and that’s why you’re having the panic reaction … but it’s more of a self-imposed mental barrier than anything else. You think of yourself as bad with numbers, and therefore you’re breaking out in cold sweat because … ACK — numbers!  But if you really look at it, and ignore the fact that it’s a spreadsheet you’re looking at, and maybe even pretend that you’re someone who’s good with numbers (seriously, tricking yourself in this way can work), you might find that it’s actually easier than you think.

Alternately, if you’re reading this and thinking that I am a crazy person to even suggest the things above, is there someone in your department who’s good with numbers? If so, can you sit down with them and talk through the priorities and trade-offs and so forth that you want reflected in your budget, and have them help you with the actual numbers? I bet there’s someone on your staff (you say it’s a large department!) who has the skills you need.

What other suggestions do people have? I feel certain that we have some other non-numbers-people out there who will have good advice.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. clobbered*

    Ask your accountant if these budgets are as simple as can be. Sometimes information can be presented in very complicated terms, but (unless you work in the financial sector) it should come down to (a) things that cause money to come in and (b) things that cause money to go out. If you can’t look at your spreadsheets and immediately identify where each line falls, you may have a presentation issue. Different people like information presented in different ways, so perhaps the existing way does not map well to your thinking.

    You can’t *really* be “terrible with numbers”. I mean, most budgets are addition, subtraction and multiplication and division, and the spreadsheet handles those for you anyway – it’s not like it’s higher calculus. Are you sure that the issue isn’t that you don’t understand how these spreadsheets are constructed? In which case as AaM says you have a logic problem, and you should be able to apply logic to fix it.

    It’s hard to do this in a end-of-year panic, so give yourself ample time to get to grips with your department’s accounting after that is over, and way before next year. A good way to come to grasps with this is to have a monthly meeting with your accounting person to review the state of affairs. The more you visit this material the less daunting it will seem.

    1. Anonymous*

      You can’t *really* be “terrible with numbers”. I mean, most budgets are addition, subtraction and multiplication and division, and the spreadsheet handles those for you anyway

      Those can still be a problem, if people making the mistake of believing what the computer (or calculator) tells them. I remember going through one such problem with an undergrad where my opening line was “The velocity you wrote down here is approximately ten thousand times the speed of light. Do you think you may have made a mistake?” It was particularly egregious because the question was from the Special Relativity course!

  2. Lora*

    Agree w/ advice above, some organizations have the most bizarre spreadsheet layouts ever. You’re not going to be able to learn every Excel trick in the book over the weekend, though.

    And some people truly are awful with basic math. It’s not so much that the OP, personally, is inherently dreadful with math–more likely, I suspect, s/he had some bad experiences with dreadful teachers. I was fairly crummy at math until I got to college and had two wonderful teachers in a row. Then, all of a sudden, even higher math like Bayesian statistics algorithms and differential equations made perfect sense! It can be very difficult to get past those bad experiences, though.

    It’s partly a generational thing, too: I am old enough that I was raised in the “girls aren’t good at math” school.

    To the OP: This is something you can do, because everyone can learn to be at least competent at a skill, if they practice and are persistent. You may never understand the implications of the Poincare Conjecture, but you can do the basic math involved in accounting and business. If you can find a math tutor to help, or take some accounting or Excel courses (University of Phoenix? local community college?) with a supportive teacher, maybe that would help–you can always take them for Audit, so your exams wouldn’t count for anything–they’d be purely for your information. And you might learn a few good Excel tricks to organize the spreadsheets more sensibly for the whole organization, too.

  3. Anonymous*

    The problem with asking someone to help with budgets is the confidentiality issue. Most managers are not allowed to share budget information with subordinates or with co-workers from other departments.

  4. Julie*

    Though only tangentially related to the question above, if the OP (or any commenters) want to brush up on their math skills, I highly recommend Khan Academy:

    It has videos and exercises ranging from basic arithmetic (seriously, the first group of exercises is single-digit addition) to multi-variable calculus and statistics. It’s amazing how many people think they’re bad at math because they missed one or two basic concepts in school and those gaps snowballed into bigger lacunae later.

  5. Anonymous*

    OP —

    I’m a math geek for a living, who just got roped into project management, and, ahem, budgets.

    Let me address the math portion of this first — managing budgets *isn’t* about doing math; if you find yourself doing addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division by hand (literally, doing the math), you’re doing something wrong. You have Excel for this, and that’s all you need.

    Managing budgets *is* about numerical relationships. If you can’t visualize the numbers, make charts. I made a customized set of charts for the project I help manage, and *every* time we’re in any sort of meeting, with anybody, the first thing my boss (a senior VP) does is whip out those charts.

    Data tells a story. The question you have to ask yourself is how to tell that story. Telling that story in a clear, concise, and compelling way will make you a very, very strong manager.

    1. Jamie*

      I think this is my favorite comment on any forum…ever.

      I wish I could forward this to my entire office. The problem isn’t math – accounting is the most basic of all math.

  6. BossLady*

    Alot of people have covered some of this already, but I think important to add: If you are going to be a manager, or run any element of a business, you need to get comfortable with numbers at least in the most basic sense as for a budget. Not everyone in these positions arrives with that comfort in hand, you are in good company.

    But you can do it and as AaM suggests it is likely that the majority of the battle is convincing yourself so.

    And as others have said its likely the organization of the spreadsheet (all those numbers all together at once!) If its a spreadsheet, start with one element, a row, a column, or just one type of revenue or expenses, follow that to its end (how much in each month, etc.) try to understand whats going on with your accountant’s help where you need it. But do make an honest try at getting as far as you can in understanding on your own first, and go to your accountant to confirm what you’ve come to understand.

    I’ve found that learning how to learn and of your own devices is a big part of managing (because there is always something you’ve never encountered before!)

  7. fposte*

    It might help you to identify what specific elements are hitting your panic buttons. I’m with Anon above in thinking there’s really not much math involved, even though there are a lot of numbers, so it’s worth looking elsewhere for those sudden cold sweats. Do you know what every row and column means? If not, develop a cheat sheet. Do you understand the implications of notation styles used? If not, check with your office accountant or with Google, CPA. Is it the creation of the projection that’s a problem? Then find out industry norms, or the company standard, or the approach that was used last year for figuring out the baseline differences (really, last year’s budget is probably your best support all through this). Do you know what numbers you need to get from somebody else? Sticky them, or keep a list.

    Basically, dig through the fog and see the pieces of the task individually for a little, rather than just recoiling from the whole thing. (You might even treat it like a project and create a task list for it, using your own lens: “1. Get numbers for office supplies from OM. 2. Identify what that covers.”) That way you’ll start to see how much of it you already know or can actually do pretty easily, and it’ll clarify what the nature of the challenge is on the areas that you don’t intuitively grasp.

  8. Joey*

    It’s kinda late to be asking for help with your budget due on Monday. This is really something you should have planned for before in advance. This isn’t the perfect resolution, but it might help get you to the finish line. Pull previous budgets for your department for a starting point. Hopefully you already have a good pulse on what your priorities should be so it becomes a matter of tweaking previous budgets. Of course this only works if your department met it’s budget goals in previous years. Forecasting is especially difficult
    to get exactly right because there are so many unforseens that you can’t predict. So look for trends and just try to look down the road as logically as you can.

  9. Anonymous*

    All this reminds me of the explanation as to why the government kept three sets of figures: “One to deceive the public, one to deceive the cabinet, and the third to deceive itself.”

  10. Mike C.*

    I’m a numbers guy, and the thing that got me through is simply practice! Get you hands on every piece of this sort of work that you can – do you have access to previous budgets for instance? Do what you think you need to, then have someone more comfortable check the results. This way there is no way your nerves will cause any damage.

    Once you do this a few times, the nervousness will go away and you’ll feel a whole lot more confident about yourself and your skills.

  11. Anonymous*

    I had the same feeling and took a basic math course at the local community college. I received a 97 in the course. You may be just missing a few basics or need a refresher.

  12. Kate*

    Just to cover the rest of the issue… it sounds like you’re having an actual panic attack. When this mess is cleaned up, you might want to visit your doctor and see if she can recommend anything to help you (whether that’s medication, a therapist/social worker, or something else).

    I am an extremely capable person and I suffer from a medical condition that includes symptoms of extreme anxiety. I have (from my doctor) a small prescription for Atavan, so that on days when I get hit with a panic attack, I can take something, calm down, and go back to my usual kick-ass self.

  13. Jamie*

    This is actually a huge pet peeve of mine, so I’m really trying to keep an open mind.

    But I will say this – many of us who are “good with numbers” bridle at having to repeatedly hold the hands of people who claim anxiety about it, while it’s a core part of their job description.

    I’m bad with people – so I chose my career accordingly. I went into an IT/finance hybrid where my limitations there don’t really matter. If I had chosen to go into HR or social work I wouldn’t expect co-workers to walk me through parts of my job which involve dealing with people issues.

    I really hope the OP gets the skills needed to master this part of the job – because accounting is the language of business and it’s clearly part of the responsibilities of the position. Asking co-workers in a reasonable way to help you learn something new is one thing, but too many people use the whole “I’m not good at numbers” thing as a crutch, like that’s a totally acceptable limitation is someone responsible for a budget.

    I’ve known more people than I can fathom who think being bad at math is a cute default and those of us who are good at it are the exception.

    Yes, I’m cranky about having to give crash courses in Accounting 101 more often than is reasonable in a thousand lifetimes…I guess it shows.

    1. MillenniMedia*

      Keep in mind that someone who specializes in, say, graphic design may have amazing talent in that area. They’ve worked hard, moved up the ranks, and just got promoted to manage a department. BOOM! For the first time ever, they’re not just a graphic designer. They’re dealing with personnel issues, budgets, purchasing software, negotiations with printers, etc…and none of those things is very closely related to their area of expertise.

      While I definitely agree that allowing people to use a hatred of numbers as a long term crutch is unacceptable, you do have to give someone time to learn. Part of YOUR job might be to act as a resource and offer guidance, since this is your area of expertise. Not to mention, you all work for the *same company.* It’s in everyone’s best interest to help each other be the best they can be, which will in turn promote the health & success of your employer. You can hate on the crappy-with-numbers guy all day, but if he makes a bad decision and costs the company a ton of money, they may all of a sudden not be able to afford to pay you.

      1. Jamie*

        Excellent points – I really shouldn’t post while I’m blinded by my personnel issues – month end and trying to close the books with little help gets me crabby in a very accounting specific way.

        I agree there’s absolutely a learning curve for a new manager…and I’m fine with teaching as long as there’s an attempt to learn and progress being made. Not revisiting every topic like groundhogs day each month.

        The training suggestions are great, there are also some really good online programs if you want to pick up some extra accounting classes. Just having a good grasp of the GAAP makes a world of difference as it takes the mystery out of it.

        And it makes it a lot easier for your co-workers to help you out. I don’t mind giving someone pointers and even walking them through their first cost-benefit analysis…I don’t like having to explain the purpose of one. It’s a distinction with a difference.

      2. Anonymous*

        From the OP

        This is exactly what happened to me! I was promoted because of my excellent customer service and people skills. I don’t expect our accountant to hold my hand forever, just through the learning curve.

    2. Anonymous*

      Yes, I’m cranky about having to give crash courses in Accounting 101 more often than is reasonable in a thousand lifetimes…I guess it shows.

      To reduce the ‘return’ rate on your courses, begin the next one with:

      We start by defining the empty set, {} as the base of our counting system, which we can denote by ‘0’. We then define an increment operator as
      inc x = {x}
      thereby inductively defining all positive integers. We define the addition of two numbers by……


        1. Anonymous*

          I sense an Ocaml installation in my future, to remind myself how those things work.

  14. MillenniMedia*

    Don’t panic! I’m a financial analyst and trust me, you are NOT the only person who is intimidated by numbers. In fact I’d say that *most* of the business managers I work with are. My first suggestion? USE that wonderful accountant. They are there as a resource for you, and chances are they’d be happy to teach you. The more you know, the easier it makes their job. It’s a win-win for both parties. Ask if there have been any standard targets set for your company. You may not have to come up with the entire budget – maybe there’s already a mandate that certain expenses will go up/down by X%.

    Additionally, if the term “budget” is freaking you out, try “business plan.” Back away from the numbers for a minute and think about your goals for the next year. Would you like to add staff? Give someone a promotion? Launch a new product? Improve your marketing or retention? Reach out to your customers? Make a list of the goals you have, tasks you need to accomplish, and any challenges that may get in your way. Lay out a time line for accomplishing these goals over the course of a year. Use words – no numbers!

    Now, once you have a plan, you’re ready to look at the numbers. Figure out if you’ll need to spend money to accomplish some of your goals. You already have a time line all laid out, so it’ll be easy to drop in the numbers.

    For example…If you want to promote someone, what will their raise cost you? Say you want to give them $12k, but all you have is $10k in your budget. That means that either you can lower the raise a bit, or start it two months into the year so that only $10k will be charged to this year’s budget.

    Maybe after dropping in all the numbers you find that you just don’t have enough money. Small adjustments in timing or resources can make a big difference! Can you wait six months to hire someone? Can you send one less person to that big conference? Can you ask your printer for a discount on marketing materials…or find another one that can do it better AND cheaper?

    For smaller things like stationery expenses, no one expects you to know how many pens and notepads your department will need in a year. Look at the past couple years and stick with a similar figure. Same for phone, utilities, etc.

    I also recommend a glass of wine to take the edge off. ;-) Even we numbers people get overwhelmed with the often painful budgeting process. You’ll do great!!

    1. MillenniMedia*

      PS – New Horizons has great basic Excel classes that are tailored to business people. It might be worth taking one when you have a free day, just to take that piece of anxiety out of the equation.

  15. Anonymous*

    From the OP

    Thanks everyone for the thoughtful responses! I will definitely take some refresher courses in Excel and basic math to brush up on my skills and help overcome anxiety. I see the importance of that now – thought I could just skate by, but obviously that’s not the way to manage a department!

    I think the best advice though is to not think of the numbers so much as the plan for the future, which many of you mentioned. Aslo I’ll start small and take each budget line separately, rather just staring at the whole spreadsheet.

    I got an extension and can turn the proposed budget in to my boss next Friday. Everyone here understands that I am new at this and need a little extra time. By next year, I’ll have it down!

  16. Henning Makholm*

    One reason for the “not good with numbers” feeling may be that you have an unrealistically high idea of what “good with numbers” would be. Since a budget or a financial report is full of numbers, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that someone who is “good with numbers” would be able to look at it and instantly have each little digit on the sheet tell its own deep and meaningful story, which combine into a great integrated understanding of everything. And this is not true — nobody can do that.

    The trick to looking at a table of numbers and not panic is to NOT try to understand everything at once. Only madmen and wizards would attempt that. Usually only one or two numbers from the sheet are necessary for completing any single thought or decision; ignore all the other ones until you happen to need them. Knowing which of the numbers are the relevant ones when is of course a skill to be learned, but it’s comparatively easy learning once you stop expecting all of the numbers to feel meaningful at the same time.

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