Learn Excel: and other on-the-job math essentials


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

The bad news is 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 percent." That could be true. It could also be true that everyone else increased sales 65 percent, or that the next quarter you got fired for under performing, or that customer returns on those sales were an incredible 45 percent.

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 percent 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.

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's 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.