A FORCE FOR GOOD hub | Stop Trying to be Perfect!
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Stop Trying to be Perfect!

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BY JENNIFER VANDEKREEKE
 VP and General Manager, Australia for Carnival Cruise Line
When is the last time you’ve heard a female say “Ugh, I hate numbers, no maths for me.” And then when was the last time you heard a male say it? Notice a difference?

OK, in full disclosure, for years I was the one saying “I HATE math’s”, and it turns out I wasn’t alone. Math’s avoidance among females is a global epidemic. The OECD has shown that despite outperforming boys in primary school, girls start avoiding math’s and sciences when we get to Senior School. Their theory is that our drive to be “perfect” instead of courageous keeps us from engaging in the trial and error process that is necessary to become good at quantitative subjects like math’s.

The unfortunate reality is that this fear of numbers will put the brakes on a career. As we are all too aware, while women make up much of entry level and middle management positions, we’re not breaking through to the top level. And one reason is that we shy away from developing those key financial and analytical skills. Now I’m not saying you have to be a whiz at reading auditor’s notes and cash flow statements, but you dang well better be able to understand your company’s P+L if you plan to make it to Director level. The reality is, the higher up you get in an organisation, the more time you’ll spend gleaning insights and developing strategies based on numbers. They are the objective measurement of the company’s performance at every level and an invaluable management tool. Because, as we all know, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

I’ll never forget the day that I was promoted to General Manager of our new Australian business unit. One of my first tasks was to build a budget. From scratch. It was a new business unit after all and I hadn’t embraced numbers yet. Talk about panic in the disco…I was staring at a blank sheet of paper with no idea how to start. So, I wandered over to our finance department and started asking questions and reviewing the budgets of other departments. Then I started researching other travel companies (yup, their P+Ls are publicly available, my friends). I looked up net revenue to marketing budget ratios and realized the power of a good ratio. For example, did you know that in general consumer companies spend about 10% of their net revenue on marketing? Now I had somewhere to start and I just built from there.

It took me a REALLY long time to build that first budget. And it wasn’t perfect. In fact, I was way off on a few numbers. Each of those mistakes was a valuable learning experience as I was able to get a handle on the cost and revenue drivers behind every line. That’s the beauty of finance, every line in a budget is an educated guess based on the information available at the time. When the numbers don’t come through as expected (for better or worse), you get the opportunity to dig in and figure out why and then revise your business plan accordingly. Which means you learn more about how your business works.

If I hadn’t been forced to overcome my desire to be right all the time and learned to really dive into the numbers, I never would have learned half as much as I did.

You see, being ‘un-perfect’ with numbers is the best teacher you could possibly have. And perfect is the enemy of learning… how can you possibly learn anything if you’re perfect all the time?

Numbers aren’t just vital to get into senior leadership, they’re an invaluable leadership tool at every level. Part of being a great leader is setting clear targets for your team and yourself. And the more tangible those targets, the better you and your team will understand and go after them. As Malcolm Gladwell said, a key tool for employee engagement is being able to directly see the impact your work has on the success of the overall business. And there’s nothing better than numbers to show progress towards a goal. Once you understand the drivers of success for each role, you can create clear, numbers-based targets for each team member that they can track and then their success becomes its own reward.

Are you ready to stop being perfect and start courageously embracing numbers and building your financial acumen? Great, here are some things you can do today.
  • Ask your manager if you can review the reports they use to run the business and the budget for your department. Then ask about the cost or revenue drivers for every line.  And then ask if you can be on the team that builds the budget for next year.
  • Invite someone from the Finance department out for a cup of coffee and bring a copy of the company’s P+L if your company is publicly listed, if not print out the P+L for a company in the same industry to review. Then have them explain it line by line. If you’re like me, you’ll have to do this about 10 times before you really understand, so multiple coffee dates will be necessary. And that’s OK!  Don’t be embarrassed or discouraged, be courageous enough to be curious. This is complicated stuff and warrants the time.
  • If you have mentor, ask them to share any reports they use to run their business. Then ask questions about what each line means, which ones matters and why. And if you don’t have a mentor… go find someone you admire and ask them out for coffee. They might just become a mentor.
  • Read Freakonomicsor anything by Malcolm Gladwell, they are great books that take numbers and show how they can provide fascinating insight into a myriad of areas in business and beyond.

I wish you the very best of luck!

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By Jennifer Vandekreeke – VP and General Manager, Australia for Carnival Cruise Line

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