March 2, 2016
We can all profit from this advice. (Bad pun intended.) Time and again, I hear professionals of all levels utter profundities such as “I deal in words, not numbers” or “I’m a writer, not an accountant” or “I went into communications because I hate numbers.”
For some, deciding not to embrace math is almost a badge of honor. In my view, this “I hate math” mantra is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the contrary, building a basic grasp of math and financial skills is not as hard as you may think, and doing so dramatically expands your career opportunities.
As an idealistic, young English major, I had visions of being an English literature professor. I soon realized this wasn’t the exact path for me, but I still wanted a career where I could put my love of words and writing into action. Fast-forward to graduation, and I soon had my first real job — a grant proposal writer at a small nonprofit performing-arts organization. Perfect, right? Just me and the old word processor, spinning out compelling proposals to request funding from a variety of foundations, corporations and well-heeled individuals. No math involved here.
Wrong! In every proposal I wrote, there were a lot of numbers and some basic math. How would we use the dollars we were requesting? What would the return on investment be? What metrics would we use to show that the grant was successful? What percentage of our budget would the grant support? Fortunately for me, I was never really part of the “I hate math” school of thought. I simply ignored math, thinking that it didn’t apply to a career in communications. This first job helped me wise up fast. Math mattered.
After a few years, I leveraged this experience to gain a position at a Fortune 500 manufacturing company. As a marketing communications manager within a business unit, writing skills played a big part in my success. But the “math thing” kept rearing its head as well. Sales leads generated. Cost per lead. Website metrics. Trade-show metrics. Project budgets. Annual budgets. Return on investment. As I became more adept at talking in numbers, my leadership team began to share more overall business detail with me.
“How did the monthly P&L look? What is our forecast?” I began to be seen not only as “the communications guy,” but also as a valued member of the team. Soon, I was promoted to a corporate role and got my first exposure to financial public relations and investor relations. There’s nothing like helping write a quarterly earnings release or an annual report to help you to understand math. You also start to get exposure to executive leaders and truly understand how the organization works.
These experiences led directly to my next opportunity and current role as a senior executive leading the corporate communications and investor relations functions for another global industrial company. Nearly every day, I’m engaged with our CEO, CFO and other senior leaders on the state of our business. I’m communicating about strategies, prospects, budgets, profitability, products, policies, the global economy and many other topics to employees, investors, customers, suppliers, the board of directors, the media, unions, communities and governments. In all of these encounters, verbal and written communication skills are my bread and butter, but I’d struggle mightily without an understanding of the numbers behind the issues.
While everyone’s path is unique, I believe that outstanding communication skills coupled with math and financial proficiency are a tough combination to beat. Here are the lessons that I’ve learned over the years:
• Build a strong base. If you’re an undergraduate majoring in public relations, communications or a related field, then take an accounting or finance class as an elective, or consider a minor in some sort of business or math-related field. It will set you apart.
• Find a colleague in your organization’s accounting or finance department whom you trust. It should be somebody whom you can talk to about math or financial questions without the fear of appearing dumb. If it’s the right person, then they’ll be flattered to share their expertise.
• Realize that companies run on numbers. In any communications role, the folks who you’ll be working with live in a world of numbers — operations managers, product engineers, sales people, financial analysts, IT people, etc. Math is a common language and your bridge to them.
• Take advantage of your company’s educational opportunities. One of my employers funded my MBA. On a smaller scale, there are many seminars available at a modest fee along the lines of “financial skills for non-financial people.”
• Become a regular reader of business publications. The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Businessweek have been my go-to sources for almost 20 years.
• Position yourself as a business partner with expertise in communications. Don’t position yourself as just a communicator who doesn’t understand the business or the numbers.
• Differentiate yourself. We’re all good writers. We’re all good communicators. We’re all creative. We’re not all math-literate. Guess who wins more often than not?
• Work at it. For some of us wordsmiths, the language of numbers doesn’t come easily. It may take you longer to understand something. That’s OK. Put in the time to figure it out. You’re investing in yourself. Like your dad always said, nothing worthwhile is easy.
• Get over it. Some people psych themselves out about math and their perceived inability to understand it. Do you really hate math, or is that just a reflex? Basic math skills are not that hard to build. Try it. You may surprise yourself. Stuck? There’s this thing called the Internet. A lot of great sources explain math and financial problems in plain English.
• Don’t hate math, and it won’t hate you. Embrace numbers. In the long run, you’ll be much more marketable, have many more career opportunities and potentially reap greater financial rewards.
In the “Profiles in PR” feature from the January issue of Tactics, PRSA 2016 Chair Mark McClennan, APR, discussed why he thinks we should remove “I hate math” from the PR lexicon. Here’s what he had to say:
That’s one of my personal passions. PR professionals love language and working with words. [But] the language of business is numbers and math.
Our CEOs and our CFOs look at that. If we want to be strategic counselors and advisers, then the minute you tell your CEO or your CFO, “I don’t like math,” or he or she hears that, you’re selling yourself short.
It’s a self-inflicted wound. I don’t care if you do hate math. Don’t say it. And that applies to professors who are teaching the students who make the jokes. This is a fixable problem.
If you’re looking at the realm of big data and analytics and all the changes that are going on, and if you don’t like math, then you are going to be significantly hampering your career down the road. I plan on making that message heard in bylines and commentary.
And James R. Jaye, APR, the author of the accompanying feature story on this page, enjoyed McClennan’s response and decided to expound on the topic with his own article.
“It’s a lesson I took to heart early in my career that has paid tremendous dividends (no pun intended) ever since,” Jaye wrote of the profile piece in the online comments section. “It’s a piece of advice I often give younger practitioners. Absolutely spot on, Mark!”
James R. Jaye, APR, has more than 20 years of industry experience and is currently senior director of corporate communications and investor relations for Nordson Corporation. His life coach is his golden retriever, Fred. Contact him at: www.linkedin.com/in/jimjaye or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Broaden your skill set with access to an extensive library of live and on-demand professional development webinars — one of PRSA's premier member benefits.