Early Career

Not a “Numbers Person?” Why You Need to Become One

I have heard people say, “I’m not a numbers person.” I’ve also been in meetings where people apologize for all of the data in a presentation. More often than not, it’s women making these comments. What I find interesting is you would never hear someone say, “I’m not a words person.” In today’s world, and certainly in tomorrow’s world, it will no longer be acceptable to be less adept with numbers.

If you are skeptical, consider these statistics:

  • More information has been produced in the last 20 years than was produced in the previous 5000 years.
  • A weekday edition of the NY Times or the Herald Tribune contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 17th century.
  • The total amount of information available to the average person doubles every five years. Data production will be 44 times greater in 2020 compared to 2009.
  • A musical greeting card contains more computer power than existed in the entire world before 1950.
  • Every second, one hour of video is uploaded to YouTube (see infographic).

Pick up any newspaper or follow any business outlet online and you’ll see the words “war for talent.” The war for talent is intensifying as one of the top priorities for any CEO these days. According to a recent survey by KPMG,

“Skills shortages are set to increase as globalization and competitive pressures take hold across sectors and industries and improving economic conditions spur employees to seek new jobs.”

And the hardest talent to find is people with deep analytical skills. Large companies, like Liberty Mutual, have dedicated recruiters to find this talent. While this may be considered niche talent today, the explosion of data and information at our fingertips will increase the need to find the talent that can analyze and connect large volumes of unrelated data and draw insights that help to support decision making and generate business value.

If putting together an analytical presentation gives you hives, keep reading for some tips specific to where you might be in your career.

Recent College Graduate

If you studied Liberal Arts and did not receive much exposure to quantitative-based subject matter, you are now at a disadvantage relative to your peers who have studied finance or engineering. But there’s time to recover and here’s what you can do:

  • Talk to your manager about your coaching and development plan and specifically ask for opportunities to develop the skills that might be a gap. Be honest as you assess your skill-set.
  • Ask your manager what makes her successful and the skills that have helped her get to where she is today.
  • Request special projects that will help you develop or hone the skills that you want to build. Ask for feedback along the way to ensure you have a good understanding of your progress.
  • Learn. Apply. Reflect. Rinse. Repeat. If you have limited exposure to learning opportunities, check out Khan Academy – a website where you can learn almost anything and it’s free!

Over 5 Years Experience

You’ve probably moved on from being the data jockey and, unless you are in a quant function, it’s unlikely you are spending all day, every day knee deep in spreadsheets. As you are progressing in your career, you are not taking your analytics hat off; rather, you are taking on the role of the storyteller. While you may not be the person running the pivots, you need to outline the approach, frame up the right questions, and have enough confidence in your analytical abilities to quality check the work of your team as well as come up for air every once in a while to focus on learning the strategic use of data, not just the tactical.

For interesting insight on the difference between regurgitating numbers to produce a “dashboard” and telling a story that will promote actions, check out this blog where you can learn some helpful tips on creating dashboards using plain old English… And some numbers.

Transform Numbers into Action

You “words” people, if you are still with me, will like this next part as the recommendation is to shape the data into three parts:

  1. Insights (what is the data saying?)
  2. Recommendations for Action (what should we do about it?)
  3. Business Impact (expected outcomes if the actions are undertaken)

With big data (data sets that are too large and complex to manipulate or interrogate with standard methods or tools) all around us, your job is to help your team sift through all of the noise and find the right data. Use tools and techniques that enable you to combine data sets to gain new insights. Starting with the right data, you can then craft a story that helps you sell a product, service or idea.

Over 10 Years Experience

In your role, you are likely able to exert some influence on strategic priorities for your operation, business unit, or even company, depending on the size of your organization. According to a 2012 study  called Finding Value in the Information Explosion,

“Only a few CIOs and other IT executives reported that their organizations were succeeding at generating significant business value from their data. Within organizations, business leaders must take the lead in making better use of data.”

What role can you play to ensure the right data is being collected and analyzed? While I agree with the recommendation from the study’s authors that IT and business leaders need to work more closely together, could we solve for that more efficiently by hiring talent that can bridge the gap that typically exists between “data” people and the “business” people? Shouldn’t we aim to have business people who are data people?

Your career is likely to progress from working with more tactical information to one where you are strategically deciding what to do with the wealth of information that is in front of us every minute. If we all keep pushing ourselves to become better with numbers and data, we might be in a position to ALL win in this war for talent.


Precillia-RedmondPrecillia Redmond is the senior director of corporate human resources and administration at Liberty Mutual Insurance. Precillia earned her MBA from the Olin School of Business at Babson College and specializes in human resources strategy. She already has her dream job and enjoys Forté events.

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