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How to Improve Your Finance Skills (Even If You Hate Numbers)

If you’re not a numbers person, finance is daunting. But having a grasp of terms like EBITDA and net present value are important no matter where you sit on the org chart. How can you boost your financial acumen? How do you decide which concepts are most important to understand to your work and your understanding of the business? And who’s in the best position to offer advice?

What the Experts Say Even if you don’t need to know a lot about finance to do your day-to-day job, the more conversant you are on the subject, the better off you’ll be, according to Richard Ruback, a professor at Harvard Business School and the coauthor of the HBR Guide to Buying a Small Business. “If you can speak the language of money, you will be more successful,” he says.

After all, if you’re trying to sell a product or strategy, you need to be able to demonstrate that it is both practical and high margin. “The decision-makers will want to see a simple model that shows revenue, costs, overhead, and cash flow,” he says. “They need to see why it’s a good idea.” Joe Knight, a partner and senior consultant at the Business Literacy Institute and the coauthor of Financial Intelligence, says that an absence of financial savvy is “career-limiting.” If you’re unable to contribute to a discussion on the company’s performance, you’re unlikely to advance. “You are not going to be involved in running projects unless you understand the financials,” he says. Here are some strategies to improve your financial intelligence.

Overcome your fears Stop avoiding finance because you’re afraid of numbers. It’s not rocket science, says Ruback. Think of it this way, “Finance is the way businesses keep score. It’s like counting balls and strikes in baseball,” but instead you’re “measuring progress through financial performance,” he says. “It’s not that complicated.” Besides, the math is easier than you might think, says Knight. “Finance and accounting are very simple. It’s mostly addition and subtraction and occasionally some multiplication and division,” he says. “There’s no magic.”

Learn the lingo There may not be any magic to finance, but there is a fair amount of jargon. Fortunately, there are many ways to learn the terminology, says Knight. You “just need to take initiative,” he says. If your company offers internal finance training, take advantage of it. If it doesn’t, consider enrolling in an online or community college class. Of course, there are also myriad books and reference guides on the topic. The most important concepts to grasp are “how to measure profitability, EBITDA, operating income, revenue, and operating expenses,” he says. A finance textbook or reference guide is a good investment; but “Google works too,” he says.


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