How to be great at budgeting – Assumptions

As a management accountant or finance professional a core skill is forecasting and budgeting. My mini-series offers tips and tricks to help you improve your skills in this area.

We’re on step 3 here, if you want a recap of the other steps, click here.

Today I want to talk about the importance of assumptions, and your flexibility of working with them.

The importance of assumptions

Budgeting is a process that creates a financial plan. This plan is based on future events that are not 100% certain.

So this makes budgeting ambiguous. Over the years I’ve seen many approaches to dealing with this ambiguity, from rolling forward last years results, to bottom up forecasting from numerous business partners, but the successful attempts have always been based on clear assumptions.

And I mean super-clear.

E.g. I am assuming that we will have an identical mix of customer types next year, with 10% growth.

As long as you’ve made this clear then people can get behind the assumptions, or not, but at least they will understand what they are looking at…

Get your assumptions signed off

Are you the ultimate business owner of the profit or cost you are budget in for? As a finance professional, I doubt it. Therefore, you need to make sure whoever is on the hook for the budget delivery has agreed to the final figures.

Organise a sign off meeting with the ultimate owner, plus your FD, and present your super-clear assumptions. Agree the budget in the meeting, and decide on any follow up actions.

How to test that your assumptions are good enough

This is quite easy.

You’ve been in budget sign off meetings and felt that sinking feeling as your FD rips apart your 3 months of work, right? He/she does this by asking questions like:

Why is income up 200%? Why has your rental is Spanish properties gone from £100k to £0?

The best way to test assumptions in a budget is to print off the P&L, then leave it overnight. Come back the next day with fresh eyes and imagine you wanted to pick holes in the numbers.

What questions would you ask? Do you like the answers? If not then I suggest you have another look at what you’ve assumed.

In summary

Your budget is only as good as the assumptions you make. Make them clear, get them signed off, and test them for robustness.

How to be great at budgeting – Communication

Budgeting is all about managing expectations, so it’s probably no great surprise that communication is a major tool is delivering an awesome budget.

We previously looked at timelines in a previous post, also you read my intro to this series here.

How are your communication skills? You need to find your answers to the following questions:

Who is your key audience?

Who are the stakeholders you need to engage? Remember that each stakeholder may need their own approach.

For example, in my business I have

  • Finance leaders
  • Business leaders
  • My team
  • Sales team
  • Middle management

Each of these groups have different communication needs. I’m in finance, so the finance leaders want me to demonstrate that I’m on top of the budgeting process. Regular, top level updates with key risks and opps keep them happy.

Business leaders want to challenge the division to deliver more than last year, with stretching targets. They need to understand what level of challenge has been embedded in the numbers.

So you can clearly see how different requirements of your audience will drive different types of communication.

Understanding who needs to be communicated to and ensuring you have a plan to meet their needs will really help you stand out as a talented communicator (and budgeter).

Don’t use Excel as a presentation tool

A good tool for presenting a budget is powerpoint. If you’re already using powerpoint then skip to the next section.

Now if you’re using excel to present your budget then it might be time to think about an alternative approach.

Don’t get me wrong – Excel is very good and I use it loads, however I never (ever) use it to communicate with. Why? Because it makes you think in tables, and makes you talk about numbers rather than assumptions and initiatives.

Using powerpoint is great for communicating. It’s a ready made storyboard. I map out the skeleton of my budget pack first – even before I’ve VLOOKUPPED anything.

I hope you’ve found the tips helpful, come back next time to find out about Xxx

How to be great at budgeting – Intro

As a finance manager I’ve done my fair share of budgeting. If you are new to the process then this blog series should be a great starting point.

Every organisation budgets slightly differently, but broadly speaking this is an annual event that will be linked to company projections and performance based pay. Therefore they are important, and often quite emotive.

In order to budget well you need to focus on the following three elements:

I’ll be going over each of these in a bit more detail over the next few weeks, starting with Timelines

How to be Rubbish at Delegating

Delegating is a key skill for a manager, but it’s surprisingly easy to be pants at it. It looks so easy doesn’t it? You just tell your team what they need to do and then relax with your feet up, smoking a cigar.

If only it was that easy… So have a read of the following pointers, which you need to avoid unless you want to be rubbish at delegating.

Note – I’ve got another article on the learning cycle and how to
use it as a manager, well worth a read too.

Don’t have a plan for delegating

Delegating needs a bit of thought, and some preparation. What is your purpose for delegating this task? What outcome do you expect? How will you measure success of the task? If you don’t know the answer to these three questions, and haven’t communicated them then it’s likely things won’t go very smoothly.

So next time you’re going to delegate something, make sure you’ve thought these things through. POM – purpose, outcome, measure.

Assume they won’t do it as well as you.

Let’s be honest, nobody does stuff as well as you. If you’re a control freak like me then this can be a serious barrier to delegating effectively.

You need to accept that the task may suffer at first, and allow a bit of leeway. Remember when you did the task for the first time, I bet you were rubbish? This is a normal part of the learning cycle, and important for people’s development. Support them early on and you will reap the rewards later. You never know, one day they might do it better than you…

Don’t set clear measures for success

I’ve written about the SMART framework before, and the ability to set measures for success is a key skill for a manager. I like to use phrases such as “if you do X you will meet my expectations”, or “not delivering this piece of work by Friday will mean you’ve not met my expectations”.

If the person you’re delegating to knows what success and failure looks like you’re far more likely to get a great outcome.

Don’t give any feedback

Feedback should be specific and timely – i.e. don’t just wait till your weekly one to one. Let them know how they’re getting on in real-time at first (you can reduce the frequency of feedback as they master the task).

If you wait until the annual performance review to let them know how badly they’ve been doing for the last 6 months, then you’re a bit of a rubbish manager in my opinion…

Don’t let go

An element of being good at delegating is letting go. This can be harder than it sounds; if previously you carried out the task and liaised with the stakeholders then its all-too-easy to keep your fingers in the pie.

Give your team member space to succeed or fail under his/her own steam. If you support them too closely they’ll never develop fully into the task, and will probably feel micro-managed.

Take it back off them if they’re struggling

Do you want a clear sign that you’re rubbish at delegating? If you keep taking delegated tasks back this is a classic sign that you suck at delegating.

But what about if your credibility is suffering due to continual poor performance of a team member – isn’t it easier just to do the piece of work? Short term answer is yes, but you’re going to struggle to hand the work over in the long term. It’s either your poor delegating or their poor performance…

Summary

So there you are – 6 simple ways that you can be totally rubbish at delegating! You can find a great article on delegation at theartofmanliness.com – one of my favourite websites…

Why not check out some of my other How to be Rubbish articles? I’ve got ones on CV writing, job interviews, presentations, taking exams and revising!

My first video interview – what I learned

VideographersToday I was interviewed for an internal film about one of our big projects. Here’s what I learned…

Prepare, prepare, and then prepare some more

The night before the filming I received a briefing document. This gave an overview of what was expected of me. Luckily I’d already thought about what I wanted to say, so I spent a couple of hours preparing some nice sound bites.

This is time well spent. When I found myself in front of the camera I had some good phrases ready to go, and it helped the experience go smoothly!

Don’t wear loud stuff

About 30 seconds into the first question the director stopped me and pointed out that my cuff links were scraping the table whenever I gestured with my hands. Noisy stuff is not cool for filming, it’s really hard to remove it from the soundtrack later…

Also watch out for loud clothes, as in bright oranges and pinks. These can look rubbish on camera!

Get the big picture from the director

As I mentioned earlier I had put some good prep time in the previous night. I talked some of my ideas through with the director before the camera started rolling, and he gave me some different ideas as to what he wanted from me.

I’m glad I checked with the director; otherwise I would have ended up not meeting his expectations, and the whole experience would have been less valuable.

Summary

If you get the chance to be filmed for an interview, then jump at it. It’s great fun, and great for your exposure within your organisation. Make sure you prepare, don’t wear loud accessories, and make sure you get a steer from the director.

More hints can be found at this link from evancarmichael.com, a great article that even talks about what colour to wear!

Photo by Dean Terry, from Flickr

10 motivational songs that inspire me in the morning

Traffic jamI’ve got a great playlist that really helps motivate me. I sometimes listen to this when I’m driving in to work, and need a boost.

So if you already own these songs, then whack ’em on a playlist, if you don’t know these songs, check out the videos below..

1. Greatest day – Take That

“Today this could be the greatest day of our lives”

This is the first song on the list: What a sentiment!

2. Life – Our Lady Peace

“Life is waiting for you”

This track makes me feel as though everything I want is within reach and achievable.

3. Higher – Creed

“I’m strong enough to take these dreams and make them mine”

One of my favourite middle sections of a song ever…

4. Times Like These – Foo Fighters

“It’s times like these you learn to live again”

The Foo Fighters rock, and this song is a great pick-me-up.

5. St Elmo’s Fire – John Parr

“I can climb the highest mountain; I can cross the widest sea”

What a guilty pleasure; 80s inspiration at its best.

6. The Middle – Jimmy Eat World

“Everything will be alright”

A song for the under-dog, a cracking rhythm too.

7. Eye of the tiger – Survivor

“Rising up to the challenge of our rivals”

Yes. I am Rocky. I am running up steps as part of a montage with this song playing. Loudly.

8. Today – Smashing Pumpkins

“Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known”

I was a big Pumpkins fan when I was a teenager, this song takes me back.

9. Jump – Van Halen

“You’ve got to roll with the punches and get to what’s real”

Guilty pleasure #2. Nothing makes me as happy as that huge iconic synth sound…

10. Defying Gravity

“I’m through accepting limits, cos someone says they’re so”

Ah, musical theatre! One had to make the list somewhere…
Image ‘Traffic Jam’ by Buzrael

Herzberg’s Theory of Motivation: Hygiene factors and Motivator factors

One of my favourite management theory models is Herzberg’s Theory of Motivation. In this article I’m going to talk you through the model, and then describe how you can use it as a manager.

This post is part of my ‘models and theories’ series, of which previously I have posted about the unconscious and the competence in The Learning Cycle, and the SMART framework for setting objectives.

Herzberg's theory of motivationThe model in brief

Herzberg (1923-2000) was a management theorist, and his model looks at the various factors or conditions in the workplace, and how they impacted the motivation levels of the workforce.

Herzberg defined two types of factor; those that motivated (e.g. extra responsibility or recognition) and those that demotivated (e.g. salary, work conditions). He termed the former ‘motivating factors’ and the latter ‘hygiene factors’.

The key message is that different factors cause satisfaction and dissatisfaction. The presence of a motivator causes satisfaction, whereas the absence does not necessarily cause dissatisfaction. The absence of hygiene factors causes dissatisfaction, however the presence of these factors does not truly motivate.

So how do you use this theory in practice?

Hygiene factors: Blanket factors to make sure you’re achieving

Unless you are the CEO you’re unlikely to have much say over reward packages or office environment. However there are certain hygiene factors that are worth ensuring you achieve with your team.

  • Regular one to ones
  • Timely feedback on performance
  • Communication of company news or strategy
  • Open discussions about development
  • Work-life balance discussions

Check your management style – do you achieve these minimum factors? In today’s business world these are expected hygiene factors, and will cause a reduction in motivation if absent.

In my experience, team members are far more aware of the presence of poor hygiene factors than they are the lack of motivating factors.

Motivator factors: Individual factors to drive high performance

Every team is different, so knowing what can motivate can be difficult to define. Some examples might be:

  • Extra responsibility
  • Giving a presentation
  • Standing in for you when you’re on holiday

You know your team, it’s up to you to know what can motivate them. Many people are self-motivators, however it is a great skill for a manager to have the ability to create a motivated work-force, a skill that will get noticed quickly.

I would recommend you take an individual approach; i.e. make sure your ideas to motivate are directed at a team member, not the team. I’ve found that blanket team motivators don’t quite cut the mustard (and can become expected).

Be careful of blanket motivators – for example allowing everyone in your team to leave early every Friday. These have a motivational impact in the short term, but this quickly wanes. Also you might be creating ways of working that can become ‘custom’ and then be protected by tribunal. I’m not a lawyer, so get legal advice if you’re worried about this.

People are different

In your team you’ll be well aware that you’re individual members are very different. You need to use your judgement to motivate your team in different ways.

You can’t be Mr Motivator all of the time either, so pick your times wisely. Try to align your motivational activity to times when your team are receptive. If your team are working all hours to hit a deadline then the offer of extra responsibility is unlikely to make then feel motivated…

Summary

Make sure you avoid the classic hygiene factors to ensure your team are not demotivated. And make sure your next one-to-one includes some of those tasty motivators that will get your team on the road to high performance.

How to be rubbish at writing your CV

How good was your last CV? Did it get you the job? Or are you thinking about applying for a new role and need to brush up your CV?

This article is part of my ‘How to be Rubbish at Everything‘ series, and is built around the things you shouldn’t do (so you can learn from them).

Why not check out some of my other ‘How to be Rubbish at Everything’ articles – job interviews, presentations, exams and revising?

Don’t write a timeline

Have you ever written out a timeline of your life before? If not, you’re missing a trick; it really helps you to plan out an awesome CV.

CV timeline from olivergearing.com
The key thing to ensure is that the timeline is to scale, meaning that time is shown in equal splits. This means that you see the relative importance of sections of your life by how long you’ve spent in them.

From this you can identify the key bits you want to focus on in your CV, and work backwards from there.

I use Excel to build my timelines; I use one column per month, and then colour in blocks that relate to different parts of my career. This way it’s easy to see my life summary.

Now, do you include this timeline in your CV? It depends. If your timeline is fairly straightforward then I wouldn’t bother, or if it draws too much attention to areas you don’t wish to focus on, I likewise wouldn’t include it. However if the timeline gives your CV a dynamic and modern look and feel then why not?

Don’t research examples from the web

Another way to screw up a CV is to not review other people’s CVs. If you google “CV” or “Resume” there are tons of examples out there. Download a bunch and see what looks good, and what looks pants.

Don’t just fire up Microsoft Word and start typing aimlessly. This will get you a rubbish CV super-fast.

Use strange or exciting fonts

I would recommend using Arial or Times New Roman on all CVs. Why? Because a CV is a time to be conservative in my opinion. If you get past the CV filter and get offered an interview then that’s the time to let your creativity flow.

Include timeline gaps

You know the feeling, if you could erase the years 2010 to 2012 from existence, then you wouldn’t have to explain your 2 year stint as a failed actor. These gaps are part of your history, and if you try to hide them this often gets picked up by thorough interviewers.

A good CV has no such gaps, and gives a feeling of openness and honesty. Find a way to be as positive as you can about the ‘gap’, and keep it brief. This way you can expand in the interview if asked, if not – happy days!

I’ve got a bloody great gap in my CV, four years spent being a musician. As I’m now a chartered management accountant I’ve got to explain the move every time I apply for a role. Add to this the fact that I started out on the path to being a doctor and you can see I’m a good example of a gapper. I’ve faced this down and got my story airtight, and it comes across (I hope) with integrity and honesty…

Don’t use action verbs

My sister-in-law Mary introduced me to this tip: Start every sentence with an action verb as you talk about your experience. It makes your CV sound far more proactive and dynamic. Notice the difference:
I was involved in a project to install a new accounting system.
With…
Tested and supported the project leads with the installation of a new accounting system.
Which sounds better?

Make it really long

When I’m recruiting for a role, anything longer than 2 sides of A4 goes in the recycling bin. Nobody needs more than 2 sides of A4.

Waffle

Slightly related to the previous point – but waffling is a bad idea on CVs and in interviews. Keep your sentences short and snappy and try to keep the reader’s engagement up at all times.

Don’t get someone trusted to review it

My wife always looks at my CV for me when I’m ready to send it out. She doesn’t hold back…

That’s exactly what you need in a reviewer; someone that you trust that has your best interests at heart. They will spot the crap stuff, and any typos that you’ve snuck in, and give you massively honest feedback.

Include spelling and grammar errors

If you have spelled a word wrong, or if your grammar sucks, then you may find your CV ends up in the recycling bin. There is no excuse for this with today’s spell check and the fact that you’ve got someone you trust to review it, right?

Send it out in Word Doc format

Don’t get me wrong, word is a great program that I use a lot, but sending your CV out in this format is bad for a number of reasons:

  1. The format may display differently and look rubbish,
  2. The recruiting manager may not have word (unlikely), or have a different version to you (likely)
  3. Word allows editing, so you open yourself to accidental deletes or keystrokes from the person you sent it to

So what format to send it in? PDF baby! PDF all the way!

Summary

So by not doing any of the above you should be in a good place to land that dream interview by nailing the CV stage. Go-on, change your life and land your dream role!

If you have landed your dream interview, be sure to check out my How to be Rubbish at Interviews article, packed with a similar amount of no-nonsense, practical advice.

You can download my PDF list of these pointers that you can print off – see below.How to be rubbish at writing CVs and Resumes

How to be Rubbish at Exams

Exams… Everyone hates ’em… You’ve probably found your way here because you want to know how to be good at taking exams, right?

So if I tell you How to be Rubbish instead, would that be OK? These anti-tips are designed to help you spot the common mistakes you’re making, and to offer tips on how to overcome them. And at the end of the article is a printable check list so you can remind yourself what NOT to do…

Don’t revise

Exams are about knowledge and technique, meaning if you don’t revise you’ll never have the correct level of knowledge.

I’ve got an article describing how to be totally rubbish at revising, which is worth a read if you haven’t already…

Don’t worry about logistics

There is no worse preparation for an exam than turning up late. You have put yourself at a psychological disadvantage compared to other students due to being stressed and harassed.

Make sure you’ve planned your exam day route in advance, and have left yourself enough time to get there. I always aim to have at least 30 minutes spare in my journey ‘just in case’.

Stationary doesn’t matter

What happens if your pen runs out? What happens if your calculator runs out of batteries or stops working? Make sure you have plenty of spare pens/pencils, and at least spare batteries if you need a calculator. Also make sure that you know the rules – i.e. some exam boards demand black ink and only allow certain models of calculator (which is true of CIMA – the last set of exams that I did).

Don’t worry about the format of the paper

Do you know how many sections there are in the paper, and what the mark split is between each of them? Do you know whether there is any choice between questions, or if you have to attempt all questions? These are really important facts that you must know the answer to. There is no better way to fail an exam than to either miss a mandatory section out, or to attempt two questions you’re supposed to choose between.

I’m a bit of a stickler for practicing papers, and this is a really good way to ensure that you know what you’re supposed to do in the exam hall. This helps you learn what the format is, so you intrinsically know it, meaning you don’t need to waste valuable exam brain space thinking about which questions you need to answer.

Stay up all night cramming

One of the most important contributions to exam success is a good nights sleep. If you cram until 2am you are very unlikely to get any quality sleep – your mind will be racing. Try and give yourself at least 30 minutes unwinding time before diving into bed to help you get good deep sleep.

I’ve mentioned this before but I hate cramming as a technique. You only need to cram if you’ve not put enough time into your revision, and this happens if you don’t give yourself enough time to revise or have a proper plan… Whew, rant over…

Cheat

If you get caught cheating in an exam, there can be serious implications. You’ll probably fail the exam and get a black mark against your name. Future university or job applications may be impacted too. Also – can you be sure that the guy you’re copying from has got the answer right anyway?

Don’t answer the question asked

In the heat of the exam it’s really easy to skim read the question and dive straight into writing your answer. You’ve got loads of past paper questions swishing around in your short-term memory and you feel you know what the examiner wants.

This approach may lead you into the trap of answering the question you want them to ask, rather than the question they HAVE asked. The usual outcome for this is to gain zero marks – which is especially dangerous if it there are loads of marks allocated to the question.

My advice is to read questions twice before diving in. Granted, this is using up your valuable exam time, but I would rather lose a minute of writing time but gain a full understanding of what the examiner wants.

Don’t split your exam time by marks available

Every exam has a marking scheme – often this is clear in the paper itself. You need to allocate the same amount of time to each mark of the paper. If you spend the same amount of time on a 5 mark question as a 20 mark question then you’re not getting the balance right. You’ve either written too much for the 5 marker, or not written enough for the 20 marker.

In my CIMA exams we had 1.8 minutes per mark (3 hours paper giving 100 marks). My trick was to write down the actual time that I should start answering the question – e.g. Q1 09:00, Q2 09:10, Q3 09:35. This meant that I stayed in touch with the mark allocation and used my time in an efficient manner.

Leave the exam hall early

There are two reasons why people leave exams early

  1. They’ve decided that they’ve screwed the exam up
  2. They’ve decided that they’ve nailed it – and want everyone in the exam hall to know

Both are rubbish reasons to leave early. If you think you’ve mucked the exam up, then use every last scrap of time to try and eek another mark or two out. If you think you’ve nailed it – why don’t you have another read of the questions again, checking that you really have answered the question fully?

Summary

Exams are tests of your technique and knowledge and you need to make sure you’ve given yourself the best chance of passing. If you don’t think about the technique of exams then you are giving yourself an uphill struggle – no matter how knowledgeable you are in the subject matter.

If you enjoyed this latest post in my How to be Rubbish at Everything, then please share this with your friends. There are other articles in my How to be Rubbish series such as How to be Rubbish at Revising, How to be Rubbish at Interviews, and How to be Rubbish at Presentations which I hope you find useful.

The check-list below is a useful way to remind yourself what you need to not do to be great at exams – best of luck!

How to be rubbish at exams

Christine Ohuruogu’s inspirational gold medal interview

Christine Ohuruogu
Christine Ohuruogu, by rosshuggett – found on Flickr

Wow, what a result for Christine Ohuruogu – a gold medal at the 2013 World Athletics Championship for the Women’s 400m by 4 thousandths of a second! As the GB team captain in Moscow, Christine certainly knows what it takes to perform at the highest level.

This morning I heard Christine’s winning interview and was inspired by her simple, but powerful message:

“The race isn’t won until I cross the line. I didn’t know if I had won or not. I dipped anyway. I knew I had to do whatever I could to make life harder for Amantle. If it was going to go close to the wire, I wanted to make it as hard as possible for her.”

There are many examples within sport we can use to inspire us – and this interview excerpt has some key take-home messages that are really applicable in day-to-day life.

The race isn’t won until you cross the line

It’s easy to give up – especially if you assume you’ve lost. Perhaps you feel that you will be overlooked for the next promotion, or that an exciting opportunity may be offered to someone else. Listen to Christine, and don’t assume anything. It’s never too late to make a change, so keep going until you cross the line.

Do your best no matter what you think the outcome will be

Again, this ties in with the first point, but the focus is more on your performance. Aim for the top in everything you do, whether it be a piece of work for your boss, or a 400m World Championship Final!

Your performance is in your hands. Listen to Christine and try your hardest, no matter what you think will happen.

In tight situations make it difficult for your opponent

Going back to my promotion example, perhaps you’ve assumed that another colleague is a shoe-in for the opportunity. Even if this is the case, aim to disrupt this by being as good as you can be – make the decision a hard one for management and you never know.

Imagine if Christine had decided that Amantle had won the race – she’d now be sitting on a silver medal, rather than being one if the most successful British female athletes of all time… Which would you prefer?

I’ve included the video below for those that want to see the race again.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cAN4mfY2vM