The surest recipe for striking fear in those unfamiliar with financial terminology is to overwhelm them with too much information. To that end, avoid sharing details that only a bona fide accountant needs to know when communicating your numbers to non-financial personnel, advises AME Learning President Neville Joffe. Instead, identify one or more key metrics that workers actually have the capacity to control. Then, craft your training and reinforcement strategy around those metrics.
There's no point in telling workers you want them to improve gross margin if you aren't willing to expose the numbers behind such metrics, says Joffe. Nevertheless, he says, many companies are reluctant to share information out of fear of revealing too much. His advice? You don't need to show people all of the numbers; you just need to show them the ones they can impact.
For example, establish a plan for debriefing employees regarding the company's financial performance on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis. Hold department meetings during which team members discuss and chart their progress in comparison to established goals. Post visuals around the office that depict the company's key metrics, goals, and performance. Write success stories featuring those doing their part to influence the company's metrics and include them in the company newsletter or on the corporate intranet.
"People think tiny improvements or waste have an insignificant impact on operating results," says Joffe. "However, all small amounts accumulatively make a huge difference relative to the small amount left on the bottom."
Before leaders at Southwest Airlines conduct a "Reel Deal" program for their reports, for example, they first complete an intensive "Teach-the-Teacher" workshop designed to ensure they know the content inside and out and are prepared to present it to others and facilitate constructive conversations. Post-training, these leaders also are encouraged to always be prepared to tell a one-minute story about the trends behind each of the company's four financial metrics, in order to bring them alive to their reports. Another option? Follow the advice of Lawrence MacGregor Serven, author of "Beyond Office Politics as Usual" (AMACOM, 2002). He recommends having non-financial employees present the monthly performance results to the organization. "Not only will the presenters gain an appreciation for what happened during the period of review, but they'll gain valuable knowledge about how the company works, especially beyond their own area, and how it measures its performance. In other words, they'll build their business literacy."
In some instances, deployment of the right tools can even take the place of training. In 2005, for example, EMCOR Group Inc., a Fortune 500 construction company headquartered in Norwalk, CT, deployed XLerant's BudgetPak software to department heads throughout the organization. The user-friendly, TurboTax-like software, says EMCOR Group VP and Controller William Feher, essentially has "democratized" budgeting throughout the company because it uses plain English to help non-financial workers develop, track, and maintain budgets without the use of a single spreadsheet. And thanks to functionality built into the software that allows workers to see moment-to-moment actual-vs.-projected budget figures, department heads now are doing amuch better job of creating accurate budgets and keeping costs down, says Feher.