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Business as a Second Language

Many successful people in business are numbers people. They easily manipulate formulas in their heads and like to show off by doing fast math in their heads in large group meetings.

I am not one of those people.

I remember one boss saying to me, “You need to learn how to do math in your head, like _________”. Frankly, I rejected that feedback as ridiculous. I could no more learn to do fast math in my head than I could turn a cartwheel, and both seemed equally unnecessary in a business setting. Doing math in your head and being able to write a business case are not highly related skills.

But there is one great advantage the numbers people have. Their skills are easily understood to be transferable, and numbers are reassuringly the same even as you switch industries.

I am a words person. I love Scrabble and reading and languages. And businesses tend to develop a shorthand language.  You don’t even realize you are doing it, until someone new comes along and sits through an entire meeting, purportedly conducted in their native tongue, only to find they grasp only 50% of what’s said.

I remember vividly my first big meeting at LexisNexis. I was a marketing manager and attended a status meeting on a new product. The attendees went on and on about the “site list”. I was bewildered. Why were we making a list of sites? Who wanted to buy that? Where were these sites? Later, someone clarified, “citation list”, but this only helped a little. Why did lawyers want to buy bibliographies?

If you don’t figure out what these words mean, you can miss a great deal. And that doesn’t even account for acronyms. Consider the following, quite typical exchange,

“Hey, are you ready for the RF? I need you to get input on POS, particularly for GPS and the Lit products. How far are we off from look back?”

I’ve been reminded of this process of indoctrination as I’ve started working at a new company. We use a WRF model to forecast, and our data sources include the CSFR and METAR. We hindcast and downscale, and we can give you data as a TMY, XMY or FMY.

This time around, though, I’ve learned my lesson. Better to stop the meeting and ask for clarification. It’s the best way to avoid that awkward moment when someone says, “what do you think?”, and you aren’t sure if you’re discussing a government agency, a weather modeling term, or something related to private equity financing.


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