By Frederick J. Sievert
Focus World/courtesy Everett Collection
People starting their careers often ask me what they can do to get their new companies and management teams to notice them and view them as “high potential.” This is a concern even for recent college graduates who excelled in their studies and yet often wonder when the career they hoped for will really get launched.
Even business school graduates often wonder how they can become noticed by senior management. This can lead to disappointment, frustration and a feeling that their expensive education will never really pan out the way parents, instructors and friends had claimed.
The biggest career blocker
When I was the president of New York Life Insurance Co., I saw many young people, and even high-level executives, place self-imposed limits on their advancement because they paid little or no attention to the company’s financial results. Nor did they appropriately consider financial impacts in their decision making.
As I thought about my New York life experience, I asked myself, “What is the biggest career blocker and deficiency among employees at all levels?”
The answer came to me quickly: “They simply don’t understand or appreciate the importance of financial results.”
Too often, the focus is solely on top-line sales and revenue growth — almost to the exclusion of balancing a budget and achieving a strong bottom line. Even worse, many executives can’t read a financial statement, much less manage to one.
A simple but powerful way to distinguish yourself
If you have never taken an accounting or business course, don’t despair. What I am about to propose is something that requires no such background. It’s a challenge that I hope you’ll embrace enthusiastically because it will help you get noticed.
Here’s the approach I have recommended to many recent graduates, with much reported success.
Seek out someone from your company’s finance or accounting department who is willing to spend a little time providing you with a high-level understanding of the financial reports. You don’t need to master the line-by-line entries in the statements. You need only a rudimentary knowledge of accounting and an understanding of how periodic earnings flow into the balance sheet and impact the company’s financial condition.
To assist in your periodic review of results, develop a spreadsheet that keeps track (on a quarterly basis) of the highest-level summary numbers from the income statement (total revenue, total expenses and net income) and the balance sheet (assets, liabilities and net worth). These simple steps are likely to make you one of only a handful of people (outside the accounting department) who is familiar with those results and how they are changing over time.
The killer question
Once you have a reasonably good grasp of those numbers and how they flow from quarter to quarter, go back to the person in accounting and ask this killer question: “What are the key quantifiable drivers of the profitability of our business?”
You will probably shock your contact in the accounting department. My bet is that the initial answer will be something like “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
There should be three or four key quantifiable drivers of future profitability that you can add to your quarterly tracking of the income statement and balance sheet noted above. Starting early in your career with this tracking discipline and then maintaining it will serve you well as you advance in the organization.
As your knowledge increases and as your friend in the accounting department continues to answer future questions and enhance your business development, I wouldn’t be surprised if the CEO will hear that you were asking such questions -- even if it’s a large company. Indeed, many young graduates have told me that happened to them.
As you advance in your career, don’t lose sight of the fact that every decision should be informed by its financial implications. Remind yourself often of the answers to the killer question!
Frederick J. Sievert retired as president of New York Life Insurance Co., a Fortune 100 Company, at the height of his career to attend Yale Divinity School. He is the author of the books “God Revealed: Revisit Your Past to Enrich Your Future” and “Grace Revealed: Finding God’s Strength in Any Crisis.”
More career advice on MarketWatch: An FBI hostage negotiator reveals the secret to demanding the raise you deserve