Take a financial fitness test!

Gone are the days when you could brush away any mention of matters financial with a light wave of the hand and an unselfconscious, "Oh, don't talk to me about figures!" It may not be your favourite topic, but to be taken seriously in today's workplace financial knowledge is a must-have. Author and editor of DeskDemon's career strand, Sally Longson, explains why

By Sally Longson

Do you know what a profit and loss account is? Or a balance sheet? Can you set up and manage a budget, and understand why financial controls are necessary? If you want to be taken seriously in your job - and especially if you've got an eye on the career ladder - it's vital you are seen to be comfortable discussing these topics.

"Many PAs and secretaries are finding that their role is becoming much more than an administrative role," Paul Jacobs, Managing Director of secretarial and admin recruiters Office Angels points out. "Their ability to network, build relationships with clients and manage projects plays a pivotal role in business. Many are also responsible for updating company or departmental budgets and monitoring invoices. PAs and office support staff will definitely benefit from a basic understanding of business finance."

Knowing the rudiments of finance gives you a greater insight into the implications that costs, budgets, and cash flow have for your department, and your firm. It enables you to understand better why organisations make certain decisions, and it will bring the bottom line into clearer focus.

Can you confidently explain these financial terms? If not...
go and find out!
• Balance sheet • Fixed costs
• Profit and loss statement • Turnover
• The bottom line • Cash flow forecast
• Overheads • Cost of sale
• Working capital • Year end
• Financial year • Equity

Jaqui Perry, a corporate coach, says: "The most important qualities for a PA are a suitable (if only apparent) reverence for number crunching and most definitely an eye for complete accuracy. It's reasonable to expect someone to be able to read and understand corporate financial statements, and profit and loss accounts. However, they would never need to interpret them in any other way as they should be surrounded by analysts, statisticians, and MDs."

As is often the case, much depends on the size of the company and the nature of the role you carve out for yourself. Angela Chapman, a senior consultant from Joslin Rowe's permanent secretarial and office support division says, "It depends on the department you go into, how the organisation is structured and what sort of knowledge you need. If you are on an equities desk in an investment bank, you certainly need to know what equities are and how that department works with the rest of the bank. Unless you take qualifications, you can't advise clients over the phone, but you can at least sound as though you know what you're talking about."

Simon Pridgeon, Marketing Manager of Reed Training says, "PAs are being asked to do more and more specialist tasks, and there's a huge demand for PAs to have financial skills. Companies are relying more on PAs; they're reluctant to invest in fully qualified accounting personnel. Many see becoming more of a specialist as a career progression. You can be the only one in the office who knows about a subject, which puts you in a position of power, especially in a small company. Specialist knowledge gives you confidence, and empowers you."

Reed Training runs a one day course, Finance for the Personal Assistant, which enables delegates to understand financial jargon and basic elements of financial management. It seeks to outline the need for financial controls, explains financial statements and gives an overview of budgets. "If you're working for a finance manager and controller, even if it's just typing up figures, it does help if you understand what you're doing," Simon comments.

"There is an increasing demand for PAs and Office Professionals to be able to interpret key financial information and manage budgets," observes Jean Sutcliffe, Senior Learning and Development Consultant of training providers Hemsley Fraser. "Our Diploma in Business Administration, which features several courses, equips delegates with the tools to meet this need. These courses are designed specifically for the office professional using scenarios that they will be able to relate to or will have come across in their day-to-day work."

And don't forget, if you're not sure - find out! A wealth of resources exist within your own organisation to help you further your knowledge, and you may not need to take a training course. People around you will be keen to help, and your interest and enthusiasm will be noted. Ask friends and colleagues, too, to explain important financial and economic issues, or buy yourself an introduction to finance, such as Basic Financial Skills (by Jennifer Bean and Lascelles Hussey, due to publish June 2004, Hb Publications).

Finally, if you're one of those people who sees a red mist descend any time matters financial are mentioned, learn to conquer your fear! Take it in bite-sized pieces, making sure you understand each element before progressing, and as your confidence grows you'll realise it's actually not as daunting as it seems.

How to get yourself financially fitter!
• read widely in the sector, especially trade magazines both on- and offline, and your in-house newsletter or magazine
• keep an eye on the general market news in financial papers and websites
• ask a member of your financial team for a one-to-one tutorial on the basics
• approach your marketing department to give you an overview of the market your firm operates in
• when listening to economics and business items on news bulletins, ask yourself each time, "How will that affect us?"
• get your boss to explain the firm's business plan and financial priorities for the coming year and the medium term

Check out DeskDemon's finance information, for easy to access explanations of financial terms

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