Skip to content

Leadership by the Numbers

No really, the math isn’t that hard.

In late April–a month into the last quarter of our fiscal year–I was presenting at a statewide deans’ council on a major proposal (the short version: tightening up our “loose federation”) when the emails started arriving. In minutes, everything changed. Suddenly I was in the middle of Fiscalpocalypse 2016, a crisis the diameter of Jupiter.

For the next five weeks, I lived and breathed the Fiscalpocalypse. Suddenly thrust by necessity into the role of chief fiscal analyst, I began running report after report (not without a lot of coaching and encouragement from other financial analysts), pushing hard to find the real answers to basic questions: how much do we have, what are our obligations, what do we need to keep or cut, and what contractual obligations am I able to commit to.

It’s what I did at 4 a.m., 9 p.m., weekends, holidays, every spare moment. I had a lot of spare moments because the stress of this situation bore down on me like the atmospheric pressure on Venus. Sleep was scarce and troubled. Reading anything unrelated to the issue was impossible; staring at pages, all I saw were numbers. Even half-hour walks or visits to the YMCA found me absentmindedly going through the motions while my brain churned ceaselessly, yammering through multiple scenarios, combing through formulae for clues. The clues were important, because I needed to know how we got to Fiscalpocalypse 2016 so I would understand how to get us out of it.

It was not entirely unanticipated. Once you start asking, “Do we need an audit?” you already know the answer. And the system worked, because there was a “catch” from above that resulted in those emails and in my temporarily expanding my portfolio to include budget analyst. But actual situations have jagged edges missing from anticipation of the same, and those edges hurt.

Nevertheless, there came a Sunday afternoon when I felt profound relief washing over me, releasing the muscles in my back and neck until I felt myself uncurl and sit fully upright for the first time since the crisis began. I went for a walk, and was able to listen to a podcast and enjoy the flowers. I had dinner, and tasted the food. I slept the night through. I woke up and felt, to use that great expression, like my old self. I greeted old self warmly. She was missed.

It wasn’t that the situation was better. It was rather grim. It was that finally, I knew exactly what was going on. And note, I didn’t “feel” or “believe” I knew what was going on; I knew it. Because the thing about numbers is that most of the time, if you have confidence, experience, and are handy with basic arithmetic, as long as your data are credible, you can manage a budget for any institution smaller than say, the Air Force.

Most of us can do arithmetic; the confidence will come with experience. What has struck me repeatedly across my twenty-plus years in libraries is the dearth of experience: too many library professionals go much too long in their careers before they participate in managing budgets. By budgets, I don’t mean a small chunk of money set aside for spending on books, not that this isn’t a good place to start. I mean the whole solar system: salaries, materials, operations. Even in private institutions where most regular salaries are kept confidential, two out of three of those planets should be available to up and coming professionals.

It’s good practice to have other eyes on your numbers (which I do), but I will be frank and say that across the years, particularly at jobs in smaller institutions, it’s been up to me to pretty much manage the beans on my own. I was accountable for each bean and it was assumed I would “make book,” and without really thinking about it, I did that (I guess because I had to do that in the Air Force, and I didn’t think about it much there either).

And what I know about numbers is they are impervious to emotion. I can cry my eyes out, and the numbers don’t get bigger or smaller. I can fume and rant, and they stay just as they are. I can wander the halls with a tragic face, and when I come back, the numbers are exactly as I left them. It’s something I like about numbers, at least the sort of numbers we deal with in library budgets: in this crazy malleable fungible mutable world, numbers just ARE.

(Now, this rule applies internally. It does not apply to outside forces who may indeed may have multiple interpretations of fiscal policies that have significant impact on allocations and so on. I’m referring to the paper sack of money a library administrator sits on and manages.)

Here is a pattern from my career: I arrive at an institution, I get hands-on with a budget (either a big chunk assigned to me, or the whole thing), and I unearth the bugs. It could be approval plans someone forgot about, mindlessly siphoning money every year though nobody needs those resources any more. (For a long while, I could count on finding forgotten¬† microfilm subscriptions.) It could be a personnel line or another item from another department erroneously appearing in my ledger. These things really happened at different institutions, and they weren’t a big deal. In each case I found myself earning the respect of the financial folks because they saw I wasn’t queasy about budgets and I wasn’t afraid to dig in and do the work.

But for a lot of library people, for a major portion of their career, the bulk of the budget is a distant drumbeat. There is enough money or not enough or suddenly some left over, and that’s what they know. Nor are they pushed, or push themselves, to learn the basic skills they need to manage money. I consider my Excel skills modest, but I have seen library professionals in fairly important positions unable to do basic tasks such as filtering, subtotaling, and linking formulas.¬† Far too many times I have looked at a spreadsheet where X+ Y is a hand-keyed sum that does not equal the sum of X + Y, or where a number sits without explanation: what is it, and where did it come from? Some of the scariest documents I have ever seen in my career were annual fiscal forecasts, purportedly ledger-based, created in Microsoft. Effing. Word.

And let’s not discuss how many library organizations have been stricken with accounting fraud that happened because one person in an organization had exclusive control of the money and the executive just didn’t “do math.” When “Father Knows Best,” watch out.

People, these are LIBRARY BUDGETS. I remember someone telling me our budget was complex and I said no, the federal budget is complex, we don’t have enough money to be complex. Library budgets don’t require understanding credit default swaps or synthetic CDOs. Even if you have more than one fund (and we do) and even if those funds can change from year to year (and that’s true as well), and of course everything goes up in cost all the time: in the end, to quote a Wendy’s commercial that was a mantra of logistics management during my time in the Air Force, parts is parts.

A lot of fiscal literacy boils down to being willing to look at the numbers logically and head-on. Not emotionally, not with “oh but I don’t do math,” not with a pernicious disinterest in the source of life (and that’s what money is to a library), but just pulling out those skills that got you through fourth grade.

Once upon a time long ago, in a galaxy far away, I spent two days in a conversation that went like the following. Assume the usual facts about FTEs (full time equivalents); there are no tricks or hidden exceptions in this example, and let me give you this crucial factoid: the number this is based on is $144,000.

Person A: How many student worker FTE did we have last year?

Person B: 2.6.

Me: No way.

Person B: 2.6.

Person A. I don’t really know anything about this.

Me: Arrgh! There’s no way! (Opens calculator, just in case fourth-grade math skills had vanished) How could student workers make this much?

Person B: It’s annualized.

(Note use of jargon to try to deflect inquiry. Of course FTE is based on an annual calculation, but it’s not “annualized,” though I do consider student workers a good investment, in the more general sense.)

For the next two days, I kept saying “no way,” because anyone with basic math sense knows that student workers don’t earn that much; even if you don’t know the rate of pay, you know, from a quick scribble on that scratchpad you keep in the front of your skull right above your eyeballs, that 144,000 divided by 2.6 would result in a salary of ca. $55,000 a year. That’s before you factor in more insider baseball knowledge, such as the size of the library and student headcount so on. It’s like when grocery store eggs shot up in price last year and I thought holy moley, a dollar-plus an egg? I didn’t need to pull out a calculator to know something strange had happened to the price of eggs. In the end, I was tolerated, not believed, by Person B.¬† I hope Person A has since nurtured at least a soupcon of mathematical curiosity.

But anyway, back to the present tense. Fiscalpocalypse 2016 isn’t over, but it’s under control. At MPOW, the plane is no longer flying into the side of the mountain; it now has excellent airspeed and heading, and my hand is firmly on the throttle. It’s a smaller plane, but I know what it is made of, from its nose cone to its flamethrowers to its empennage, and I will trade in a large, bloblike uncertainty hurtling who knows where for a trim but crisp certainty with a functioning GPS any day. I’m where I need to be in relation to knowing our finances, not just for the moment but the future, and I make sure key people know the deets, too. This is how I run things now, as I have elsewhere. Yes, we will be hiring a budget analyst, and I look forward to firing myself from my role as CFO (though not from my responsibility to know what is going on). But if there is one good thing to come out of this, it is the opportunity for me to dig deep into the financials and get to truly know the source of life for all we do. War is not peace, numbers do not cry or pout, and blessedly, parts is parts.

Posted on this day, other years: