After a very interesting conversation with a colleague yesterday, I started thinking about the balance between professional competence and professional confidence. There is a sliding scale and a series of tradeoffs that are often made between these two, but they are not mutually exclusive.

What do I mean?

Competence: basically, how intelligent are you and do you have the skills to perform the task at hand? There are a variety of gradations on this one, and for junior professionals getting a footing on their roles, competence will depend on the task at hand. For example, if you work in business development and you are asked to manage a partner’s expectations regarding pricing, your competence will (hopefully) be fairly high. On the other hand if you’re in the same role and asked to conduct an acquisition analysis, your competence might be lower.

Confidence: the ability to project or exude positivity and/or certainty. This one is pretty self-explanatory. For example, if your manager asks you for an opinion on a subject about which you are an expert, you’ll be pretty confident in your response. If anyone asks me about, say, Twitter Ads, I will (hopefully) deliver my answer with confidence.

In the early years of a career, there is often a divergence or gap between confidence and competence. Depending on the industry you choose to enter, you might begin obtaining skills in one area but not the other. In my experience, when I graduated from college I felt both competent and confident. Boy was I wrong! Investment banking takes the following approach: undermine the confidence; destroy the competence. Then, build back the competence from the ground up, which may or may not restore the confidence.

Why does this gap exist?

It exists primarily for the purpose of professional training, but also to mark and delineate points of inflection in a career. By “breaking” both pieces of the puzzle, it represents something to work toward on each end of the spectrum. Once you have mastered both for a certain area, domain expertise, task, etc, then it’s time to move on to the next level. For most people, that’s a promotion or a new role. But with that new role comes a new set of challenges for which an individual must work to become both competent and confident.

Know Your Audience

There are some instances in which it’s better to lead with confidence than competence. I find that when I am presenting or working on something that I’m passionate about, my confidence trumps my competence. Should I work to close the gap? Yes. But the audience or recipients will benefit in some capacity by the enthusiasm or confidence I try to project.

On the other hand, competence can go a long way in trying to prove a point or in many analytical settings. “Show me, don’t tell me” can often lead to a competence trumping confidence attitude.

Why does it matter?

In thinking about my own career, it’s been helpful to catalogue the growth trajectories of both confidence and competence, not letting one preclude the other for too long, and understanding when it’s time to take on the next challenge. I recognize what broke my professional confidence initially and what it takes to build both confidence (having an opinion helps with this one) and competence (learning something broadly and deeply simultaneously helps with that.)

How do you think of this dichotomy?

h/t to @klineshoes for the thought exercise.


How To Be A Great Analyst: Part 2


Last week, I wrote a post on how to be a great analyst. It was the first of a series, and I got a number of positive responses and great feedback. One of the most poignant remarks made by several of my readers was that this advice is not only relevant for analysts, but also for people all the way up to CEO. In addition, some of my engineering friends reminded me that this is applicable to other entry-level or early-stage career paths, not just business analytics. Keeping that in mind, I hope this advice can be more broadly applicable to everyone.

Below are additional tips and tricks I would advise of new employees starting down the path of becoming an analyst. But first, as a refresher, last time I said that in order to be a great analyst, you should:

  1. Always try to solve the problem before asking someone for help
  2. Be scrappy and resourceful
  3. Ask questions
  4. Listen actively
  5. Carve a niche or become the expert on one task

Here are some more tips I adhere to, and I’ve also incorporated advice from various friends who have suggested additional advice on how to be a great analyst.

6. Set expectations correctly (courtesy of Mike): whenever you are asked to perform an analysis or complete an assignment, one of the first things you should do is set out an agenda for yourself. Know when the project is due, and set expectations for your manager accordingly. One of the biggest secrets in the world of an analyst is to always “under-promise and over-perform.” In other words, don’t promise the moon and hand in B- work 2 days late. Set an expectation slightly below the bar of what you are capable of achieving, and then go for the gold.

7. Anticipate the next question before it gets asked: inevitably in an analytical role, you will be asked to come up with a story for a large set of data or craft an argument for why your company should go in a strategic direct, etc. If you are conducting this analysis, the person presenting or listening to the pitch will have follow up questions about why you didn’t cut the data a certain way, why you omitted a certain argument, or why slide 4 came before slide 6. The difference between a good analyst and a great analyst is that you have already thought of the answers to those questions (and likely addressed them in the appendix of a pitch deck, for example). Being prepared and thinking on behalf of the other person means that you are professionally mature.

8. Bring a good attitude (courtesy of Jeff): No matter what your mood is or what might be affecting your happiness level at work or outside of the office, come in with a positive demeanor and a can-do attitude. It seems corny, but I would much rather trust someone who is generally happy to be there with a large, meaningful assignment, than someone who begrudgingly does their work. A smile and an eager spirit will advance your career tremendously.

9. Treat everything with a small dose of skepticism: just because a process or a document preceded you, does not necessarily mean it’s correct. When I was in banking, I inherited many documents and systems that had to be updated weekly, but it didn’t necessarily mean that everything that came before me was accurate. More importantly, in fast-moving corporate environments, documentation can be sparse and outdated. Don’t take everything at face value, but figure out the right answer and document it appropriately.

10.  Understand that no piece of data is impossible to find (courtesy of Kevan): “Almost anything triangulated one way or another.” In other words, get creative. Just because you can’t figure out that exact data point doesn’t mean it can’t be fabricated or calculated by using other data that is available to you. In addition, if you are going down a rabbit hole with your data analysis and a data point is too difficult to find? You’re probably barking up the wrong tree and you’ve picked the wrong metric. Use a proxy metric or an associated data point to come to the assessment you are looking for.

11. Make airtight conclusions: Don’t assume that just because the data tells one story that it is the only correct assessment. Data can be read in more than one way. If there is even the possibility of a loophole in your argument, address it either in the data assessment or to your manager. If you brush it off or pretend it doesn’t exist, and you’ve noticed the loophole, chances are someone you work with will notice the same. Better to address counterarguments on your own terms.

12. Always confirm receipt of an email, especially if it includes an assignment: professional responsibility means sending a confirmation response, even if it’s just one sentence. Your manager will be grateful to know that you acknowledge that you received whatever he or she has sent your way than to play the guessing game. It will also keep you organized as far as understanding your tasks and to dos.

13. Know when to send raw data versus a clean copy: For spreadsheets containing raw data and/or your own original work, when sending something external, never leave formulas in Excel. They should never see how the sausage was made, everything should be values. Conversely, if you’re sending something internal, always leave the formulas. You’re all on the same team: no point in making someone internal recreate your work. The same goes for PowerPoint or Word: while it’s more difficult to send somebody something with formulas, PDF the presentation or document if sending externally.

14. Pay attention to the details: As an analyst you have one job: to perform high-importance analysis of information. If you get a detail wrong, the basis of your entire analysis is incorrect. In my opinion, the highest praise of an analyst is that his or her attention to detail is fantastic. Take a deep breath and proofread before you send anything out (even a 1 sentence email should be re-read; Google labs 10-second undo send will become your best friend). Spot check your calculations and cross reference them with another source where possible. Know where every piece of data was retrieved even if you did not perform the first analysis. You will be asked where the data came from at some point in the process.

15. Make allies with your fellow analysts: This should go without saying, but think of yourselves as one team, even if you don’t necessarily perform the same tasks or functions. You are most likely experiencing similar issues, problems, frustrations, questions, etc at the same time and can help one another through the journey. And when new junior people come on board, them too. You never know when that connection will come in handy, and you need people to rely on when you need help.

I have a list of about 60 best practices for analysts regardless of field. If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to Tweet at me and I’ll be happy to share. As always, please feel free to comment here or email me if you have additional suggestions!

How To Be A Great Analyst: Part 2

How To Be A Great Analyst: Part 1


This is one post in a series on how to be a great corporate analyst, no matter what field you’re in. Stay tuned next week for more.

Most young professionals in the business world start off in some form as an “analyst,” regardless of whether or not your job title reflects that nomenclature. What does that mean exactly? It depends on your specific job, but in general an analyst is one who is asked to assess various business procedures based on data-driven insights, and represent those findings in an easily-digestible format. Analysts are often not on the front lines: not necessarily the ones presenting those findings to executives, or making the final business decisions. Instead, they provide the foundation for these decisions; without them, the pillars wouldn’t stand.

So what makes a great analyst? Here are some of my thoughts, but I am not the expert on the subject. Additions and suggestions are welcome.

  1. Always try to solve the problem before asking someone for help: if you don’t know how to solve a problem or conduct an analysis, try to do as much as you can before turning to others. This means carefully researching something, coming up with a process, Googling, or otherwise, to show that you’ve thought about it and gotten as far as you can without someone’s assistance. #Protip: usually you’ll figure it out by yourself, and you’ll be glad you didn’t use that favor chip unwisely.
  2. Be scrappy and resourceful: regardless of whether you are in an industry that has templates for decks or you work for a 10-person company, your job as an analyst is to figure out the answer to a question when asked. One of the best resources is your network. If you don’t know how to solve a problem, know the person who can get you closest to the answer.
  3. Ask questions: the best analyst, when given an assignment or a project, doesn’t not, smile, and accept. If you’re being asked to analyze something, the first test is to ask lots of questions about the task at hand. Ask about the methodology. Ask clarification questions. Ask anything you need to know to complete the assignment. You have a window of time in which asking questions is necessary and expected, but that window closes relatively quickly. If you’re a week into an assignment and you are asking basic questions, it shows that you didn’t think critically or thoroughly when you received the assignment. And don’t be afraid to ask questions that push back where appropriate. You are being judged by your understanding and framing of the problem as much as you are the outcome.
  4. Listen actively: As an analyst, you are most likely going to be touching data and process most closely. As a result, you are probably inclined to want to speak or voice your opinion at all times. Although I always advocate having an opinion, listening is an equally valuable quality as an analyst. By listening actively, you pick up on small bits of information that might prove to be helpful down the line.
  5. Carve a niche or become the expert on one task: when you begin your career, you will be asked to do a broad variety of tasks to bolster various skills. But your real value comes when you can become an expert in one thing: either a type of project, a subject matter, or a particular product. If everyone in your org thinks of you as the master of that one thing, you will be the default for any project that involves that matter. It could open your doors and your eyes to paths you had never previously considered, and builds your rapport with leaders at the company.

…More tips on how to be a great analyst next week! 

How To Be A Great Analyst: Part 1

Have An Opinion

Illustration - raised hands

This post is a precursor to a series I will start on Thursday about how to be a great analyst.

I worked at an investment bank after college and despite the merits/downsides that someone like Kevin Roose talks about in Young Money, it was a formidable experience laying a great professional groundwork for me. The one major detriment when I came out of it, however, was that I lacked the professional confidence to form an opinion.

Those who know me know that I am never one to shy away from expressing my thoughts. To put it generously, I’m opinionated about pretty much everything. But toward the end of my time on the trading floor, a managing director and desk leader asked for my opinion on something during a meeting in front of a large group. I was speechless: I’d been doing the same thing over and over again for two years and no one had solicited my advice, so I hadn’t even bothered to form subjective thoughts on the matter. That was a big mistake.

The technology world is a slightly more egalitarian system. Age is not a correlation for success or capitalization on ideas (in fact, the converse is more often true). It’s also a world of rapid innovation, and with fast change comes a huge opportunity to jump in headfirst. Forming an opinion is one of the most important ways to rise to a challenge and step up to a leadership position.

Forming an opinion is a gut reaction that keeps you attuned to your surroundings. Know how you feel about that new product or the updated color scheme. It’s as simple as that. Reading commentary can help shape or inform an opinion, but ordinarily it’s entirely your own. By having an opinion, it shows that you are well-researched and insightful enough to digest what you have gleaned in order to make it your own. In interviews, I often ask for people’s opinions on various trends or products just to see how they process information.

In addition, forming an opinion is one of the many ways you can be an excellent analyst or more-junior contributor. If you feel strongly about something, it will motivate you to work toward your passions, and it will demonstrate that you add value by intelligently understanding your surroundings.

But be compromising. Argue your point in a tactful way and back it up with data or concrete examples if possible. And then listen. Your opinion isn’t the only one in the room and it’s as subjective as anything else; there’s no right answer and you should remain open-minded to incorporating others’ philosophies into your own. Don’t make enemies over your opinions.

Have An Opinion