I deeply respect and admire people who are across their numbers. For me, there is such an impressive quality to a colleague who can come into a discussion prepared with knowledge about the health of not just their team, but the teams they connect to, even more so if they have the full picture of the business at large that they can wield to drive a discussion towards some kind of objective narrative (knowing that one number may not hold the whole picture, but a few together can tell a story worth investigating). ARR, EBITDA, upcoming renewals, contracts at risk, monthly spend, margin, cash runway...
Quite often now when I do advisory work I ask People and Operations Leaders alike some basic facts on the business and I am met with “let me get back to you” or “I’d need to ask Finance,” it’s so common that it’s not shocking anymore. Perhaps the frequency is the shock now.
If you are a leader, you need to be a numbers person.
I say this as someone who has not always been a numbers person, I’m the kind of person who, for a very long time, lived in the anecdotal. In many ways, being able to see trends and interesting quirks in qualitative information is incredibly valuable (and got me much of the way to where I am today), but as I progressed in my career it was clear to me that the more I knew about the facts of the business, the better decisions I could make.
Why are we so scared of visibility?
Becoming a numbers person is not always easy, and one thing I’ve learned in the last few years is that it is systemic more frequently than it is a lack of desire. Many people want to be numbers people, not just for curiosity, but for value. Knowing the full picture of the system you operate within is incredibly powerful — it gives a harsh reality of a business struggling in a difficult market, or a product failing to find PMF. It can highlight problems you are yet to face, and trends that are barely fledgling. It can give you insight into what you may be doing well in one team, that is being mishandled by another. Knowing your numbers is power, and sometimes leadership teams and businesses struggle to give that power out of fear. Why is it so scary?
It turns out, for quite a few reasons. CEOs and Founders I’ve worked with in the past have shared fears of folks losing faith in a strategy, of quitting a business they thought was “on the rocks”, or of challenging other teams too harshly when they see the facts laid out. I challenge that those are good things to tackle through better visibility rather than less. By empowering your team to truly know the reality in which they’re working, you are empowering them to rise to the challenge, make better decisions, and feel bought into the “why” behind your strategy. It should, in short, make things easier: to communicate, to decide, to pivot.
What makes it so damned hard?
I’ve been a part of a lot of businesses who have employed complex documentation, systems, SaaS tools, and processes in order to produce monthly or quarterly reports on progress. Sometimes these reports are automated, emailed out to an eager audience of almost no one — because they require little insight or discussion. Sometimes these reports are laborious, retrospective, and operational: how many hires did we make, what’s our website traffic, which customers do we attribute where? These reports don’t necessarily feel like they drive decisions, so people complain or disengage. How often have you been responsible for some kind of board or executive report which, when the rubber hits the road in a moment of crisis, is confirmed to be a low priority so you can “focus on execution”?
Getting some kind of useful structure around your data, so people feel empowered to interrogate, discuss, pivot, is really bloody hard. Because it is, but also because (in my experience at least) we’re often using it incorrectly. Feeding it back into reporting meetings rather than using it live for decision making in a repeatable, safe way.
My soapbox about WBRs.
There are very few things in my life I’ll get on a soapbox for. The Eurostar, Veganism, Open Compensation… my Cat? One of these things is a Weekly Business Review, or WBR. At Whereby we affectionately call our WBR “Let’s Run a Business” it’s a weekly, sacred time, that follows a set format, has a clear outcome, and involves as much visibility and transparently as a company can offer its team.
N.B: At this point I have to thank my dear colleague and friend Andy Tyra for his adoption and evolution of this approach into something I truly cannot live without, and for being such an excellent colleague that truly believes in trust and accountability in a way I think you’d be hard pressed to match.
I’ve been a part of a lot of businesses who have employed complex documentation, systems and infrastructure around business health, but are yet to crack the WBR in a way that’s truly helpful in enabling their whole team to become numbers people. Let me tell you about how to run a WBR, what to think about, how to structure it, and what it can solve for you.
What is a WBR
Businesses are complex systems subject to the Elephant Problem. A well-run Weekly Business Review helps you get the right people together in one place, every week at a set time, to look at the most important data on a regular cadence, and have an open and challenging discussion about what critical decisions must be made as a team. It’s an expensive meeting. It requires, very often, manual data handling, and it will absolutely raise more questions than answers — some of them very difficult to face. It’s not always a nice time, but it is an incredibly valuable time.
Guidelines you cannot ignore
Your deck needs the full truth.
- Do not attempt to keep some information opaque or behind closed doors if it feeds up to your primary company metric or leading indicators. This means margin (even if it’s sensitive), it may mean headcount or overheads, and it will certainly be more information about your revenue than feels good at first.
- If you don’t have a number, you need to face that reality. Yes, it may be manual to get it, that’s by design. These are critical numbers and if you cannot interact with them easily then none of you can: it’s exposing a problem. If you cannot pull the numbers due to technical or data limitations, we need to look at that gap every week and acknowledge what it means.
- Do not fall trap into getting the numbers your systems automatically give you. Be critical, ask what you really need to make good decisions, and continue asking those questions every week. If your numbers are on the sheet solely because they’re easy to get, you may be missing crucial insights to some hidden corners of your operations.
These meetings are expensive: 1 hour every week. All executives, many strategic leaders, and often some senior ICs.
- Don’t waste time. Data is expected to be added before the meeting. If you’re away get someone else to do it.
- We spend 5 minutes together reviewing the deck. This requires full attention and curiosity. You will get called on eventually, so best we know our situation before that happens.
- Don’t be afraid of asking “stupid questions”. Ask anything you don’t understand. Be driven by the desire to know the deck backwards and forwards. We ask that everyone writes callouts and action items before the meeting and in the 5 minutes to review, and we use that as the agenda.
No one owns this meeting because we all own this meeting.
- The chair rotates every week. The chair is expected to: ensure the data is present, create the call-outs and action items agenda, run the meeting competently, and post the summary of the findings for the entire company to review.
- Disengage at your own peril, if you are expected to chair this meeting and you are not adequately prepared, it’s a critical failure.
Be curious and kind
- It’s crucial we are all curious and open to people challenging us, as well as being scrutinized. We should trust that each of us can only benefit from this!
- Don’t challenge people, challenge numbers. Don’t blame, shame, or patronise, everything must come from a place of genuine desire to improve the company as a whole, not just what you are responsible for.
Overall this meeting should set the stage for a discussion that leaves no room for bullshit. It’s a friendly, candid, and strategic conversation about the levers you can pull to do better work as a team.
Everyone should leave this meeting with all of the tools they need to be numbers people.
What a WBR looks like generally
The Agenda: A running google doc or notion page of action items, call outs, and notes from the meeting. A structure I think works:
- Review: 5 minutes to review The Deck together + add callouts below. Play some nice music, make it fun.
- Action items: Run through action items or call outs from last week.
- Call-outs: Run through any call-outs in the deck made during the review. Make a note of which line, who called it out, and what they wanted to discuss. * NOTE below.
- Set action items: Set any follow up action items.
- Summary: Chair to post summary of the meeting to the entire company (maybe for the first few weeks you just share within a leadership group). Share a recording to the Google Folder for future review.
*Note: This may include meetings, but never permanently recurring. Sometimes you may need a 3-month sequence of meetings through a key period or project. Sometimes it’s just a handful of meetings until a decision is made. I try to avoid new recurring meetings wherever possible.
Give back the rest of the time, if you have any.
The value is unbelievable
Like I said, numbers are powerful. These meetings are able to surface complex cross-functional relationships that may otherwise remain unresolved, it should also be a great way to address problems before they occur, identify trends that may change your behaviour, and enable your teams to make quicker and better informed decisions.
I’ve seen huge benefits from this meeting, and it’s been able to be a driving force for a company to go from really struggling to understand its health to having a cohesive sense of the direction, priorities, and threats to success.
If you’re feeling the pain of lack of visibility, and want to move your company in the direction of having more numbers people, I strongly suggest you pick up this habit. It may be a bit shonky at first (although you are likely to surprise yourself, everywhere I’ve implemented this or suggested this change has seen positive outcomes), but give yourself three months, review, adjust, and take feedback.
If you want some more context, I suggest you read this really great interview with AirOps COO, Mark Williamson.
Want to build something like this out, or need some help to do so? Reach out to me, I’d love to get some time to chat through my process and give you insight into how to influence this kind of change.
Ok that’s all from me, folks. 👋
👉Template deck here.👈 Please ask for access so I can see who is reading along.
👉 Buy my book on Amazon! 👈
I talk plenty more about this way of working, and how to use product management methodologies day-to-day, I’ve been told it’s a good read, but I’m never quite sure.