Attention to detail: balancing act between perfectionism and reaching a minimum standard

“Juan, your goal as an analyst is to have absolutely no mistakes. Zero errors”. Those were the opening and closing remarks of one of my direct supervisors during my first training session after joining the Private Equity world, almost 20 years ago in Argentina. Fast forward a decade and, as I networked and looked for my next job in New York and London, “attention to detail” was at the centre of the desired qualities of an associate or VP.

Let’s start with the basics beyond jargon and very well-rehearsed answers by promising analysts and associates. Attention to detail is critical in Finance because we process (crunch) a significant amount of data in usually tight timeframes. It is critical then that when we are producing outputs (from presentations or “decks”, to memos to e-mails or other kind of less formal papers), the product is as error-less as possible. As my boss back in early 2000s described, the problem is that when an inconsistent number or a typo (ie. Spelling mistake) is spotted, then suddenly a sense of mistrust arises in the consumer of the report/the e-mail/the deck. And then all of the numbers (which are generally a lot) are called into question in your supervisor’s head.

Too little

Let’s start with what can result in an early exit of your career in Finance. Attention to detail, especially at junior levels, is critical. While this article tries to take the drama away from being a “typo-less” machine without a trace of inconsistency in your presentations, I want to be blunt and say that if you are constantly producing inconsistent outputs, your numbers rarely tie up and even as time goes by, your supervisors continue to spot gross mistakes, then you should reconsider the focus on Finance.

As mentioned, attention to detail is a staple in the industry because there is a lot of numbers and data to crunch, and therefore the need to depend on the capacity of analysis of those at the junior base of the pyramid as you climb through the Finance ladder and become a decision maker. If you cannot be depended upon as a junior team member, your employer will have to look for another candidate to fill the job.

Too much

On the other hand, if you are a perfectionist, there are a few problems that will arise. Firstly, unless you are a natural overperformer, your quest for “error-less” outputs will result in unacceptable timing to deliver what you are asked to do. Then come all of the known psychological drawbacks of being a perfectionist, including increased stress, anxiety and even depression.

Balancing act

My personal take on this is that you need to have an “error-less” ideal in mind, but should aim to perform consistently in a more sustainable zone

  • Prioritize: when faced with daunting deadlines, focus on the most important aspect of the task you were asked to do. Is it the numeric side? Is it the graphical output? Is it the conclusion and how you write it/present it? Not everything matters the same – Thus, for example, if the subject of a presentation is about a certain transaction, the numbers of the base case for such transaction have to be perfect and consistent throughout the materials. The rest (ie. Background of the companies, competitors, etc) can live with a few less rounds of revision
  • Related to the above, raise your hand if you think you are not going to be able to complete all the tasks you have been assigned in the timeframe expected, with the quality you are expected to deliver.
  • The final review in print: when you feel that you are done and ready to send to your supervisor, or client, or Board of Directors, stop and print one more copy and review. Apologies for my non-environmentally friendly recommendation, but the final paper version revision usually brings up valuable corrections
  • How you deliver, matters: think of your consumer and how you deliver your files after so many hours of work
    • Format and size of the font
    • If an Excel file, make sure that the “Page Break Preview” has a printable selection
    • Have a PDF version ready (senior people are usually on the go and rarely opening Office documents)
    • And any other “small detail” that will make the output more desirable to review and read
  • The two points above together leads me to one of my favourite pieces of advice that I personally don’t follow sometimes: doesn’t matter how in a hurry you are and how much is pending, you should always stop working and cranking half an hour to an hour before sending, to review and polish what you will send. Better to send an incomplete but polished product, with follow ups and explanation of what’s next, rather than send an incomplete and messy product, with no clear path to move forward to a final version.

In summary, and in mathematical terms, attention to detail is a necessary but not sufficient condition to have a long and prosper career in Finance. Ignore it too frequently and you will find it tough to progress; make it the all-important piece and you will fail to start comprehending the bigger picture and the next challenges as you go up the pyramid.

Good luck as the School Year and new recruiting season are with us.

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