How would you train your boss to use Excel better? [Weekend Survey]

Posted on May 8th, 2015 in Excel Challenges - 50 comments

I am in Sydney and yesterday we had a meetup of Sydney Excel users. Around 15 people turned up for the event and we talked about various Excel related topics over few drinks. One of the questions that came up was,

I learn and use Excel in better ways. But my boss doesn’t how to open the workbook and use simple stuff like filters, slicers, sorting and selecting. So I end up sending screenshots or PDFs instead of powerful Excel files. What to do?

Although we discussed various possible solutions to the problem, I thought it would be a good topic for us discuss here.

So how would you train your boss to use Excel?

Please share your thoughts, experiments, experiences and suggestions in the comments. Let’s make our bosses awesome.

Click here to comment.

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50 Responses to “How would you train your boss to use Excel better? [Weekend Survey]”

  1. Duncan says:

    You have to ask yourself the question: why should the boss become awesome in Excel? Should all bosses be able to do what we like to do? Not necessarily.

    I have come to this conclusion partly as a result of the massive attention being given to dashboarding these days. So many dashboarding courses. So much competing dashboarding software. So many dashboarding consultants. It's the equivalent of the manager's obsession with leadership!

    Who are we working for? I think we are in danger of putting ourselves at the centre of our service oriented universe.

    Whilst I would like everyone I meet to be able to appreciate what I do, I know they won't. So what's wrong with the manager who says, send me the PDF or even, send me the papers?

    Don't we ask another question now: how do I ensure that my fantastic on screen dashboard communicates just as well in other media?

  2. 1. Include boss as optional invite in your next Excel training for peers.
    2. Share both the Excel and PDF files next time you send the dashboards. Allow your boss opportunities to open the Excel files.
    3. Every once in a while insert visible, simple comments in both documents explaining how to sort, filter etc. in Excel. Pique mr. manager's curiosity about the tools available in Excel.
    4. Help the boss with some powerful analytics in the next presentation to HIS supervisor.
    5. If steps 1-4 don't work, find a new boss.

  3. Godsbod says:

    Really... share with my boss? If he could do it, why would he need to employ me.
    He believes that knowledge is power... To me knowledge is job security.
    I would rather share with the Chandoo community than my boss...

  4. Chirayu says:

    1) Add an 'Instruction' sheet in the file on how to update/ use file
    2) Add written observations rather than just give tables of data
    3) Add graphs that are self explanatory like a column chart with a target line going across it e.g. Site A/B/C/D against target of 80%
    4) Hide unnecessary calculations/ raw data sheets
    5) Protect Sheets & Workbook so things don't accidentally get altered
    6) Minimize manual input - try to keep everything as dropdown list/ button click if manual input is required

    • Chirayu says:

      7) Self explanatory sheet names. Don't name them with weird anagrams that your boss won't understand e.g. Monthly Volume instead of MTD_VOL
      8) Sit with your boss & do a run through

  5. Marcy says:

    I don't think it's about how do we train them. The more important question is how do you make your outputs valuable enough to make them want to learn. In this situation, a push strategy will never work as well as a pull.

    If your outputs provide valuable insights and the functionality you include enhances that value, any business leader worth their salt will figure it out any way they can. Of course, ensuring you're not layering unnecessary complexity is always useful as well.

    • I have to agree. It should be all about the client (in this case the boss). We need to find out what the boss needs, and build a tool that meets those needs, not build some amazing tool that we would use if we were the boss. The most important part of building Excel products is useability. If what we build is difficult to use or above the abilities of the user then we did a bad job.

  6. JP says:

    I would have to agree with everyone. And Pretty similar with Marcy's, I think we need to create a need for our boss for them to learn Excel. This need is something that will push/pull them to walk up to your desk and say "Hey, can you teach me Excel?"

    A single-day dilemma would also work. Go and get a day's leave. The objective is to make the boss feel he needs to learn some excel stuff while you are out. It's either he goes through those Instruction tabs you've set, notes you attached along with the Excel report, or call you while you're on leave.

  7. amiram says:

    Make good dashboards like chandoo and let your play with it

  8. Dan says:

    Once excel data is complete with graphs/charts/dashboards, create a auto play module with the user stop and start button with a comment window for user comments. Give this is to anyone who does not know much about excel and only interested in graphical data (data visualization) to take decisions (The decision makers). Auto play module as we all know can be created using tools available on the web. We realize over time, 95% or more of the audience is interested in graphical data presentation.

  9. Guy says:

    I have ruminated about this for years. The data is available to answer a multitude of ad-hoc questions; however, management is unable to use the resource.

    I have been using a passive-training method. When they ask me a question, I open the worksheet and show them how I find the answer. My plan is to make them aware of how the sheet functions. I am hoping that with repeated exposure they will work up the courage to open the file and attempt to find the answer on their own.

    I look forward to learning about other more enlightened methods!

  10. Mark says:

    This is definitely wrong.

    The question is not how to train your boss to use Excel. The question is why is your Excel spreadsheet not giving him/her the information that they need? The boss has other skills and knowledge, and surely does not need to add more than rudimentary Excel skills to the mix.

    Your spreadsheet should open with all the information the boss needs on the displayed worksheet. Chandoo.org has lots of useful examples on how to create dynamic charts and worksheets - this is probably what you need to do.

  11. eric vogel says:

    I have given this a lot of thought in the past, and I think that teaching the what and how of pivot tables would take the entire org up several notches.

    Also, most know how to filter a table, but few understand or use tables (there are some dark spots there that would need to be taught).

  12. frank mccraw says:

    Do not bother. One of the vanities of upper management is to surround yourself with lots of smart people and never to have to bother with the sordid technical matters. Be one of those smart people and use your creativity and analytical abilities to the utmost. Besides, job security and monetary raises come with indispensability.

  13. gino says:

    Wow - don't I wish! First level managers are usually not so bad, but once you get to the exec level - if it isn't in PowerPoint or some sort of bullet list - fuggeddaboutit! 🙂

  14. Sohail Rizki says:

    I was working on an assignment, when I had completed few reports using mega formula, my boss asked me to teach other users as to how these formula work. I knew that he wanted to finish my contract so he can save money, but there is no way that anyone can train others in two days how to write long formula (the function I used had four times INDIRECT , four times match etc. it was not that easy, I smiled and said they can copy the formula.
    So, you cannot teach your boss and also should not teach them, if you want job, you are not there to train others you are there to use your hard earned skills to make money.

  15. vish says:

    First, impress him with awesome shortcuts with Excel on initial screen.Then automatically, he will come to your work place to know more about.....

  16. KV says:

    I think it's a losing battle trying to make your boss "learn Excel".
    They are supposed to *use* the information / findings that you get out of your analysis, so making them work in Excel to find what they want, is certainly a challenge.
    I have seen many, many managers who prefer to be spoon-fed what they want, rather than get their hands dirty trying to learn anything beyond opening a workbook, and navigating worksheets within them.

    Having said that, maybe soft-selling the advantages of learning some of the basic basic user interface elements like Pivot Table filters or slicers would help.
    Sorting and filtering tables? I have seen too many people get turned off by that 🙂

  17. George says:

    I understand that management is no longer "in the weeds" with Excel and shouldn't be expected to know everything that an entry-level analyst might.

    However, with all the talk of "data-driven organizations," management needs to know at least how to interact with data, not necessarily how to model it.

    If management were comfortable manipulating PivotTables, 80% of my work's frustrations would be solved. Instead I have to create painstaking reports and arrangements of data.

  18. CP says:

    Everyone stop for half a second and take a deep breath! Too much angst. We all have different levels of expertise in many things including Excel and so do our bosses. Some of our bosses are financial wizards, some are administrative managers, and everything in between. Some have done our jobs and some don't have a clue what we do. If they need to use Excel and we need them to know how, why not let them know we are available to help them in any way we can? Ask them to ask us for help? Ask them what they need to know. If they know very little, give them a short shortcut list and if they use it add to it. All of the other suggestions here are great if we have the time and they have the interest.
    What I want my boss to learn about Excel is that I'm a resource for them to learn it. That is why they paid for my Chandoo classes.
    There is no shame in Ignorance.

    • Mark says:

      Exactly! A boss does not need to know how to use Excel. They need to tell us what they need and we need to figure out how to produce that information.

  19. Susan VanVolkenburgh says:

    Very carefully.:-)

  20. David Hager says:

    A more important question to consider than "how would you train your boss to use Excel" is "how would you train your boss to know what Excel can be used for?".

  21. Vijay says:

    The first and foremost question to be answered by boss is the interest for him to learn or know how the data has been summarized in Excel... Then it becomes easy for us to train him to use excel.

    Normally, they tend to ask for PDF files for viewing purposes... but PDF can not do any magic which excel does and gives various new ways of analysis.

    To traing boss to use excel... here are few tips.
    1) Send the Excel file with Help sheet and show where the data is kept for making the PIVOTs or Summary.
    2) Data Validation places can be marked with different colours
    3) Auto Refresh the PIVOTs on the Summary sheet on selection of the sheet since these may be protected.
    4) Using Excel Tables for data will be helpful to maintain the data integrity when new data gets inserted
    5) Sheet tabs can be suitably named for clear understanding
    6) Create a copy of the summary sheet (with out protection) and tell boss to try on his own for any new combinations in PIVOTs/Charts.

    • KV says:

      Vijay, this list of tips is very nice and extensive.

      BUT, the first and main ingredient in applying this list is:
      the inclination and willingness on the part of the manager to actually take time out, and learn these things.

      Imho, how to create that inclination is also a key challenge which all of us here may want to address.

  22. Dheeru says:

    According to my personal experience, Excel is just not a working tool. It's also entertaining me sometime. Before in touch with Excel I liked to play chess very much. But when I came to know about the excel and its features and techniqes, I quickly made it my profession. So in my views first create a good impression of excel on your boss by using its amazing magics. So once your boss awares about these tricks, surely he will be used to of EXCEL.

  23. Shaik Imran says:

    i think we need to use memo's to guide them through under cells it needs action.

  24. Neil says:

    I have used in the past the approach of skipping my direct boss and targeting his boss, finding out what he wants information wise, delivering it via a dashboard, and basically forcing my boss to be interested in Excel, based on the fact that...if it interests his boss...it interests him! Not a very technical approach but it has worked well as a strategy for me over the last 15 years. The trick is just to be very subtle in how you do it!

  25. Graham says:

    Before Managers even begin to use Excel:

    Ensure that they actually understand the data they are using - do they understand any business rules behind each of the individual data items?
    Ensure they understand what they actually want to do with the data
    Ensure they understand what Excel can and cannot do
    Keep them away from "Can you show that in a powerpoint slide pack for me please?" There is only one answer to that. No.

  26. Sekhar says:

    Share our expert file and show the boss how would we get the required data/charts/graphs/dashboards at a click of a button(macro)...even showing simple filters/functions/logics only to build curiousness... again curiousness is what makes to learn...
    Beware, if your Boss learns all that what we know...our job is definitely at risk...

  27. Pedro Wave says:

    My first boss told me: "Peter, teach me to program chips (microprocessors)."
    I told him: "Anytime" (It would have been the same thing he asked me to teach him to fry chips.)
    In two years, my first boss never had time to sit down with me and to give my first lesson. He was always too busy with their own managements.

    When my later and multiple bosses ask me for occasional help with Excel, I give help to them during the workday and, if they need that I convey my knowledge to them, I invite to them to visit my blog and I offer them private lessons.

    But more often it is my bosses do not want to learn Excel, but what they want is they're asking for all this and heaven too ! (Yes, they ask for the moon and the stars)

    Then I'm always willing to share with my bosses is the time it will take me meet their new and changing requirements.

    I simply take full advantage of Excel to be able to fulfill the wishes of my bosses with this fabulous tool, and do what they ask me. Usually my boss ask me to automate all the calculations they need, delivered in a PowerPoint or mailed in a scorecard and, if possible, further automate the data extraction and sending mail to the team.

  28. In my experience, the chances of teaching Execs Excel succeeding are close to zero. I wouldn't even try. As the saying goes, if you have to explain the UI, then it is not a very good UI. Well in the case of Excel the UI has been created over 30 years and is designed to service the needs of analysts - and it's great. But we shouldn't expect passive consumers of our reports to engage and get excited about using Excel. The consumers of our reports just want the insights.

    My recommended approach (if possible) is to move to a web/intranet based solution using Sharepoint to publish and distribute workbooks, and focus on making the reports/dashboards NOT look like Excel but instead make them look like browsing the web. This was my the topic I presented on at the PASS BA Conference in April.

    Focus on making the report canvas look like a web browsing experience. Using slicers is fine in this scenario as they are intuitive in a browser environment. If you can't access SharePoint, then you can still try to achieve the same experience within Excel by doing the same things (without the browser). Hide column and row headers, formula bar, grid lines, tabs, field list etc. Focus on making the canvas a stand alone environment targeted at a single topic per page. Use a "web like" menu structure within the canvas for navigation (using buttons or hyperlinks).

    • Mark says:

      Yes, a boss does not need to know how to use Excel. A boss needs information. If he does, then his analysts are not doing their job.... 🙁

  29. N Selvam says:

    That is why they are called bosses. Most bosses need info & do not care what tools were used to get the job done

  30. MF says:

    Well, I think the question is somewhat like teach your boss how to drive.
    Of course s/he has the ability to learn how to drive, or actually s/he knows how to already. But the thing is they rarely need to drive because there is always a driver standing by. What s/he need to do is to tell the driver where to go by what time.

    Not until one day there is no longer a driver in the market, there's no motivation for a boss to drive on her/him own. Right?

    Here's my experience: My ex-boss told me to show her many "how-to" in Excel during working days; but never happened. Not until she was about to leave for another job, she took the determination to sit down with me for a "condensed" Excel class. The thing is we all know that Excel skills is something you can "learn" but not "master" in one day. I guess most of you agree.

    Also in response to some other comments above regarding learning an "Instruction" page, I found that not really useful (although it's a good practice) because in my experience NO ONE read the instruction page until they need to maintain the file themselves... 🙂

  31. Trinseo says:

    Some exectives will always expect Powerpoints, and do not even use a laptop anymore because they are addicted to their iPad. Don't waste your effort on those bosses.

    However if your boss uses a laptop, you can still give it a try but you need patience and good tactics to educate your boss. Here is what worked with my boss:

    I always provide my boss a link to the Excel file, and a PowerPoint with some screen dumps of charts and tables. In this PowerPoint I deliberately do not answer all his possible questions: instead, I want him to make him curious so he replies asking some questions.

    And then I reply with instructions how he has to use the Excel file to get what he wants to see.

    Over time I start noticing he is getting more and more self-supportive, so he is slowly developing from an Excel rookie into a someone who is getting familiar with filters, slicers, sorting and selecting.

  32. Ireti says:

    All the answers here are great! I believe it's only necessary for me to teach my boss what he NEEDS to get his work done after I must have thoroughly and excellently completed my tasks (as that's what I'm paid for). If not, I simply need to present my information to him in ways he can understand and make necessary decisions.

  33. peter says:

    Have you considered that maybe you boss' time and skill is better spent reviewing the key data rather than producing it, that's what they employ you for. I would focus my time on making it easier to produce the data in a format which they easily review.

  34. John Omohundro says:

    I HAVE trained my boss...along with all my other co-workers. We have had about 20 noontime class sessions where I have covered from the basics all the way through Lookups and pivot tables. I agree to a certain extent with those comments that say the boss doesn't need to know how to do everything their employees do...yes, that's why he/she hired us. But when he/she wants to learn and asks to learn...if you are capable of doing the training, DO IT!! Spread the wealth, and you will end up looking all the better because of it!

  35. GMF says:

    Duncan nailed it on the first comment. Our bosses shouldn't have to be proficient in Excel. It's not their job description - it's ours to present them data, via dashboards or some other tool, such that the full meaning of the data and relevant options can be discerned. Now when a boss goes "fishing" because they want a variety of what-if scenarios, a dashboard isn't suitable because it's showing what is rather than what might be. In turn, do we have the time to deliver the 5 different analysis engines to slice 'n' dice the data? That's what Pivot Tables are for! Our bosses won't do that either... Some of us are fortunate to have bosses that expect us to figure out what the top scenarios are and give them gift-wrapped analysis of how we got to those points, so once we've used the pivot tables we just have to give them the analysis.

    I used to be annoyed with bosses who only wanted "traffic light" presentation of data until I was a consultant for an automobile manufacturer. Every month the regional CIO held an 8am-6pm with working lunch meeting to review all projects in her $600 million portfolio. Based on a monetary percentage I was entitled to about 8 minutes of her time on those days. Traffic lights were the only way for her to conceptualize her portfolio and she had to trust that the lights were an accurate reflection of what was happening. Anything yellow or red had to have the supporting material behind it if she chose to dig... and she remembered the reasons from last month why you were not green.

    So if you have a good boss, you are being trusted to understand what s/he needs and to present it in a timely and concise way. If you don't have a good boss, and assuming you truly understand the data, no power on earth will help you communicate the underlying issues.

  36. Eric says:

    I just had this opportunity this last week. Our company is growing and we have some industry experts (health care) that are great in what they do, but that unfortunately does not necessarily mean good at excel. I, myself, am not great at Excel, but am always impressed by the works I see on Chandoo's website.

    One of our client's wanted some more information to see what types of visits were occurring under a more generalized category. Getting the raw information from our management information systems department, I knew I could filter the information and make a chart showing more specific types of visits. My boss and a colleague were eager to learn how to do this. But, my boss is located about 1,000 miles away and my colleague is about 100 miles away. How to do this in a timely manner?

    We use mostly MS Office for our operating system outside of our electronic medical record. Because of that we have as the instant messaging system a program which used to be called Lync, but is now called Skype for Business. I shared my screen with them while we were on a conference call. Then I simply opened the excel workbook containing the information we wanted to modify and make a chart out of for our clients.

  37. Shibulal says:

    Even my Boss asked me to enroll with an excel coaching class!. That was humiliating ! Now I turned back to my old formats which I've abandoned almost 5 years back !. Boss is happy and I too ... LoL.

  38. sumit says:

    Hi Chandoo,

    Boss should be shared with both the files excel and PDF. May be he is not lazy but want to check quickly just overview but when he need raw data or any modified view also, he will use the excel file.

    You can mention in mail body about different views/info in excel file and steps to go through them. Manager will definetely go and check, if some interesting and usefull info is mentioned.

  39. Akshay Jagani says:

    I would recommend him to visit your website to gain excel knowledge 😉

  40. CF says:

    Wow... so many different opinions, and as CP mentioned, so much angst.

    I don't think the question is "How do we teach our boss to be an Analyst" but rather "How do we teach our boss to use Excel".

    A boss will need to know how to navigate, how to do very simple things to extract the value out of anything you produce.

    Further, without a basic knowledge of Excel you will find your boss has absolutely no perception of what you do and the sweat that goes into it, the reasonable time it takes to do things and the virtue of requesting or doing things in a certain way. (doesn't excel do everything with just two mouse clicks???)

    As with Everything we do - "Know your audience".

    some boss's are proficient, others aren't - some really want to be able to navigate, and see that formula or reference - others don't etc.

    I've taught many boss's to appreciate Excel, and hence my work - one by weekly tutorials at his request (he is now the national manager for one of the largest digital companies in the country), and I've taught by the gentle art of subtle coaching - make them want to understand.

    Others boss's just want you to do your work and aren't interested.

    Know your audience!

  41. Lrr27 says:

    Agree a boss does not have to be able to use excel, likewise he might also not be able to communicate in English or deal with people. Perhaps he can be totally technically ignorant about the core-business and just have a smooth talk.

    I came across all above sad-cases and while the world is full of such people it does not speak well for the organization where these people are employed.

    If you are hired in such a place, leave it once you can't learn anything new. On the other hand if you are a contractor it might be OK, though you will spend a lot of time explaining your achievements to the client.

  42. Gynandra says:

    Are you still here in Sydney Chandoo?

  43. Gleb says:

    I have tought him not to merge and hide cells. I'm completely happy now.

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