As an Accountant, what shade of grey are you?

OK, a bit of a provocative question as I am inferring that all Accountants according to modern myth are ‘grey’ people. I have always felt as an accountant myself no affiliation with this image of being grey and have taken every opportunity to prove otherwise to my colleagues.

This week, I had the opportunity to have it confirmed for me again when I spent the morning giving a workshop about Developing Your Ideal Career Image to a group of Chartered Accountants from the Thames Valley. I can quite safely say that the quality of the characters present and the images that emerged were far from being grey. Each individual may have been united by their common qualification and profession but their experiences and outlook were all quite distinct.

So what happens when as I have experienced before, the requirement and expectation of those around me to fulfil the grey mould as a senior Finance professional in business? There is a tacit implication that a grey person is steady, conservative and secure. Good qualities to have if you are entrusting this individual with the financial controls and security of the business. However, these are less useful qualities when your business is going through substantial challenge, change or growth. Do you have be a Jekyll and Hide character showing two faces dependant on the situation? Or do you go for the stereotypical one as that makes everyone else around you more comfortable if not a little frustrated?

As an Executive Coach I have the perspective that being the complete individual you are, in all circumstances, is the best option. Not always easy to fulfil when there are pressures and expectations to be otherwise, but certainly the most useful and least energy sapping way of being. I say least energy sapping, as this is one of the most recurrent themes I work on with my clients. Clients spend endless waking and sleeping hours trying to worry through how they are supposed to act, how it may be perceived, what may happen etc. All this ends up being a distraction to actually getting the job done and being more present when working with colleagues. Being more present with colleagues allows a more honest dialogue which provides a better quality understanding. Depth of understanding is vital to being able to manage the wider strategic consequences of actions and decisions in business.

So, as a radical suggestion, when you feel that you may be being categorised as a stereotype of your profession, I would recommend that you choose to be no one but yourself. It sounds easy, and I know that it isn’t, but it’s very valuable to do. Next time you feel tempted, just relax and try to be honest with yourself and others. It’s a much more powerful and productive way of working.

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Being Authentic in Business

Why would you want to be authentic? If you can be like someone else who is more beautiful, intelligent, interesting to do business with, why not pretend to be them? With all these trappings, a successful business career is yours to be had surely?

Here is the lie writ large. Adopting the trappings of others, sits on your shoulders like an ill-fitting suit. Somehow, it all looks a little large in the front or pinches across the back. It’s easy for anyone else looking at you, that what you are wearing does not quite work for you. The same also applies to wearing the identity of others, their ways of working and communicating.

So what happens when you are truly authentic?

With your most brilliant individual self, comes brilliance and shine. With authenticity comes ease and power. Who would not be drawn to an individual that shines a natural strength and energy? I just know immediately that someone is being their authentic self and there is nothing quite as alluring in a person than that. Authenticity in business can be reflected in everything you do: how you communicate, make connections, forge alliances, influence for results, co-operate in teams, leading your staff.

A lot of the work I do as an Executive coach is to work with an individual to recognise their own ideas and personal style of getting things done. I have seen the look of relief on my clients faces to be affirmed in them self and validated for who they are and what they want to achieve. It’s so much easier to succeed and take the next bold steps in your career when you are like this.

It’s your individuality that makes you different in business. Why copy everybody else?

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Can a functional specialist become a leader?

Last month I attended a very interesting talk at the CIMA Chilterns Branch about how to use psychometric testing in recruitment assessment centres to identify the candidate with the best suited personality traits for the role. There is a major impact when recruitment goes wrong and a functional specialist is promoted into a general leadership role that does not suit their personality traits. Issues that arise include the leader unable to engage with their staff, not sharing their vision and inability to connect at any meaningful level with their team. However, these are all essential skills if you are to best harness your team to build your business.

So there are definite advantages of using this sort of recruitment assessment to get the best candidate for a role. But what happens to the person who has already taken the leadership role and now finds themselves in a position where their normal way of working does not deliver their usual excellent results? Does this mean that they should be moved out of post and put back into their comfortable niche? Or should their organisation support them in developing their skills to make a successful transition?

Often senior management within organisations are not willing to truly feedback the issues of poor leadership with their newly appointed manager. It can be left to HR to sort out, or it is addressed with vague references in the annual performance review process. I have witnessed situations where a manager is promoted and left to flounder and eventually leaves of their own volition or are assisted out. Forward thinking organisations help their best people to make successful transitions using the help of internal mentors or external coaches.

If a new managers personality traits are inherent (which they are), how can coaching help the manager to better fit the requirements of a general leadership role? Coaching does not work to change any personality traits but does reflect back to the manager the impact of those personality traits on their colleagues around them. Often the manager is truly unaware of impact of how they are and act. All they know is that they are really frustrated that their staff do not support their goals and strategies and that people around them act difficultly. Offering a new perspective to the manager is often all it takes to create a realisation and the impetus for change.

With personal insights come strategies to accommodate or overcome an individual’s natural tendencies. These are created by the manager themselves using their own intellect and resources. It may be a lot of hard work at first, but people are amazingly flexible at adopting new ways of working.

So what does all this mean for you as a Finance Professional working in your organisation? Are there goals you want to achieve, but you are unsure whether you can get them in the way you work now? It’s always worth having a deeper conversation with your line manager. Find a mentor to help you identify what about you that is brilliant, but also, what it is that is holding you back.

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Flexibility is a key factor for a successful Finance career

A recently published report by Ernst & Young called ‘Finance Forte: The Future of Financial Leadership’ explores a large number of aspects of what CFO’s and aspiring CFO’s need to do to manage the future of their roles. In reviewing all the statistics and comments contained in the report, it struck me that one of the key qualities required of future CFO’s is flexibility. This key skill reveals itself in many different ways and in this post I consider a few of them.

Gain exposure to multiple business cultures through foreign postings or extensive international engagement. This seems to be one of the most fundamental steps in the route to achieve a CFO role. Wherever you are in your career now, it’s worth considering what opportunity you have for this type of exposure. In my career it was certainly one of the most eye opening experiences. I learned that, whilst working for the same company and to common goals and targets, the ways in which people from different countries planned and communicated strategies could be completely different and often at odds to each other. Learning to negotiate an effective compromise was a key challenge for me in my EMEA leadership roles.

Get a broad experience of all Finance functions and even direct operational experience. Of course there is a natural tendency to want to become truly excellent in one thing in your career. However, a broader experience of multiple roles from FP&A, financial accounting, treasury, financial control and commercial operations, give benefits in gaining an understanding required for the CFO position. Whilst I have been advised many times in my own career that you can bring in and rely on specialists to provide you with the support that you need, I can’t be unusual in wanting to have a strong command of the basic technicalities and likely issues myself through first-hand experience.

Lead major projects yourself and don’t just act in a business partner capacity. It’s frequent that a Finance team member is brought into support major business projects in their technical capacity. Whilst this is excellent experience, there is nothing quite like being responsible yourself, for leading and coordinating a team directly. Different skills are employed and this can be a true forging ground for essential leadership skills that will take you forwards in your career.

Experience in different Industry sectors adds rather than detracts. This may not be an absolute truth in all cases, but it certainly can bring value to your new organisation. You can bring best practice and culturally different ways of working with each industry move. I have never regretted exploring the diverse industries of the public sector, computing, food and consumer durables. Each sector has added to my ability to take a different view and perspective on industry challenges.

So to build your finance career it is not always a simple case of taking the next obvious step to achieve your final career goals of becoming a CFO or FD. Looking to take the more diverse and flexible route to the top gives a broader perspective and a more rounded set of skills and contacts that will be fully employed when you reach the more senior roles.

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Finance at the Heart of Business

When I was working as a Finance Director, I felt it was vitally important that the Finance function was at the ‘heart’ of my business. Did I mean that Finance should be literally pumping the life blood of the business? Certainly not, but it‘s interesting to reflect a little on what is meant by being at the heart of business and whether the finance function has any right to claim to be there.

Taking the most instinctive reaction to being at the heart of something, means that I wanted my Finance team to work at the centre of the business. They were not to be peripheral onlookers but active at where the action took place. They had to be participants in devising strategies, implementing them with secure processes and monitoring the output and results.

If I then consider how a heart works, it is the engine of the body providing vital blood flow and nutrients to all parts of the body. To make the blood flow it has to beat and pump the blood out and bring in the blood that has just been circulated. There is a function of taking input and pushing out new refreshed oxygenated output. What nutrients could a Finance team at the heart of business offer? Offering the application of Finance technical knowledge but also combining that with essential business knowledge. By combining both, the Finance function can provide challenge, insight and strategy for decision making.

Could Finance at the heart of business also have in depth knowledge of all the parts of the organisation (the body) by travelling through the systems of the business (arteries and veins)? This extensive knowledge would certainly be helpful to making sure that all the relevant information was being captured and nothing was being ignored.

It’s interesting that I chose the heart as my metaphor rather than the brain. For a Finance function devoted to such cerebral analytical activities a substantial part of the time, why did I not choose this? Maybe, it was the distancing effect of the brain being at the top, purely analytical, calculating and not having the emotional connection to the rest of the organisation (body). Or it could have been that the most vital organ in the body is the heart, without it the body cannot live.

How do you see your role or that of your team? What’s a good description of how you want Finance to be in your organisation? To get a clearer picture just ask ‘the way I and my team work in my organisation is like what’?

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The case of the £22 light bulb – is this a light bulb moment for you?

In the news today, is the scandalous leak that the MOD is paying £22 for a light bulb supplied by specialist contractors which can be bought on the open market for only 65 pence. The dismay for any observer of this story is ‘who in their right mind would accept paying such an extortionate fee for something so simple and cheap’? Surely, whoever set up the contract, authorised the payment, paid the invoice, audited the accounts, created the monthly financial reports should be disciplined for their derogation of financial duties?

It’s easy to point fingers and observe from the sides, but it does also create an opportunity to reflect on why a financial system and the people working in it allow for such absurdities to happen. The question I have for you is, are you sure it’s not also happening in your organisation and under your watch right now?

As a Finance Director, it was my responsibility to ensure that there were appropriate processes, sign off’s and controls in place. But it was also to foster a climate where every member of the organisation felt they had a stake in their business and a right to be heard.

I learned early on in my career as an Internal Auditor, that it was very easy for staff to fall into the attitude of ‘that’s normal for here’. They ignored their common sense and their responsibility to challenge the status quo. In my career I have come across some daft purchasing decisions including: paying insurance for courtesy cars when the fleet cars were in repair, but then hiring new cars instead of using courtesy car already paid for; paying for excessive overtime because the duty rosters had not been looked at in 10 years; buying over a year’s supply of packaging in order to get a better cost per unit, only for the product to be discontinued within 3 months.

It took one brave soldier to whistle blow to the media that he thought spending £22 on a light bulb was wrong. Have you got an environment in your organisation that anyone of your employees feels comfortable enough to raise issues when they find them?

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Finance Director’s, what role are you taking? Parent, Adult or Child?

For those of you have been exposed to Transactional Analysis, you will recognise the terms parent, adult and child. For those who haven’t come across these terms together, they refer to the way you act when reacting to other people’s behaviour. Developed by the psychologist Dr. Eric Berne, he observed his clients followed unconsciously what appeared to be scripts on a stage. Only when his clients were aware of the scripts that they acted out, were they able to change.

It strikes me that commonly Finance Director’s working in corporations or large organisations take on a particular role when supporting decision making and control approvals. Since Sarbanes Oxley, the emphasis on appropriate controls and sign off’s, have been even more stringent and often the Finance Director is fundamental in the sign off process. All of the accountants I have worked with take this responsibility very seriously. So seriously, it’s very easy to fall into the critical parent role and ask with a full air of authority and judgement:

  • What’s the financial analysis and risk evaluation? (Have you done all your homework?)
  • Does that investment really need to be made? (Are you just being greedy or lazy?)
  • Why do you want it now? (Can’t you wait and be patient?)
  • Who else supports this? (Will the other parents approve?)

These questions in themselves are perfectly appropriate and correct. It’s only if they are asked using the inflection of the subtext (the questions in the brackets) that the role of critical parent has been taken. If this parental role is adopted then there are likely to be two main outcomes:

  • The requestor will act like a compliant child and work extra hard to seek your approval
  • The requestor will act like a naughty child and work to avoid your controls and need for approval

 

It’s the latter where problems can arise. I have had substantial experience working with sales teams and frequently I would find that Sales Managers and Directors had tried (and sometimes succeeded) to circumvent the sales investment approvals process. The best way to tackle this was to try to engage as adult to adult, explaining the rationale of the controls and approval process and bring engagement at that level.

It’s too easy to get a reputation of saying ‘no’ or taking a judging role as a Finance Director. Changing the view on the role you take, makes a big difference to compliance and colleague engagement.

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Why are Leadership Soft Skills Important to Accountants?

I recently attended a CIMA branch meeting where there was a presentation on psychometric testing and its use in business. It became evident during the evening from the questions from the audience of accountants, that there was a higher value placed on technical knowledge rather than leadership and general management skills. In addition, the audiences lack of understanding of what the key skills and behaviours used in leadership are and how they are needed, came through.

So, why should you focus on leadership soft skills to ensure you do a good job or develop your career? This is certainly something I didn’t understand for myself for quite a few years early into my career as an accountant in business. What I realise now, is that leadership skills and behaviours are fundamental to success. Success not only in being able to take on more senior roles, but also for just getting the value delivered from the great technical skills and knowledge that I took so long to train and acquire.

Imagine the scenario where an accountant working in business identifies a key cost trend that if not addressed, will threaten to escalate and impact the profitability of the business. Without well developed leadership skills, the accountant is unable to communicate clearly the issue. They are unable to identify who the right people are to take action. They won’t follow up with the key managers to ensure that it’s prioritised. They won’t lead the project team to change systems and processes to secure the cost risk for the future. They will not think to communicate the best practice process or what signals to look out for in the future. Without these steps being addressed fully, the knowledge identified in the first place will not have been successfully leveraged within the business.

Increasingly, the professional Accountancy bodies are recognising the importance of equipping finance professionals with the leadership skills that will help them deliver added value into their organisations. All members are encouraged to build leadership skills into their CPD, as well as their knowledge about the latest technical standards.

I will leave you with one question, how aware are you of your leadership skills, how you deploy them and how much you may need to develop them further?

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When Perfect Planning is not always the Perfect Solution

My natural instinct is always to strive for perfection in everything I do. Whilst this can be admirable quality that ensures that the quality of my work is of the highest standard, it does not always help me when it comes to planning. This need for perfection means that my automatic tendency when planning a new project is to think in idealised standards. I fully expect the outcome and timeline to be exactly as I planned. Often, realty is further away from this than I find comfortable.

A good example of this was for a company product price increase. I was leading a team to change pricing master data for all the customers on our Finance system. The Go Live date was looming and as it got closer it became clear that my perfect project plan was not running so perfectly. Time scales were being cut short and the deadline was not going to flex. In the end it was only through heroic efforts and 16 hour days that my team was able to deliver on time.

If I had produced a project plan that acknowledged that things don’t go perfectly every time I would have built in contingencies and alternative plans to help if we were getting into trouble. Accountants are trained to work to utmost accuracy and work with systems that have controls and stability. It can cause real stress when projects don’t work in the expected way.

Being able to adjust to the environment and recognise new situations was a key quality looked for in Dell Computers, one of the companies I used to work for. They called this management quality Strategic Agility. It was the recognition that whilst you should always plan for excellence, you should also be adaptable to the changing environment. In the fast moving industry of computer manufacture and sales, the technology, routes to market, pricing strategies and customer base were always shifting. That ability to change commercial plans quickly and decisively in a different direction without losing momentum was vital. I liken it to running an Olympic 100m sprint final and then half way through having to change direction and start hurdling too.

So I’d like to ask you, when you reflect on how you prefer to plan, have you an instinct for perfection too? When does it help and when does it get in your way?

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How to Present Numbers with Impact

Why was it that I always found it a challenge to present the monthly performance figures to team meetings for the whole company? It may have been that I picked up on the cues that my colleagues weren’t always excited at the prospect of being taking through a P&L and variance analysis.

The reality is, whilst for Accountants reading financial reports is second nature, the rest of the business team can be deeply ambivalent towards Finance. To some people, numbers seem to be a foreign language and they can certainly be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of information being presented. So how do you present numbers with both rigour and impact?

Headline your Results

Headlining your results impresses the meaning of the numbers as well as the facts themselves. Think broadsheet newspaper headlines rather than tabloid. Attaching meaning to results makes them much more memorable. Examples could include:

‘Heavy discounting with Key customers drives Gross Margin down 0.5% points.’

‘Sales revenues rose 7% due to entry into new market’

Keep it Simple

Reducing the quantity of data on show, when presenting financial results, is always advisable. Imagine being subjected to a 100 slide month end financial presentation at a board meeting. I suspect the 100 slides were shown so that the Finance Director was reassured that all possible results were covered. In this situation, what could you ever hope to take away from the presentation that was clear and actionable?

In fact, there is a limit to how much numerical data the brain can hold in its working memory. Bombarding your audience with extraneous information just overloads memory capacity. As a Finance professional your job is to reason what the most important results are and focus on these.

What’s the Story?

Every set of results have an underlying business story behind them. Bringing the story to light and identifying the business drivers allows the management team to make decisions. Getting underneath what has eroded the Gross Margin by 0.5% point, is clearly more useful than issuing the variance only. How much was due to pricing, product or customer mix, additional sales investment or raw materials cost increases?

Summary

Although the ideas above may seem obvious and common sense, I have all too frequently seen Financial Management colleagues fail to do these very simple steps. There may be a psychology at work saying that “I have put in hours and days of effort to produce these analyses and reports. I’m going to show how much work I’ve done, whether it’s helpful or not”! Take a step into the shoes of your audience and look at your presentation from their perspective. It’s always much more satisfying presenting to a group of people who are engaged rather than bored and confused.

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