Friday, 19 December 2008

CGA Magazine - Accountant Bloggers

CGA Magazine, the voice of Canada's Certified General Accountants, has an article encouraging accountants to blog. If you're an accountant, you should read it (not just because it mentions this blog as a good example!)

If you’ve got something to say about accounting or, even better, a specific area of competency within the industry, having a blog will help establish your name online, and in a profession such as public accounting, getting your name out there is important for your career. Personal public relations should involve offline networking as well as an online component. Blogging will allow you to meet like-minded accountants from around the world and gain useful contacts.

But before you rush over to blogspot or wordpress to start your free blog, think for a moment whether you have the time and energy to write at least one article a week indefinitely. Business blogging is different than personal blogging. Each post should be carefully written. Blogging is easy to start but difficult to maintain.

Another difficult part of blogging is finding readers. Be prepared to promote your blog, i.e. find web sites and other publications willing to mention your work.

A good solution is to get one or two other accountants interested in writing about the same subjects as you, so you can share the load.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Fragile Giants (2)

This is how a team falls apart: Remove a key player, and the social bonds that keep their friends on the job weaken. Before you know it, you've got a group of employees collecting paychecks, not a team working for a goal. Bugs go unfixed; servers crash; the design becomes ugly; and users flee. This could well happen to Flickr. Back up your photos now!

If that happens, what it tells us is that the culture of Flickr was always illusory — one built on personal ties rather than more lasting devotion to a cause. If so, the notion of exporting it to Yahoo was a delusion. That's the problem with turning a community into a commodity: Take away the people, and you have nothing left.

That is how the Valleywag blog described the layoff of a key member of the Flickr team: George Oates. It struck me how close this analysis was to my musings in Fragile Giants. Owen Thomas is talking about those same elusive values that take a company from Good to Great, whether a giant or not.

I disagree with Owen on the value of devotion to a cause as opposed to personal ties. I don't think that principles alone fire the human spirit unless they come in human form. We really need living, breathing principles that can show us the way past obstacles and help us see our potential. In other words, devotion alone is not enough. We need a leader, preferably one as principled as (s)he is charismatic.

I also wouldn't call the culture of Flickr illusory, but I would call it fragile.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

CFO = Maestro?

Is this your image of a conductor, someone who insists on being called "maestro", someone with a whim of iron who can quell opposition with a single insult, someone who makes trained professionals quake in their boots?

Now, let me tell you about Peter. He's a professional. He has exacting standards. He knows what he wants and he works hard to get it from the choir and musicians he conducts.

But somehow, naked aggression is not in his toolbox. You will hear him laugh rather than snarl. He is more supportive than demanding. But he's not soft. When the altos were hesitant about their entrance, he stopped the music and asked them to inject more confidence into their part. He then repeated the section.

He treats his soloists with respect. He will consult with them about timing, but still he knows what he wants. "There is a time for drama, for spitting out the consonants and cutting the notes short. This is not that time. You need to lament," he tells a tenor. Later in the practice he will compliment him when the tenor injects the right amount of drama into another part. Peter's direction is clear and precise. He is careful that everyone knows their cue. When people don't understand, he takes the time to choose other words to describe what he wants.

The work we're practicing is Handel's Messiah and Peter has invited me to play trumpet. There are over 50 individual pieces of music in the Messiah and the trumpet figures prominently in only three of them, so I have lots of time to study Peter's style.

If I had to use one word to describe Peter, it would be "professional". He doesn't use his position to demand respect, he earns it. He knows his voice will be heard because he knows how to listen. I have never seen him raise his voice, yet he makes it clear when he thinks you could play better or are out of alignment with his musical vision. On the whole he is a casual person, yet, when the situation requires it, he assumes the dignity and poise of his position.

He makes mistakes. He will stop the practice, say that he started at the wrong speed and make a note on his score so that he doesn't do it again. If someone on the team objects to one of his decisions, he will listen and is willing to change his approach. Somehow that makes other people willing to change their approach as well. The result is a committed, professional team of people who enjoy their work.

Now, what's your image of a CFO?

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Fragile Giants

When I looked up "Business Management" on the Amazon web site, I was greeted with more than 171,000 titles. How do you decide which ones are worth while? What I do is wait. Most of the management books I read are five or six years old. If they are still recommended by my friends after the buzzwords have died away, then I will crack the cover. Using this system I completely avoided TQM. Don't even ask me what it stands for!

My latest read is Good to Great by Jim Collins (2001, Harper). It is a rigorously researched study into what creates lasting success in companies. Now, here's the other reason why I read old business books: you get the benefit of 20/20 hindsight when looking at the company examples they use. For example, the companies cited in Good to Great include Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Circuit City. Just take a look at their share prices now!

I know that sounds like a cheap shot, and I don't mean to pour cold water on Collins' excellent research. The fact that some of his examples would no longer be classified as great companies does not invalidate the research. No, for me the lesson is that companies, even the huge great companies, are fragile. Their golden towers can be breached, and all it might take is a string of bad years, a major lawsuit or a technological innovation in a competitor's hands.

Value Your Values

Collins goes to great lengths to identify the keys to a great company. I'm not going to repeat them here, because they are meaningless without the accompanying analysis, but he does say that corporate values are one of them. He is careful to say that different great companies have achieved success with different values. For example, not every great company is customer centric or believes in a high quality product.

My point is that once you've found that sweet spot, hang onto it for dear life. Train everyone in it. Guard it with your whole corporate existence, because what the experience of the fragile giants shows is that once those values are lost, the slide from greatness can be fast.

Creative Conflict

A friend recently quoted these words to live by: "if two people always agree, then one of them is redundant." I firmly believe that there is a role for conflict in every organization. If I, as the accountant, am the steward of the organization's financial resources, then I have to be sure that they are well deployed. Inevitably that will lead to my asking probing questions of other company managers. We will probably disagree on major points, but if we continue to respect each other and listen to each other's arguments, then the result will be a better company.


How many companies really assess the risks they face? These days, "risk management" has become a euphemism for insurance, but business risks go far beyond the perils that insurance companies are willing to write policies for. For example, did the big 3 North American automobile manufacturers assess the business risk of their product line decisions? If they did, then clearly their analysis was faulty.

I am reminded of the words of Thomas Carlyle, "To the blind, all things are sudden", as quoted by Marshall McLuhan. The position of the big 3 has been being challenged for years by smaller, more efficient foreign cars. Despite the words of the top executives when they went, cap in hand, to the Senate, the only thing that we couldn't predict was exactly when the dam would burst.

Are we accountants fulfilling our role as the voice of prudence and financial stability? Are we still respected members of the senior management team? Or are the deals being made behind our backs?

Like a Marriage

Marriage relationships mature and change over time. In the early years, you have the excitement of facing obstacles together. Even though they may have been poor and struggling, if you ask people who have been married a long time when they were happiest in their marriage, many will point to those early years. I believe working at a company that is striving for greatness can be like that. The early times are exciting. You see yourself as the proverbial David, slaying the giant. Later on, when the goals have been met, how do you keep complacency from seeping in? Apple has been accused of eating its young, by launching new products that compete head to head with the existing product line. Maybe this is to keep the managers sharp as well as the technology.

Bottom Line

At the Church, we spend a lot of management, staff and volunteer time discerning what our ongoing purpose is in the world. Why are we here? What principles and priorities should guide our actions? Whom should we help? What are we being called to do? Even if you are not a church, you would be wise to ask those questions and live by the answers.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Two New Excel Functions

Microsoft has just announced two new Excel functions to be included in the Microsoft Office 2007 suite, Service Pack 2 (SP2) expected to be released 04/01/2009. I'm sure they will prove to be indispensable tools to accountants, particularly those involved in budgeting, financial reporting or financial modeling for charities and public corporations.

In these trying economic times, closing the gap between revenues and expenses can be challenging to say the least. Also, with consumer confidence ebbing and the price of overseas parts and raw materials mounting, it is increasingly difficult for companies to maintain their profit margins. That's where the first function, HOPE comes in. It will calculate the gap or margin that you will hopefully fill when your forecasted transactions are realized. Here's an excerpt from the documentation:



HOPE returns a specific dollar amount or percentage, based on the total revenue and total expense/cost cells you specify.



Result is either "%" for a margin calculation or "$" for a dollar amount.

Tot_revenue is the total revenue amount or the location of the cell containing the revenue amount.

Tot_cost is the total expense or cost amount or the location of the cell containing the cost amount.


  • If tot_revenue is greater than tot_cost, HOPE is unnecessary.
  • If the margin or dollar amount calculation is too high, HOPE returns the #VALUE! error value.

I should comment that in testing the beta version of this function I came across the #VALUE! error and discussed it with one of the developers. He said that the function is based on econometrics. There is a certain point where the gap between revenues and expenses/costs is so great that the value of HOPE required to balance the equation approaches infinity (i.e. an undefined value). In order to prevent the function from going into an infinite loop, it aborts and displays the error message.

To overcome this issue, Microsoft has introduced a second function, but you should employ it cautiously as it uses an enormous amount of system resources. The syntax is similar to HOPE, but the function is called PRAY.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Interesting People

It takes a lot of talent to be a consistently funny writer for your whole career, but John Cleese has done just that. I was a Monty Python fan and watched the TV show every week. I quoted Python skits in high school (Say no more!!). I watched the movies and Fawlty Towers. And now, I have started listening to his podcasts.

When Cleese is just talking to the camera, he can be quite humble. In the video podcast I watched this morning, he talked about how fortunate he was to meet so many intelligent and interesting people through Python. Then he said, ". . . which wouldn't have happened if I'd been an accountant."

Them's fightin' words!

But before I bristle with righteous indignation at the callous insult levelled at my profession, let me state that I realize that no slight to accountants was intended. With all of his royalty earnings, I expect that John could truthfully say, "Some of my best friends are accountants."

But it does raise the question of what makes an accountant (or anybody for that matter) interesting.

Here's my take. (Feel free to agree/disagree in the comments below.) When I look back to all the people I have found interesting, the thing they have mostly in common is that they knew what they wanted and had the courage to go for it.

Actually, you don't have to start an international comedy troupe to be interesting. You could even be just an accountant. All you have to do is reach down deep inside you and find a cause that resonates. Find something or someone worth dedicating your life to. That will force you to dig deep and find the personal resources you never knew you had. That will force you to look outside yourself and look to others for assistance. When you have a purpose in life, the other things just seem to fall into place and when they don't, you will find previously untapped reserves of energy to take on the challenges. Then, I guarantee that people will find you interesting, but by then you won't care. You'll be too busy following your dream.

Like the accountant in the Monty Python skit who wanted to be a lion tamer . . . hey, wait a second. Maybe Cleese does have a thing about accountants after all!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

What's Going On With This Blog?

Bloggers tend to write from personal experience. Recently I have been adding more content about not for profit enterprises to the Energized Accounting blog and there's a reason. For the past several months, I have been on contract to The United Church of Canada. I was recently offered the position of Executive Officer, Financial Services effective January 1, 2009. That's the official title, but externally the position is referred to as the Chief Financial Officer. As a result, this blog will change its focus.

When I started Energized Accounting, I was an accounting system implementation consultant and project manager, and my posts reflected what I was doing every day. Now I am not as involved in the day to day running of the accounting system and am more concerned with supporting the units (i.e. departments) running the programs and projects of the Church.

I expect there will still be a technology focus to this blog and I invite you to join us as we struggle to make efficient and effective use of emerging technologies (as well as the ones we already own!) I hope that the posts will be of general use, not just to those who work in the not for profit sector.

Thank you for coming along for the Energized Accounting ride. Please comment about anything and everything you've read here.

The Accountant's GiveList

The GiveList is a way of helping people without spending money. In their words,

Times are tight. We know, we know. We've all seen the scary headlines. Too many of the scary headlines. And we're all feeling the pressure in other ways too. But, still, we want to contribute what we can to making the world the better place. The GiveList gives you ideas and inspiration for just that: ways that you contribute without spending or buying. Or maybe giving while buying and spending a little less than usual.
What a wonderful idea. It immediately got me to thinking about how accountants can help. Please add your ideas as a comment to this blog. Let's get everyone talking about it!

Here's my list:
  • Do someone's taxes,
  • Volunteer at a tax clinic,
  • Ask a local charity if they need a treasurer (if they don't need one, I'll bet they know two or three who do),
  • Donate gently used winter clothing to a shelter (OK, you don't have to be an accountant to do that one),
  • Help a charity set up / improve their accounting system (if you don't have time to be a treasurer),
  • Coach a Junior Achievement team and teach some kids about business,
  • Hire a temporary student from the AIESEC business student exchange at the time of year when you really need help, so that a local student can get international business experience,
  • Teach someone how to balance their bankbook,
  • Raise money with a marathon, bikeathon, walkathon or any type of thon involving physical activity (if you're anything like me, it will do you a lot of good!)