Saturday, 28 February 2009

R U My Mentor?

Wouldn't it be nice to find someone who has seen it all before and is willing to share their experience with you and show you the ropes? Or maybe it would be nice to find someone young and eager to apply their book learning to the real world. Either way, we're talking about the mentor / protege relationship (although in some circles it's called the mentor / mentee relationship). Every professional body on the planet should have a formal mentorship program like the Project Management Institute Southern Ontario chapter.

My Door Is Always Open

How many times have you heard that from someone senior in your company? Even with all the best intentions in the world, the reality is that neither you or your potential mentor probably have that much unstructured time that you can have general discussions about your career. Left to chance meetings, it won't happen.

Just waiting to be noticed, recognized and promoted is a low probability tactic as well. You may well be the only person in your organization who appreciates your potential!

Making the First Move

What if you were a Controller and really admired how the VP of Marketing ran her department. What if you walked into her office when she wasn't busy and said, "You run an excellent department. Your people cover for each other without complaining. They also enjoy working here and with each other. I would like my department to run that way. I'm taking a course in leadership and working on a plan for my department, but I would appreciate practical input from someone who understands what it's like working here. Would you have one hour a week to check in with me about how we're doing?" Who could say no to that?

Here are some things to consider:

  • Ask for a specific amount of time from your mentor (e.g. an hour a week). They are busy, but can probably find an hour a week.
  • Ask for help with something specific and something the mentor does easily. It shouldn't look like you're asking for a lot of their time or effort.
  • Limit the length of the relationship. If the project you want help with is successful, you can always go back and ask about something else afterwards.
  • The mentee sets the agenda. Always go to your mentor with a specific question or discussion point in mind. You don't want to waste the mentor's time.
  • The PMI mentoring program has participants complete a mentoring agreement that specifies what the mentee wants to accomplish as well as when and where the two will meet.
  • Don't be shy - if you don't ask for help, you won't receive it. You might be afraid that asking for help will be viewed as a sign of weakness, but usually the reverse is true. You are respected for realizing your limitations and working to overcome them.
What do mentors get out of the relationship? My experience has been that people are usually delighted to help someone who is sincerely looking to learn from them. It is truly a mutually beneficial relationship.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Why I'm Excited About Convergence

Convergence is Microsoft's annual invitation to all of its business customers to meet and talk about accounting software. Yep, that's right. It's a giant convention of computer geeks and accounting nerds. Being a bit of both, I feel right in my element, but that's not why I'm excited.

There is a whole raft of technical sessions. A bunch of them are about Dynamics NAV (the product I use now) and Dynamics GP (the other product I implemented). There are speakers about applying the product to specific industries, integrating it with Microsoft Office and more general topics such as Kevin Schofield talking about where Microsoft is headed, but that's not why I'm excited.

Convergence is set up to encourage us end users to find each other. You can set up a profile that other users can search so that you can link up with others in the same industry and/or geographic area using the same software. Several user groups will also have their meetings there and I'm helping with the Ontario users, but that's not why I'm excited about going.

Sure, all these things are important, but for me, the key is the direct connection between those who make the software and those who use it. Our system was built (well, acquired actually, but you know what I mean) by Microsoft. Then it was modified for charities by Serenic. Then it was implemented by Altus. Then we started using it. That's four layers. It's time that layer 4 talked to layer 1! I love to meet the people who are truly passionate about what they do. They can tell you where they are headed and what they were thinking when they wrote the system you have. They can often give you fresh insight into how to use the system more efficiently/effectively. Often level 1 feedback gives you reason to go back to levels 2 and 3.

Then there are the vendors, all those hardy souls who have built software to make your life easier. Many people will scan the convention material for the specific software they're looking for and limit themselves to those vendors. Not me. I can do that kind of search more quickly with Google. I'm looking for ideas. Since there's no telling where a new idea is going to come from, I talk to as many vendors as I can. Who knows? I just might see the perfect solution for a friend's system, if not my own.

If you want to follow my progress through Convergence, I will be tweeting it for AccountingWeb.

Friday, 13 February 2009

They Keep Changing Their Minds

The woman beside me and I were looking at the travel expense in the General Ledger and in the report before me. They didn't match. My report was in a different format than the GL. I made the comment that if we reorganized the cost centers in the GL to match the reporting format, she wouldn't have to do so much reconciliation.

"That's true," she said, "But they keep changing their minds about what they want."

Then she corrected herself. "Actually, they have been pretty consistent since they started that three year plan."

Ahah! She hit on the secret of financial reporting: the planning process needs to drive reporting. Here are some hallmarks of a good financial planning report.

  1. It highlights the organization's drivers.
  2. It makes responsibilities clear.
  3. It spans more than one year.
  4. It is intuitive to non-financial readers.
  5. It is brief.

What critical forces contribute the most to your business? (Hint: if your list has more than 10 items on it, try again.) For example, commodities prices and the foreign exchange market might have a significant impact on the cost of your raw materials, which in turn affects how much profit you make on every sale. Maybe your research department has contributed new products that have led you into new markets and higher sales. Maybe your business is highly sensitive to inflation or interest rates.

Whatever you identify as your business drivers, make sure their effect is front and center in the financial statements. Don't bury them in some page 10 inventory schedule.


You should have one schedule that breaks down your goals by the people/department responsible for carrying them out. Often this is done by having a separate column for each one. Every number in the report is someone's responsibility, so there can be no finger pointing.


Even if you feel that you can't see more than six months into the future, creating a multi-year plan helps you see the relationships between the different elements of your business. If this is unfamiliar territory for your staff, make them do it anyway. The trick is not to ignore the results when real life experience makes mincemeat out of your forecasts. Have a Lessons Learned session with the managers and go through the reasons the forecast went south. Everyone will learn and their forecasting abilities will get better. Trust me on this one.


Good leaders can see through the fog of business and maintain a clear vision of their goals. Good financial executives can grab that vision and express it in financial statements. Some tricks of the trade:
  • Divide your income statement into sections, with subtotals for each driver,
  • Don't cram too many columns of numbers onto one report (no more than 4),
  • Put the most important expenses first, and
  • Anticipate the questions and make sure your format answers them.


"Nice analysis," the Chair remarked to me. "Now get it down to 3 pages." When he saw the look on my face he added, "If you write three pages with lots of bullets, they'll read the whole report. If you write more than that they won't read it at all." He was right.

In a recent meeting I was asked for a "one pager" on an accounting issue. It was too complex for a one page analysis, but the Chair knew what he was doing. The committee discussed the issue and asked me to provide a five page analysis. Because they asked for it, they will be much more engaged in the issue than if I had presented the longer analysis first.