Saturday, 31 October 2009

Experienced, Responsible, Reliable, BORING

In a blog post about hiring leaders, Wayne Floyd asks, "How would you describe the most important skills or qualifications that you bring to the position of leadership?"  He then gives the standard list:  "experienced, responsible, reliable, organized, competent, skilled, likeable, supportive, flexible, collaborative, knowledgeable, proficient person to …."

He goes on to challenge the standard list, saying that we should think carefully about what we need and use the right words to attract the right kind of leader.  He is looking for church leaders at a time when most mainline churches are in decline, so here's his want ad:

Wanted: A compulsive networker and incorrigibly hopeful futurist and wooer of the straying, a lifehacker full of tips and tricks for getting things done among people who often seem to have given up already, a visual storyteller and verbal artist — strategy orchestrator, textologist, and Experience Engineer, to serve as ….

Now, I know that when you hire an accountant, reliability and responsibility figure high on the list, but I wonder whether we need to crib some of the qualities from the list above and add them to our tool box.  We accountants need to be good communicators if we are going to get our message across.  We have to be nimble and able to package what we say into 10 second sound bytes.  We are often the bearers of bad news, so maybe a hopeful attitude and a capacity for getting things done would also be useful.

What life skills would you add to the list of requirements for the modern accountant?

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Putting the Customer First - Really!

You, the software vendor, are making your pitch.  It breaks down into three sections:

  1. Microsoft has amazing software,
  2. You are an amazing Microsoft representative, and
  3. Here's how you would address my needs.
It's very logical, isn't it?  The problem is that every vendor I see has the same pitch.  It's like Microsoft has pre-packaged the sales presentation (actually, Microsoft does do that, but that's a story for another day).  Another problem is that my eyes have glazed over by the time you get to the good stuff.

Really.  I'm stifling yawns by the end of the first section.  You see, I can predict what you're going to present, so I lose interest.  There's no way you're going to say that Microsoft is anything other than perfect or that anybody might have a better team than yours.

What if we turned the whole presentation around?  What if the presentation started with my problems?  What if instead of filling the screen with the logos of the other companies that use the software, it was filled with diagrams showing what I need?  You'd have my attention.

Really.  I'd be on the edge of my seat.

Then, once you've got my attention by showing me that you understand me, what if the salesperson stands back and lets the team speak?  That would show me that you have confidence in the people who are going to do the work.  YES, let the techie speak!  Coach him/her before hand.  Tell them it's OK to be nervous, but let them say something like, "I spoke to your technical staff about your current hardware.  We think you can continue to use your existing workstations and network.  All that will be required is a separate server for the Microsoft system."  Then, your implementation manager could give me a run down of a sample implementation for a company my size.  I would get a chance to assess the chemistry between my staff and yours.

After that, I'd be all questions.  Have you done this kind of implementation before?  Who are your other clients?  Can the Microsoft system handle my requirements?  You could then do the rest of your presentation, and get through all of your material without a single yawn from me.


Energized Accounting Graduate

This posting appeared in craigslist:

Hard Working Energized Accounting Graduate seeking employment (all of GTA)

I just want to say that while I am actively encouraging energized accounting, I haven't actually graduated anyone in this field. It is, however, wonderful to see others using the term Energized when describing accounting!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

2 > 2 X 1 (Accounting Can Be Lonely)

Accounting can be lonely.  So much of what we do is by ourselves.  I was at a the finance committee meeting of a charity last week.  We were discussing how much money the charity needs to have on hand as a contingency fund.  We decided that three month's worth of expenses was a realistic, practical amount.  After the discussion, the Treasurer thanked us.  He said he and the other management staff had wrestled with the question, but he felt better having the chance to work with other accountants.

I have to agree.  Having another professional accountant to challenge your thinking and check your work is invaluable.  The work of two together is worth more than the two individuals.  Sometimes you get that kind of discussion with your auditor, but I find a peer's advice so much more practical and useful.  It also helps that I'm usually not paying my peer by the hour!

Earlier this week I attended a meeting of an industry group.  They bring together representatives from the various organizations in our industry.  This, too, gives me a chance to check in with my peers.  I can stay up to date with them, check our performance against theirs, find out what issues they face and what opportunities there are to work together.

So, this is just a little reminder:  if you're feeling alone in your work, consider volunteering on the finance committee of a charity or getting involved in your industry association.  You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Cover Letter Blues

Reading all the resumes was depressing.  We're hiring a new manager and I was going through a stack of them with the human resources consultant.  The resumes looked remarkably similar and there wasn't a decent cover letter in the pile.  "We should have required applicants to have good communication skills," I joked to the consultant.  "We did," he replied.

Here's the way I see it.  My resume is all about me.  Me me me.  My cover letter needs to be about the employer.  You you you.  Here's my advice to anyone applying for a job:

  1. Go through the ad in detail.  Take all the requirements seriously.  Think about how your background fits with the job.  
  2. If this job is important to you, do some more digging.  Look for the challenges faced by the employer.  Look for things that aren't in the job ad.  Is the industry cyclical or in decline?  Are they threatened by foreign competitors?  Are they having to deal with explosive growth?  Check out the company's web site as well as any news articles that mentioned them.
  3. Pick the top three challenges and do a SHORT paragraph for each.  The opening sentence should start like this:  "You are looking for someone with solid industry experience who can lead the team."  You can then tie their requirement to the skills and experience outlined in your resume.  By the way, if the evidence you want to use is not in your resume, then update it.  There is no rule that says you have to use the same resume at each company.
  4. That is the meat of your letter.  Next you need an opening.  The opening is important because it needs to grab the attention of the reader.  Show them that's it's worth their time to read the rest of the letter.  Since so few people seem to do this, I would use the opening to show that I understand the challenges this company faces.
  5. Finally, your closing should be a call to action and a polite ending of the letter.
Remember, if you are applying for a management position, communications is part of the job, even if it isn't in the job ad. You need to show that you can analyze a situation, convey your thoughts briefly and clearly, make a persuasive case and be sensitive to the needs of others.

Oh, and please spell the name of the company correctly!

Monday, 12 October 2009

Accountants Care

Karen was the accountant for a client of mine. She had twenty years of experience, starting as the receptionist and working her way up to become an indispensable part of the team. She was quiet and dependable, keeping the invoicing and payroll systems going through changes in legislation, system problems and people’s comings and goings. That is, unless you were trying to get away with anything. If a salesperson tried to get some of next month’s sales recorded in this month for bonus purposes, she had a way of making a grown man feel like a little boy caught with his fingers in the cookie jar. I don’t think she ever put the company before her children and husband, but it came a close second.

Accountants care about where they work. In my experience, they take their jobs personally. If anything goes wrong with the company, they feel it, even if it is something completely out of their control. At the same time, they are the company’s conscience, asking the difficult questions about why the budget was not met or why so much money was spent. In good times, accountants are invisible. In bad times, nobody wants to talk to us.

Last week, I attended a meeting with 15 volunteer treasurers from local churches. It was a three-hour meeting about such things as whether people paid by the church (e.g. musicians, choir directors, replacement ministers, etc.) should be treated as employees or contractors for income tax purposes. We also discussed reporting requirements for charities, budgeting, the disposal of church property and other technical matters. The treasurers then had the responsibility of going back to their churches, implementing any necessary changes and explaining the results to their boards.

As I looked around the table, I saw a lot of caring people. I remembered when my mother was elected treasurer of a volunteer group. The requirements were much simpler back then, but I remember her and my father, who actually had a business degree, spending a week of evenings wading through the mess of what had been done previously. We don’t thank volunteers like these nearly enough.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Accounting's Patron Saint

Here's the official patron saint of accounting, Saint Matthew:

"The patron saint of accountants, bankers, bookkeepers, security guards and tax collectors is Saint Matthew of Apostle fame, and he also was the author of one of the Gospels. Before becoming an Apostle, however, he started out as a Jewish tax collector at Capernaum. Little is known about him, outside the seven references he has in the Gospels. In medieval art, Saint Matthew is represented under the symbol of a winged man, carrying in his hand a lance as a characteristic emblem - his artistic calling card if you will. He is one of the originals in the pantheon of patron saints."

Okay, that's the official line. My nominee for the patron saint of accounting would be Cassandra from ancient Greek mythology (and not just because she's both smart and beautiful). She was the one who was condemned by Apollo to be able to see the future but have nobody believe her. She warned Paris that he was courting disaster when he went after Helen. She later warned the Trojans about the Greeks' horse statue, but do you think anyone listened?

Honestly, do you sometimes feel that way? I thought so.

I was accused of exceeding my mandate the other day because I recommended a strategic course of action. According to this person, my role as accountant is only to give the financial picture. I am supposed to tell people what the cost consequences of their decisions are, but not recommend a course of action. Now, I want to make it clear that this person is not my boss, nor did he represent a majority. Still, do you think he was right?

As accountants, are we just supposed to analyze the situation and nothing more? Do we destroy our objectivity or independence if we make specific recommendations? If you see a solution to a financial problem, should you wait for others to fix it or should you step in boldly and argue for your vision? Or are we condemned, like Cassandra, not to be believed?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The More Things Change . . .

My son is in the throws of selecting a university (no, he has no intention of studying accounting!)We are doing the usual rounds of visits to campuses, going to the university fair and my son is attending the events sponsored by the colleges at his school. This morning he was chuckling at the lame marketing slogans employed by the universities.

"'Discover the unexpected,' like, what's that supposed to mean?" he said to me on the subway this morning.

"You're not impressed with their marketing?"

"My generation learned about advertising when the Batman figure we bought at age six didn't work like the TV commercial."

"So you're not impressed by the free pens or mousepads?"


"Okay, so what should the universities use to attract teenagers to their displays?"


The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

This Accounting Life

Late last night I was driving home from work, yeah I know it was Saturday - it's budget time, enough said - and I passed by a building where I used to work. There was a light on in one room and I realized it was my old office. Now, I have no way of knowing whether that's still the Controller's office or not, but I felt a stab of pity/empathy for a fellow sufferer. I pictured him / her sweating over the gap between revenues and expenses just as I had been doing.

Did we sign up for this? When you went to accounting school, did anyone stand at the front of the class and ask you why the hell you were choosing a life where you would be working late nights and weekends to meet this or that corporate / government / bureaucratic deadline? And they just keep coming. It isn't just year end. It's also month / quarter / budget / government form / system change / retroactively applying some new accounting pronouncement etc. etc. time. And then someone says they need a quick report / analysis / answer to an important question. Frankly, often that person is me. I stare at the numbers and something doesn't make sense, so I'm off on a hunt to find out what REALLY happened.

I know, I know. I shouldn't complain. Accounting has been a good career for me. It allowed me to move between companies and across industries when times were hard. I have been involved in challenging projects and meet some very caring people. But neither of my children has any interest in becoming an accountant. "You work too hard," my son told me. I just smiled. I'll let him figure that one out for himself.

So, what sparked this little diatribe? In yesterday's paper there was an essay about Kevin Page, "The Man Who Knows Too Much". He is the head of the Parliamentary Budget Office and his projections of the cost of the budget disagree with the government's. Surprise, surprise. He seems to think that the government's projections are too rosy and now he is being accused of violating his legislative mandate.

He sees the Parliamentary Budget Office, which has been in operation for a year and a half, as the Canadian equivalent of Washington's Congressional Budget Office, the powerful independent agency that, among its other duties, costs proposed legislation in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The key word is "independent". Yesterday I was looking at a proposal that called for "independent legal advice". It occurred to me that that is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as independent legal advice because lawyers are paid to be advocates. Lawyers professionally represent their client's point of view. Accountants are the ones who crave independence and objectivity. The numbers need to stay the same regardless of who is using them. It shouldn't matter whether you are the government or the Parliamentary Budget Office, there is only one projected cost. Sure, you can attack the accountant's assumptions and methods, but you can bet (s)he was there past midnight making sure the numbers were right.