Help Wanted: Accountant by Day, Technologist by Night
- CHIP MAURI
- JANUARY 1, 2019
Imagine the following: You need to hire an accountant. Doesn’t really matter why – the possible reasons are, of course, endless. Maybe you had one, and they’ve left for other pastures. Or you’ve never really had one – your office manager simply can’t keep up with the current demands of your growing company.
“Don’t ever let your business get ahead of the financial side of your business. Accounting, accounting, accounting. Know your numbers.” – Tilman Fertitta, American businessman, billionaire
Imagine further that you’ve reached the following two conclusions: 1) you need help as soon as possible, but 2) having never been an accountant yourself, you don’t really know what you’re looking for. Of course you want a good, experienced accountant (because the concept of intentionally seeking a bad one is, well, ludicrous), but what’s the definition of “good?”
If you ask someone within your network for a recommendation, you’ve avoided solving the “good” definition. Similarly, you could opine, “Well, our last accountant was adept at x, y and z, so all will be fine if we can just replace those functions,” as if maintaining the status quo somehow justifies your commitment to excellence. You will quickly find that writing the accounting job description is more challenging than first imagined.
A Few Observations
Ideally, you would properly apply each candidate’s merits against a generally-accepted framework, or standard. A Google search wastes no time displaying an endless list of accountancy attributes, often grouped into a “technical accounting” bucket (implying that you are well-versed in the nuances of this technical subject matter), or into the generalized-but-critically-important “soft skills” bucket. Unfortunately, that Google search can’t possibly factor in the idiosyncratic uniqueness of your company – your current needs, historical pain points, challenging personalities, etc. Alas, that standard you seek is a myth.
But experience counts for something. I’ve spent the last 20 years honing my craft in a multitude of finance and accounting shops, and have been married to CPA/tax accountant for the latter half of that stretch. Please allow me to share a few brief observations. Hopefully you find some value, or glean an alternate perspective that actually propels your company forward.
More precisely, company size matters. The accountant’s skill sets, just like most people, are mostly honed by their work experiences – not their education. In larger companies, accountants become “silo-ed:” they specialize in a certain niche within accounting, or become intimately familiar with a specific division / department, or can navigate their accounting system with tremendous speed. They are blessed with the advantages of synergy and efficiency. In small- to medium-sized companies, the successful accountant will embody the virtues of MacGyver: by necessity, they flex, adapt and solve problems the big-company accountant has no experience with. Yet, both carry the label “accountant.” So, buyer beware: put the square peg in the square hole.
Simply put, accountants collect, store, review and report financial information for organizations. By extension, financial information is data, and certainly falls under the discipline of information management. Accounting academia prepares future professionals in the axioms of generally-accepted accounting principles (GAAP), and leaves data management training to the domain of Information Technology (IT). However, small- and medium-sized companies often lack IT staffing to address this crucial ingredient, and CEO’s often “just presume” this is happening by a default, matter-of-course. The incoming accountant must embrace their role as a data manager, and in parallel, the CEO must identify this skill as a core competency.
Let’s face it, folks – Microsoft Excel remains the most prevalent tool utilized by accounting and finance teams. We see an increasing volume of literature highlighting the deficiencies of Excel, and rightfully so. However, as a pragmatist, I believe task execution and communication cannot take a back seat to idealism. Excel will continue to be a workhorse for the short-term, and probably longer. Similar to the data management deficiencies noted above, the accountant’s Excel skills are introduced in academia but honed in the professional world. Unless you run a very large company (with a full-bodied team with access to robust systems and training), my recommendation is to evaluate the candidate’s breadth and scope of Excel formulas, data querying and manipulation, visualizations (charts and graphs), professional formatting and Power Query.
The fairytale legend Shrek proposed the notion that an ogre is like an onion – they both have layers. Similarly, accountants have layers too. Some are quite skilled at entering transactions into the ledger system with remarkable accuracy and speed. Some can expertly apply new revenue recognition standards (like ASC 606). Others can formulate optimal tax shield considerations across multiple subsidiaries. Discern what skills are needed most, and to the greatest reasonable extent, prioritize skills that ensure the basics are covered first (managing the accounting system properly, issuing and collecting invoices, paying vendors accurately, and managing cash carefully), before seeking help with specialized/advanced aptitudes.
The ROI of ‘Insight’ Finance
Top performing companies invest more heavily into ‘insight’ finance activities than average-performing companies, and the resulting benefits clearly outpace the additional costs.
In PWC’s Finance Effectiveness Benchmark Report 2017, nearly 600 companies (and their finance organizations) participated in a benchmarking study. It’s highly recommended reading, and I’d like to share PWC’s well-constructed infographic below:
Simply put, top performing companies invest more heavily into ‘insight’ finance activities than average-performing companies, and the resulting benefits clearly outpace the additional costs. The statistical evidence (nearly 600 benchmarked companies) is overwhelming, and certainly matches my 20 years of accumulated intuition and experience. Even if your accounting candidate can demonstrate these ‘insight’ attributes (business partnering, strategic management, exploratory analytics, decision support, etc), they won’t have the bandwidth to do the day-to-day transaction accounting as well. In other words, don’t spread the peanut butter too thin – accountants have their limitations, just like anyone else.
Particularly for small- to medium-sized businesses, note that I have applied less focus on “accounting,” and more focus on being “technically and analytically savvy.” This is not to say that we should devalue traditional accounting skills (debits, credits, cash reconciliation, etc), but rather acknowledge both elements should be given equal due. In today’s environment of rapid technological change, both are critical.
No one knows the specific challenges happening within your firm better than you. Just as you demand excellence from everyone within your organization, reciprocate by bringing in technically-savvy accountants to support your overall strategic direction and growth.
The Calculation Bar is an organization driven to creatively transform corporate finance through compelling data visualization, technology and responsive customer service. Our goal is to optimize how business leaders use data effectively, improve profitability and engender deeper conversations with lenders and investors. For more information, please visit calculationbar.com. To get financial management content delivered to your inbox, you can subscribe here or click the button below.