Updated: Feb 7, 2021
Changing the way our profession is viewed by the world.
By Ron Monteiro, CPA, CMA
A google search returned the following when I typed in the words “bean counter”:
“Beans are a cheap commodity, so to count them is a silly thing to do.”
“A “bean counter” is one who nitpicks over small things in order to save costs.”
“It is a derogatory term for accountants, bankers, and anyone who holds a financial interest in an endeavor.”
“I would hate to be a bean counter for a living. I would rather be poor and have a personality.”
These definitions are humorous and insulting at the same time. The last one is absolutely brutal but it in order to change anything, we need to understand the various perspectives that exist. Financial Planning & Analysis professionals have an opportunity and a duty to permanently eradicate this antiquated and stereotypical definition and attitude towards Accountants which often extends to all Finance professionals.
How do we change this view that is prevalent in several stakeholders across businesses?
My point of view is that we as a community need to place significantly more emphasis on developing our soft skills. When I refer to soft skills, it involves much more than presentation skills. It involves the ability to comfortably work with cross-functional business stakeholders and executives in any business setting or situation that arises. It could be in a formal meeting setting, an informal water cooler encounter or even an informal coincidental elevator ride with an executive. Each of these encounters could be a very positive or negative encounter. Getting favourable outcomes involves training and practice and often requires us going outside our comfort zone.
Steve jobs famously said “Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do.”
What if we as a community decided that we are going to have the development of amazing soft skills as a requirement in our various certifications, designations as well as functional training curriculums? This would push many people out of their comfort zones but I think it would be a huge positive for us individually and as a community.
A few weeks ago I met Larysa Melnychuk who is on an amazing journey to improve the FP&A profession around the world. She had a vision of sharing best practices across our industry and through a lot of hard work has made it happen. She is based out of the UK and recently hosted an event in Toronto which was one of many stops on her North America tour. She is an FP&A ROCKSTAR! I told her that I am available for the Hawaii or Bali meetings when she starts these chapters!
She has created chapters in 25 cities (soon to be 27) around the world and 4 continents which is amazing! At our conference we spoke about the need for FP&A professionals to be very proficient at story telling. She shared an amazing statistic that only 15% of our effectiveness is driven by our technical skills. The other 85% is heavily driven by our ability to communicate effectively with our cross-functional counterparts which aligns with the need to focus on soft skills.
So why do we focus so much of our training and development on technical skills? Because it is comfortable!
This brings me back to the importance of training ourselves and more importantly our teams (the next generation of Accounting and Finance professionals) to be amazing presenters and confident and articulate business (not just Accounting) professionals.
I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya and when I came to Canada as a 13 year old, I had amazing technical school proficiency. I easily aced my math exams because I had hours and hours of math practice in Kenya. My dad was an amazing Math teacher and my mom instilled strong work ethic in me. No soccer until I did a couple of hours of work every day!
The educational system in Kenya placed huge emphasis on memorization and technical practice and very little emphasis on soft skills. Unfortunately for me I was very shy and could barely hold a conversation with somebody I did not know well. This was very challenging for me as a teenager going through high school. I had opinions in class and group projects but was way too shy to share them or to participate. There is a close analogy with my story and Accountants and Finance professionals who have focused on and are therefore very strong technically but have not practiced their soft skills which remain underutilized.
Over time I struggled with public speaking and presentations and often skipped school or work in my early days to avoid public speaking. I would always sit at the back of the room in school and find the least visible spot in meetings as I never wanted to be called on to speak. It was very ironic that my first presentation topic in English in grade nine was explaining the term ‘foreboding’! It was a great preview of my horrific and nervous presentation!
After struggling with my soft skills through my University career and my first couple of jobs, I eventually landed at Kraft Canada. They had an amazing philosophy on training and development. I was encouraged by mentors and managers to take practical courses on presentations and soft skills which have changed my view on the importance of soft skills and made a huge difference in my professional and personal life. I was also taking courses on technical skills so I slowly but surely started building confidence in my abilities.
I was also the captain of two soccer teams I played on mainly because I had developed good technical skills on the soccer pitch. As a captain, I had a duty to be more vocal which also contributed to my improved technical skills and growing confidence.
As a Senior Manager at Kraft, my development opportunity was to increase my ‘presence’ in business discussions and meetings. As a developmental assignment, I was assigned to be a lead on a networking committee where one of my first tasks was to present in front of 200 people. I was very nervous but took it very seriously and had some fun with it which was also a big step forward for me. I injected a lot of humour and fun into my presentations which helped me really have a great experience.
As I reflect on my experience from incompetence to competence, it is about giving people the training and opportunity and often giving them a supportive nudge that may be uncomfortable but will benefit them in a huge way in the long run.
My experience has taught me that developing a strong understanding of the business and great presentations involves the following:
• Learn your business:
At Kraft Canada in the early 2000s, all new employees had to visit manufacturing locations and had a 1 week orientation where senior leaders explained their businesses to the new cohort of employees. In my travels since Kraft, this is often a missing element of orientations for new employees. They often go to their desk with very little training or understanding of the business and therefore they do not develop a strong understanding of their business. This hurts them as they are often in very specialized roles and are not able to have an intelligent conversation with other members of the organization. Organizations and individuals should encourage and facilitate strong orientation programs for individuals across FP&A, Accounting and Finance. It is very important to have a deep understanding of the business.
• Make presentations skills an important part of your monthly routine:
Have team meetings with encourage all team members to present. Having only senior leaders speaking in meetings hurts the development of the next generations of Finance leaders.
• Make presentations interesting and FUN!
I remember going on a roadshow across the country and presenting a new business process to sales people. Finance often had the slot right before the fun activity or right before cocktail hour. The expectations were low and we blew them away – they were expecting a snoozer! We brainstormed and decided to do a fun video that was also very effective in communicating our important messages. It worked beautifully and was sincerely appreciated by our audience. Be bold and use great visuals, show videos and make it interesting and FUN for the audience.
• Understand your audience and tailor your presentation to your audience!
If your audience has a limited understanding of financials, do not show complex financials or frequently use terms like FAS 106 or IRFS! Play the important role of simplifying. This applies to everyday business as well.
I once was the Finance lead for a Marketing VP who had an insatiable appetite for detailed financial information. He would want me to go through P&Ls (some of the very immaterial) for hours! My next VP was a Sales professional who was promoted to GM and I initially approached my role the same way and provided him a lot of detail. Our relationship suffered but eventually I came to the realization that a one-pager or very simple update would be effective for this new leader. It worked magically and was very successful. Keenly observe your stakeholders and ask for feedback – this will help you tailor your style.
• Learn from great presenters and networkers:
When you see a great presenter in person, go up to her or him and ask for advice and try to implement what you have learned. If you are comfortable with the person, share the fact that you would appreciate their help. Toastmasters or public speaking clubs, TED talks and resources on YouTube or the internet are amazing in this regard. There are a number of TED talks on having interesting and compelling conversations with strangers which is a huge part of effective networking that can be beneficial in a work setting.
We need to commit as leaders to FOCUS on soft skills training and development.
I am confident that as a profession we will improve our soft skills (while continuing to have amazing technical skills) and add way more value to our organizations. As individuals who have such an amazing vantage point of the organization’s opportunities and risks, the ability to communicate these effectively will help organizations act on them.
Improving our own and more importantly our team member’s soft skills will also have an amazing and positive impact on our personal lives! I am confident that as a professional focusing on these skills will dramatically improve us as a community and change the google and prevailing narrative!