Skip to main content
Powered By AICPA CIMA AICPA CIMA
 
 
 

Are you an accountant or a problem-solver? 

By Kim Nilsen 
May 21 2012

The corporate finance professionals who climb the value chain will be interpreters and collaborators able to leverage data as a strategic asset while working across functional areas to solve problems and innovate, according to executives speaking Friday at the American Institute of CPAs’ Council meeting in Washington.

“Information is the new currency,” said Priyan Fernando, executive vice president, American Express Global Business Services. As the volume of information increases exponentially, CPAs can play a critical role in determining the integrity of information and analysing it. That gives accountants opportunities to find revenue streams and have an impact on the bottom line.

“We have a perspective that not many people have,” Fernando said, and that should help secure accountants a place at the table in the innovation process.

At the athletic apparel clothing company Under Armour Inc., that shift can be seen in the seating chart, as professionals are moving out of finance and directly into the business units, said the company’s CFO, Brad Dickerson.

“Collaboration is key,” Dickerson said. “The days of accountants or financial people sitting at a computer and sitting at their desk all day are long, long gone.”

The demands on finance to play a strategic role are also shaping the required competencies and, in some cases, pushing accountants to move beyond their comfort zone, panellists said.

While there’s a need for people who see predominantly in black and white, Dickerson argued, those who want to move into leadership roles need to be able to cope with and manage through grey “because there’s so much grey in business.”

How do you define yourself?

The key question for finance professionals is “are you a problem-solver or are you an accountant,” said Kenneth Kelly, senior vice president and controller for McCormick, the global spice, seasonings, and specialty foods company.

“If you think about companies today they are really managed by function. You have the accountants, you have the marketing people, the operations people. But they are really run by process,” Fernando said. “People who can look beyond their silo across processes can be extremely useful to the organisation.”

Kelly offered an example of how that’s happening at McCormick. The company has what it calls multiple management boards—self-sustaining groups of people from all levels of the staff and various units that come together for six-month stints on certain issues, typically issues related to business processes. The groups help breed collaboration and leadership and expand knowledge of the business. At the close of the six months, the board members vote on who should remain and those rated in the bottom 20% aren’t invited back to the board.

Human capital and other nonfinancial assets

The three executives on the panel agreed that employees are key nonfinancial assets for their companies. And they said vendors and suppliers can also play a role in innovation. Kelly said businesses need to share information across the supply chain to gain efficiencies.

He said key nonfinancial assets—people, brands, thought leadership or distribution networks—must be understood and tracked, but he questioned whether they should appear on the balance sheet. He argues that assigning a value to those assets is work to be done by investors.

To measure and manage one nonfinancial asset—people—American Express Global Business Services evaluates individuals on return and appreciation, Fernando said. Return measures their performance. Appreciation speaks to their potential.

High-performing, high-potential workers need different reinforcement and motivation than employees elsewhere on the grid, Fernando said. Meanwhile, the company has re-engineered work spaces to make them more flexible and fun, moving away from dedicated work spaces and expectations of being in the office while placing more emphasis on evaluating outcomes.

In the battle for talent, Dickerson said, employers will need to figure out how to attract and engage current workers to an increasingly virtual workplace.

Kim Nilsen (knilsen@aicpa.org) is executive editor of the CGMA Magazine.

Don't miss out on additional news and features from CGMA Magazine.
Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

 



5 Comments


Comments
John Sutton

Not being in public practice for many years I could not use the CPA designation on business cards so  I only used a management title like CFO, VP Finance. When I made a transition to general management I had management titles all the way up to President of a small Corporation (by being a problem solver by the way). Not using the CPA designation has had its drawbacks and advantages. When you want someone to know you are a CPA because it seems appropriate to tell them at the time, you can always tell them. One of the best compliments (at least I took it as a compliment) I ever received came from a fellow charity board member who had worked with me for a few years when they finally realized that I was an accountant and said to me "Oh wow, I would have never guessed that you are an accountant!" Being well rounded, outgoing, interesting and interested and well versed in a broad range of subjects is not the typical stereotype of our profession. I agree "problem solver" is what you want to be (no matter what your credentials or title). A problem solver is what every business usually quickly realizes they need, while a lot of businesses see accountants as just overhead.

Jun 12, 2012 8:21 PM
Comments
Kelvin Humphreys

@Paul Durant perhaps you should start to refer to yourself as a "business partner". It has much more positive connotations and people take much more interest in your line of work. Its sad but I hate refering to myself as an accountant, people get the wrong impression. My line of work is very commercial (and has been operational in the past) and is becoming increasingly strategic, especially as I am being groomed to move into senior leadership positions & general management. I would definitely refer to myself as a (root) problem solver, and with a natural inclination to look/work across functional boundaries. This approach has led me to a director position in a ?500m division of a $2bn manufacturing company in only 6 years of working. Good article - the ability to handle & read insight into information, plus the ability to collaborate are crucial for the future!

May 25, 2012 9:40 AM
Comments
Kelvin Humphreys

@Paul Durant perhaps you should start to refer to yourself as a "business partner". It has much more positive connotations and people take much more interest in your line of work. Its sad but I hate refering to myself as an accountant, people get the wrong impression. My line of work is very commercial (and has been operational in the past) and is becoming increasingly strategic, especially as I am being groomed to move into senior leadership positions & general management. I would definitely refer to myself as a (root) problem solver, and with a natural inclination to look/work across functional boundaries. This approach has led me to a director position in a ?500m division of a $2bn manufacturing company in only 6 years of working. Good article - the ability to handle & read insight into information, plus the ability to collaborate are crucial for the future!

May 25, 2012 9:40 AM
Comments
Paul Durant

For forty years, I''ve struggled with the affix CPA because it contained the word "Accountant". Most frequently when I add that I''m an accountant, the normally reply is, "Oh, a bean counter...". Avoiding any visible expression of anger, I would explain that maybe bookkeeper could be bean counters, a real accountant is a problem solving member of the management team.

May 21, 2012 5:00 PM
Comments
JamesMcclanahan

Couldn''t agree more.  My experience is that there is no one right answer to a problem, but there is one best answer, and the best answer is usually arrived at through brainstorming.  Each collaborator brings a different perspective, which helps insure that all angles are appropriately considered.  Also, you want an answer that solves not just the one instance of the problem, but prevents recurrence.  You want an answer that addresses and remediates the root cause(s).  The most effective way to identify the root cause(s) is through discussion among representatives from all applicable functions.  Jim McClanahan, CPA

May 21, 2012 12:27 PM
Showing 5 of 5 comments   
 
You must be a CGMA Designation Holder to comment
Login now