Rebecca McNeil, CPA, CGMA is the chief financial officer of The Arts Finance Cohort, a collaboration between five Pittsburgh-based arts organizations including a theater company, a performing arts venue, a community arts space and ceramic studio, a glass studio and a crafts center. As a shared CFO, she provides strategic and operational financial expertise the groups could not afford individually. Her task is to move the organizations beyond year-to-year, break-even operations to long-term sustainability, as she helps each create a capitalization plan. McNeil is also a classically trained clarinet player. In this AICPA Insights Member Spotlight, we find out how Rebecca is using her management accounting skills to help an industry that she is passionate about: the arts.
1. Tell me about your day-to-day responsibilities.
There’s a wide variety of work. I might review one group’s [IRS] 990 and make corrections to the form, perform current-year projections for another group and work on policies and procedures for another. For some organizations, I'm providing higher-level oversight and strategic planning advice and for others I'm offering more upper-level staff support by updating their record-keeping. I have to evaluate with each organization based on the staff they have in place.
2. What are your direct areas of responsibility?
My job is to not just show the numbers, but to tell the story of the organization through the numbers. I’ve redrafted nearly every organization’s financial statements at this point. I’m trying to get more clarity on the numbers and present them in a way that makes sense.
There’s also been some education for the organizations on their financial statements so they can understand where their focus should be. I’m trying to help them manage their cash flow while understanding how much fundraising they need to do. We’re trying to get realistic, achievable budgets, and in some cases that requires resetting the budget process.
3. What is/was your biggest challenge?
Time management—without a doubt. When you work for a single organization, you can figure out which priorities should take precedence and how to focus your time. When you work for five organizations, they all have priorities, and the priorities are all at the same high level. One organization or initiative can’t take priority over the other. That’s a challenge.
4. What skills do you think are critical for your role?
It’s my job to present financial information in a way that makes sense. People are scared of numbers if they don’t understand them, and most people don’t understand numbers. If a user of one of my financial statements is not understanding what it is showing, then I haven’t done a good job on that report, and I need to make a change. I feel really strongly about that.
5. When you’re not at work, where can you be found? What are you most passionate about?
I consider music to be my great passion outside of work. It’s my release. You can escape in music. When you’re playing, you have to let everything else drop out of your head so you can focus on the music. I play in a local community symphonic band, a small woodwind ensemble, and a folk group at my church. I’m also a single parent – I have a nine-year-old daughter – so I spend as much time as I can with her. She just started the clarinet, so we’ve been practicing together, which is fun. She’s so excited about the clarinet and loves to practice with me.
6. Do you see any correlation between the skills you use for your music and the skills you use for your job?
When you’re playing as part of a band or ensemble, you have to be aware of what everyone around you is doing and how your part complements the greater group. If someone else is leading, you need to make sure they can be heard and understand how your part supports them. I see myself as a support person for the whole organization, not just the financial staff. If we’re not reporting internally in a way that makes sense to the staff, then they can’t use the information correctly. We need to make sure that we’re providing what they need so that they can do what they need to do.
7. Any advice for young CGMA designation holders starting their careers? What skills are most important for them to develop?
Communication skills. When you’re managing lots of different personalities and communication styles, you have to be able to adjust your style to fit your audience.
Also, it is vital to have strong working relationships because, believe it or not, everyone has the ability to impact the final numbers. Often the lowest paid part-time staff person has the most direct interaction with an organization’s customers. That person can have a major impact on your bottom line.
Information sharing is also really important. Even people who may not need to see a report might want to see the report, because it might help them understand the organization better. I like to make information available to everybody.
8. What do you see as the biggest benefit of being a CGMA designation holder?
The CGMA designation shows the finance community that you have the skills and the ability to think in a strategic way. As a management accountant, you must be able to look at the big picture. Often in accounting, you’re analyzing the past. But if you’re constantly looking backwards and you’re never looking forward, you’re going to get caught off guard. So you have to be able to step back and look at the present and the future. I spend most of my time when I’m presenting reports not even really talking about what’s on the page, but talking about what those numbers mean for the future.
As a CGMA designation holder, Rebecca applies her left-brain management accounting knowledge in right-brain ways in order to be a leader in an industry she’s passionate about. See how taking the first step to becoming a CGMA designation holder starts you on a path to elevating your technical, business, leadership and people skills in order to advance your career goals.