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 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, a water cooler encounter or an informal coincidental elevator ride with an executive. Each of these encounters could be a very positive or negative experience. Getting favourable outcomes in these situations 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 however I believe 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 an FP&A ROCKSTAR!
She has created chapters in 27 cities and 4 continents which is amazing! At the Toronto meeting, we spoke about the need for FP&A professionals to be very proficient at storytelling. 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 align 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.
The educational system in Kenya placed huge emphasis on memorization and technical practice and very little emphasis on soft skills. 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.
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.
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 co-lead a networking committee where one of my first tasks was to present in front of 200 people. I was very nervous but I 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 do not develop a strong understanding of their business. This hurts them as they are often in 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 which encourage all team members to present and share information and opinions. Meetings where only senior leaders speak hurts the development of the next generation of Finance leaders.
- Make presentations interesting and FUN! I remember going on a coast to coast ‘roadshow’ and presenting a new business process to sales folks across the Country. Finance often had the time slot right before the fun activity or right before cocktail hour. The expectations were low and 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!
I recently did a guest lecture at the University of Toronto and learned that the students have to register for an app called ‘Top Hat’. Lectures involve audience participation where students answer polls or questions using this app. The purpose of this app is to drive audience engagement! Involving your audience always drives better engagement.
- 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 for hours! My next VP was a Sales professional who was promoted into a General Manager role 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 and be successful.
- 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 and 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 softs skills and more importantly our teams’ 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!