Accounting departments play a unique, business-critical role within organizations. An accounting department that works typically has a strong leader, which in turn makes for a strong group. Such strength helps alleviate the pressure that goes along with the job of reporting the numbers—the very numbers that determine value for investors. Although this takes intense focus and often leads to isolation in one’s office, there is a lot to be gained by taking on “leadership from the accounting department” as a core value.
From my experience working with CFOs, controllers, accounting groups and investors of client companies, I’ve had the opportunity to see first-hand how in-house accountants can be effective leaders. Whether leading projects/people on their own team or having a positive impact on other teams, the net effect will enhance the entire corporation. As with all types of leadership, the essential building blocks are communication, listening, accountability and responsiveness.
Interacting with colleagues in an accounting department and across various functions creates an opportunity to lead. Explaining what accountants do and how they are tied to the financial well-being of the company goes a long way in establishing relationships and mutual respect. The following steps can help to de-mystify the job and open channels of two-way communication:
- Walking the halls and chatting with folks to bridge the accountant–non-accountant gap
- Making personal contact with internal clients via face-to-face meetings, rather than always relying on email
- Being open and available by not closing the office door, sending a clear message that questions are welcome and answers will be provided
The art of listening applies directly to the development of leadership skills. In the case of accountants, it involves taking the following actions:
- Getting outside your “accounting bubble” to listen and learn the nature of business transactions throughout the organization; then, figure out how to best account for it
- Listening to individuals in key revenue generating departments, like sales and operations, to shed light on what they need to meet their numbers
- Investigating challenges in the field with respect to data and asking questions: Is it the right data? Are there problems with reporting the data? How are contracts/transactions structured? It can be an eye-opening experience to see things from others’ perspectives and invent new ways of doing things (for example, how a business deal is structured)—not merely doing what has always been done based on the past.
- And once the numbers are reported…listening to what they’re revealing about the business, as the data in such reports is needed to make informed decisions about how to run the company
Leaders with the character trait of accountability, or integrity, do what they know to be right, even in particularly difficult situations, like reporting on financial matters. They also hold others accountable to the same high standards of behavior. In the accounting world, the ability to measure and evaluate earnings is not enough; it must be done with the utmost accuracy. Without accuracy, there can be no accountability. At times of uncertainty, turning to trusted persons within the organization or contacting an outside CPA to discuss sensitive issues may be the best solution.
Accountants can respond to the needs within their organization by exhibiting leadership through training and education around accounting concepts and practices. If individuals know what accountants do and what they need/why they need it, they will be more apt to provide the right information for financial reports, auditing, tax preparation, etc. Leadership can also take place in the broader business community by sharing accounting knowledge and areas of expertise via public speaking engagements and participation in community service activities, as well as professional networking groups. Accounting organizations are also ideal platforms for getting known and volunteering, perhaps holding an office to help run things and sharpen leadership skills. Such responsiveness to internal and external calls to action serves to promote personal growth and contribute to others at the same time.
In closing, I’d like to say, “Stand up and lead. You’ll be glad you did.”