When I think about my best work experiences, the bosses really don’t stand out. What I recall is the trust and camaraderie among my coworkers. Decision options were usually fully analyzed and vetted among the senior staff well before the decision was presented formally. Decisions for the boss were focused on strategic or core value issues, and because the team understood all the impacts, the decision would have full commitment whichever way it was decided. This scenario describes an excellent work environment, and the management accountant can do a great deal to facilitate its creation.
Management accountants are often placed in a judge-type role as the financial—and, in part, performance—scorekeepers and evaluators for financial results, budget development, and operating and capital process improvement investments. Little information gets to the CEO or key leaders of the organization if it isn’t approved by the CFO/senior management accountant. There are many ways to handle this role, but not all help build a high-performing, collaborative team. Let’s explore some approaches management accountants can take to shift from scorekeeper and judge to collaborator and facilitator.
PROVIDE FINANCIAL EXPERTISE
The emphasis is on providing service, not demonstrating or exercising expertise. If some divisions will be surprised by the financial results, if budgets are submitted with errors and poor justification, or if investment requests lack sufficient financial analysis, then the management accountant is doing a poor job of providing financial expertise.
Each division has its own professional strengths and expertise. The management accountant turns business situations and needs into a story with numbers. Removing or reducing the workload associated with financial tasks for other divisions is an opportunity to build collaboration. Let the management accounting staff work with the other divisions to tell their financial story.
One successful approach I use is to assign junior management accountants as the liaisons for each division. Usually the first task they tackle is to develop the division’s budget. They work with the staff and present the component budgets to the division chief and his or her staff, then to the division chief and me, the senior management accountant. Along the way, they brief me on their work so that I can coach them. The division chiefs and their staffs really appreciate being able to step back from the annual budget effort and the number crunching.
By working this way, my staff was doing what it was good at—turning stories into numbers, learning about the organization, and gaining valuable experience. The other division chiefs get their budget presented by a management accountant rather than the typical alternative—having their budget submission reviewed and evaluated by me or my staff. They could thus focus on the operational case and not get bogged down in the financial details. Over time the division liaison duties expanded to provide assistance with investment requests and to conduct weekly briefings on a range of financial matters.
INTERPRET THE FINANCIAL STORY
Accounting is fundamentally a historical or periodic exercise. Despite new technology and systems, there’s still a tendency to focus on the performance of a reporting period once the report is complete. Key divisions often are tasked with preparing for a financial performance review. This has an element of “gotcha” for your peers because management accountants produce the reports and coordinate the review. Management accountants should explain in plain language how they produced those numbers and try to eliminate any surprise by continuously interpreting the probable financial outcomes from operational data and decisions made during the period. Management accountants should assume responsibility for ensuring there are no financial surprises for their peers and the boss.
HELP OTHER DIVISIONS ACHIEVE THEIR GOALS
Over the course of my career, I have met very few senior coworkers who didn’t want to or didn’t have the talent to do a good job. They all had individual goals and objectives for their divisions and for growing their professional experience. Their personal agendas would usually support and enhance the organization’s strategic objectives. Senior management accountants should seek to help their peers achieve personal goals for their jobs as well as organizational goals. As the primary advisor for resources and financial matters, management accountants help create opportunities for their peers to leave their mark on the organization.
Management accounting is very much a team activity. As you advance into more senior management accounting positions, the nature of your team changes. Early in your career, you work primarily with other accountants and learn the discipline of the accounting profession. This sometimes puts you in a mildly adversarial position with other parts of the organization because your work is to ensure information and submissions from other areas are correct and accurate. Objectivity and professional skepticism are a big part of accounting education—and public accounting in particular. But they can hinder career growth in management accounting if not tempered as your role changes.
As you advance to a more senior role, your team becomes more professionally diverse. Successful management accountants change their behaviors and learn to become active participants in building high-performing, collaborative teams among their peers and throughout the organization. My suggestions here are just a starting point.
Management accountants have many roles, but creating value is at the top of the list. Value creation takes an entire organization. Do your part in every role you perform to facilitate your peers’—and your own—efforts in that direction.
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