There should be a sign on the entrance door to the Accounting & Administration department that reads: “Leave all hope, ye that enter!”
This is how an entrepreneur started to tell me, with resigned irony, about his conflictual relationship with his company’s Accounting & Administration department.
From an entrepreneur’s point of view, this is the area that slows down the “really” productive activities of the company.
Accounting staff have a tendency to nitpick over things and are constantly requesting for documents and sending persistent reminders. This is especially annoying for the members of the sales team, who often stiffen up when they have to deal with the department – after all, they’re the ones in the front line every day to actually produce results and bring in new customers. This is one of the barriers to easy and effective communication between the accounting and sales areas.
In most cases, the entrepreneur is called to resolve the conflict between the two functions and although he or she knows all too well that they are both crucial for the company, it is easier to acknowledge the results of the sales team.
While sales team members are always on the move, seemingly free to do whatever they want (provided they hit their sales targets), and even get to throw a party when they achieve the goals, which emphasizes how valuable they are to the company, the accounting staff, who are responsible for making sure the company complies with an overwhelming number of regulations, sit in rooms full of documents, immersed in screens full of numbers and data, making sure accounts are balanced to the cent.
Every decision that financially affects the company inevitably lands on the desk of a member of the accounting team, who has to dovetail that information into a myriad of regulations, standards and proper conduct rules in order to ensure the company’s compliance.
The number ofcontrollers is increasing and they are growing fiercer: shareholders, CEO, statutory auditors, external auditors, internal auditors, the tax authority and, more generally, all the authorities connected with the public administration (privacy watchdog, social security, industry regulation and supervision bodies, local police, port authorities, and the list goes on and on). Broadly speaking, the Accounting & Administration department is thehistorical memory of the company, in other words, it is the go-to place for that document “you should have but can’t find”.
Working “heads down”
If I were to ask a number of entrepreneurs to draw anewspaper cartoon to display the Accounting & Administration department, they would most likely draw a bunch of people sitting at their desks with their heads bent over paperwork and folders or immersed in Excel files. The cartoon would be black and white or in shades of grey.
And that’s exactly how it is: accounting staff are used to beingheads down in their work, often under pressure to meet deadlines. Now I invite you to put your head down, count, and take rapid, shallow breaths. It’s kind of difficult to smile under these conditions, isn’t it?
With this I don’t want to imply that every person working in accounting is unhappy and colorless. But the working conditions they have accustomed themselves to are not exactly happy.
Come to think of it, while a smile is a curved line, the work of the accounting staff is to “square up”things. And this might be a reason why accounting staff tend to be a bit “square” when they communicate.
The “supportive” accounting & administration department: it can be done!
I want to step “out of the box” and offer a new vision of the Accounting & Administration department. A few years ago, when I was CFO, I would have seen it as a utopian vision but today I know it is more than feasible.
With a play of words, we could say that the Accounting & Administration department could go from its current back office role to a backing office role.
As a backing office, the department would literally have the company’s back; it would be transformed into a partner that listens and delivers solutions.
And the posture of the accounting staff would instantly change: from head down to head held towards the other (the entrepreneur and co-workers, first and foremost, and every other stakeholder) and up, scouting for solutions for the future of the company.
This would be quite a significant cultural change but it is possible and can even make the company more profitable.
For this change to take place, a two-fold process involving the organizational and educational landscape is required.
Setting up the Accounting & Administration department for time savings and productivity
In many companies, accounting staff are often engaged in work that software could easily do in a more accurate way.
Advanced software solutions can save 40% to 50% of the amount of time that the staff spends on the specific task, time that could be allocated to activities that are more valuable for the company.
For example, treasury softwarecan be directly interfaced with the bank, reducing the accountant’s control and validation activity.
And what about the performanceaudit process? One of the main difficulties facing companies regarding this activity is that data are gathered from multiple sources and then pieced together with final accounting data in order to extract useful information for the decision-making process. The fact is, however, that no matter how good the employee is, the margin of error is extremely high because the data are coming from so many different sources.
Instead, by introducing a data warehouse, the data can be organized in an organic, homogeneous, consistent and unique manner. A data warehouse delivers information promptly through pre-set “dashboards” that facilitate the reporting process, making it immediate and in alignment with needs. In other words, the employee, depending on his or her position in the company, chooses a specific control panel and uses it to view the company’s performance indicators (KPIs) most relevant to his or her purpose.
Which added-value activities could the Accounting & Administration department handle?
The accounting department, now free of its routine tasks, can devote more time to what’s happening in the company. It can work alongside other departments to make decisions and, thus, prevent problems from arising rather than sub-optimally solving them after activities are under way or have been completed.
As I already mentioned, this shift necessarily requires changing the company’s culture, which can take place by raising the awareness of both the accounting staff and other company resources through educational initiatives.
Training a “supportive” Accounting & Administration department
Training programs for Accounting & Administration staff usually focus on technical skills (new tools, new regulations, etc., etc.). At times, members of the accounting department can be found participating in courses offered to enhance inter-functional communication.
However, the transition from the “back office” paradigm to the “backing office” perspective requires more. There has to be a greater focus onsoft skills, such as, among others, assertive communication, teamwork, and problem finding & solving skills… But most of all, it requires the Accounting & Administration staff to develop a new professional identity.
All this may seem challenging, but it’s well worth the effort. Take this positive CFO’s word for it! 😉
Do you want to learn how you can make your organization a happier and more productive place, starting from your Accounting & Administration department? Feel free to reach out to me.