Follow the lead
Accountants may not always be viewed as natural leaders, but in times of disruptive change, the opportunity is there to make a real difference.
Any discussion about what makes a good leader is almost certain to spark debate. That’s because most people have a different view of what good leadership is.
Whether that’s based on positive personal experience, suffering under bad leadership, or simply enjoying reading Churchill’s speeches, we all think we know what makes a good leader.
And while it can be hard to define in precise terms, most would agree that we know it when we see it. For accountants, however, the issue of leadership is a thorny one.
It’s not a module taught in most accountancy courses – there isn’t guidance from HM Revenue & Customs.
Becoming a leader, then, for most accountants in business is usually a matter of self-promotion, of spotting an opportunity, grabbing it and hoping for the best.
It’s fair to say, though, that the typical view of accountants tends not to be of charismatic leaders.
“We tend to see them as people who are good at getting done what is right in front of them; of managing and keeping the process going,” says Heather Townsend, an executive coach who helps accountants rise up the ranks in their organisation.
“It is rare in the ones we work with to find those who are future-focused and not present-focused; leadership focused and not management focused.”
And that, she says, is an important distinction: “Leadership is about deciding what the right things to do are; management is doing the right things right.”
She describes a classic scenario on board a ship: when the captain sets the course, he is being a leader; when he’s sitting at the table with his crew working out if there’s enough provisions on board for the voyage, he’s being a manager.
And at a time when the profession is facing uncharted waters thanks to technological change and a political and economic disruption, the need for good leadership is clear.
So what makes a good accountant-leader, and how can those who feel they don’t have what it takes go about acquiring the right types of skills?
“You can’t be an effective leader if you’re fire-fighting, so the first thing is to free up some thinking time,” Townsend says.
Having done that, a good leader then takes stock and asks some tough questions.
For instance, if the company has been manually entering receipts for years, is it time to stop and think of a better way of working?
Leading then means building on an idea and using your influence with people to bring them along on the journey to change.
“And then you have to find out what’s out there,” advises Townsend.
“It’s all very well knowing change is coming, but unless you’re educating yourself on the details, it won’t happen – so what’s possible, what’s achievable, what’s working, what’s not? Are you getting along to Accountex and Xerocon and Sage sessions? The roadshows? There’s so much stuff out there but you have to go out and find it.”
Good to talk
Mark Allen has seen both sides of the coin when it comes to accountants as leaders. He worked in the hierarchical surroundings of PLCs in his early career, before setting up on his own.
Thirty years later he can look back on a career where he carved out leadership roles for himself, and encouraged the same journey in others.
“I believe very much in participation and open doors; it’s really important,” says Allen.
“There are various ways of communicating. Sometimes things simply just need to be done urgently, so you have to communicate that. But we also need to keep in mind the longer-term vision. And achieving long-term goals relies on the leader bringing those around him along through soft power. So that means socialising and making the team comfortable.”
For Nick Bettes, who helps businesses grow through better leadership, that soft power is critical: “Leadership isn’t about telling people what to do – authority or status doesn’t come into it,” he says.
Instead, accountants need to focus on persuasion and clarity. “You can’t expect people to follow your lead if you don’t explain what you want from them. That means taking the time to say to your team: ‘I want you to achieve this, this is what success looks like: I will help and guide you, but you will own it.’ And that’s all about communication.”
Leading by example
And while the importance of ‘do as I say’ is clear, ‘do as I do’ is just as effective.
The recent wave of high-profile governance failures clearly demonstrated the importance of finance leaders laying down a coherent example of ethical conduct.
“Every accountant, in practice or business, will come up against someone asking them to go over a certain ethical line,” Townsend says.
“And that’s where ethical leadership comes in – you’ve got to be able to stand up to that pressure. It’s leading by example.” Townsend also extols using data gleaned from the fi nance function to drive value. “I always say you have to change the conversation around you,” Townsend advises.
“If you come to a meeting and all you talk about are the numbers, then you’ll just been seen as the person who produces the numbers. But, if you send the numbers beforehand and tell the board you want to discuss their root causes and the implications for our strategic plan, guess what? All of a sudden you’re seen as a strategic leader. So change that conversation.”
Allen agrees, and adds that while analytic skills are important, creative skills also need attention.
“Most of the best leaders I’ve seen in accountancy are open to looking at things a little differently than the conventional wisdom,” he says.
“The fact is that the future accountant will need to adapt to and lead on new digital tools like process automation and AI, and that disruption makes accountants natural leaders in times of change. There’s nothing to fear about leadership – the opportunities are there to make a difference, so get stuck in.”
Christian Doherty is a freelance journalist