The “bean counter” trope is long past due for retirement, but what’s the alternative? Kevin Phillips argues it’s time for accountants to embrace their inner sage.
We’ve all heard all the cracks about accountants: we’re boring, we’re annoyingly obsessed with tiny details, we’re bean counters. With our tedious controls and processes we get in the way of more interesting people doing more interesting things. We’re necessary, like flossing and medical checks are necessary, but few people look forward to meetings with their accountants.
There are occasional attempts to break the stereotype and make accountancy look thrilling. But they tend to veer into overcompensation: CIMA once sponsored a website called extreme-accounting.com, which featured photographs of accountants doing extreme sports while wearing their office suits. But on the whole, the world needs reckless accountants a lot less than it needs boring accountants. Reckless accounting, after all, is what gave us Enron and a raft of other corporate scandals. The way out of the bean counter’s cage is not to become daredevils (which is highly unlikely to work in any case, since it doesn’t exactly come naturally to many of us) but to step into our role as advisors and mentors.
There is real demand for this role: I’ve lost count of the number of business owners, senior managers and other decision makers who’ve told me they long for more than just monthly financial statements from their accountants and finance departments. They need to know not just what the numbers are, but what they mean. Accountants are the ones best placed to offer this interpretation and advice. Our expertise means we can read things in ways lay people just can’t – if you’ve ever marvelled at how a doctor can read an ultrasound scan or an architect can read a plan, then you know how people feel watching us read balance sheets. What seems to us, after years of practice, like a banal everyday activity can look something like wizardry to the uninitiated.
One of the things that’s been preventing accountants and financial managers from embracing their role as guide and mentor is the sheer volume of more mundane work to be done. The numbers do, after all, need to be crunched. Software, automated processes and AI are rapidly taking over this routine work, though, and we should be glad of it. The less time we spend on the nuts-and-bolts work, the more time we have to think: to consider, analyse and interpret what all those numbers actually mean.
What might that look like? It might mean spending time coaching that one cost centre manager who just hasn’t got a clue; it might mean identifying problems and weak areas in the business and finding ways to make them better; it might mean scanning for trends that nobody else has spotted yet; it might mean deeper conversations with the leadership team.
Whatever this more ambitious role looks like, it will make much better use of our financial expertise, which is an expensive but often scandalously under-utilised resource.