Embrace uncertainty to develop more business acumen

BY NEIL AMATO
July 23, 2013

A mere accounting professional is not the same as a full-fledged finance professional. At least that’s how consultant David Axson sees it.

The more evolved finance professional, Axson says, considers the business environment, embracing its volatility, and then adapting to it.

“Being comfortable with uncertainty is, to me, the difference between an accounting professional and a finance professional,” Axson, a partner at Accenture, said in an interview with the JofA. “Finance professionals are comfortable with ambiguity. They like doing forecasting. They like doing planning. They’ve proven they can do the backward-looking piece.”

The backward-looking bit is the foundation of an accounting professional. But many accountants could stand to spend more time looking through the windshield rather than the rearview mirror, he said.

Instead of more rigid, once-a-year budgeting, for instance, accountants must do more scenario planning that enables flexibility based on economic conditions, said Axson, who spoke this week at the AICPA Financial Planning & Analysis Conference in Las Vegas.

Many accountants aren’t doing that kind of predictive work because it’s not their responsibility. Others resist the notion of looking to the future, content with providing historical information that others can use to set strategy, Axson said.

That resistance to things such as scenario planning is akin to an everyday golfer’s aversion to practice anything more than hitting the ball as far as he or she can. Failure to consider the scenarios an organization could face is the business equivalent of going to the driving range, where each ball is teed up before an open field, with obstacles such as trees or ponds noticeably absent, Axson said.

“Most people stand up there and bash their driver,” he explained. “It would be far more useful to stand in the trees, off to the side, and practice chipping out to the fairway. They’ll face that situation rather frequently, but you never see people practice those shots. If you practice situations that you may encounter in executing your plan, then you’ve got some thinking about what you’ll do if put in an unexpected situation.”

Learning to be an adaptive rather than inflexible planner will help finance workers ascend to more strategic roles, Axson said. In short, finance must know the environment in which the business operates—the market, the regulatory challenges, the customer’s needs, and the competitive landscape.

“If you want to be a successful finance executive today, you really have to understand how a company makes money and not just be able to count the money at the back end of the process,” he said.

One piece of advice Axson gave: Think a question or two ahead. Let’s say the finance department is asked as part of an annual planning process, to estimate GDP growth for the year. Instead of simply coming up with an answer of, say, 2%, which of course is no more than an educated guess, finance should make recommendations based on that number as well as others.

“What if it turns out to be zero? What if it turns out to be 4%?” Axson explained. “Finance needs to have answers. ‘Under this set of assumptions, this is what we think our performance will look like. As things happen to change, here’s how we change our mix, reprioritize our initiatives.’ ”

How top companies juggle priorities

Finance professionals must also use technology to change the normal weekly work flow, Axson said. If much of the week is spent compiling data into reports for other people, then the time for attaching insight to that data is sparse.

“In too many organizations, [a] vast amount of finance staff time is spent assembling data rather than performing analysis,” he said. “Companies with lots of fragmented data systems and source systems are forcing the finance people to compensate for a lack of an integrated technology infrastructure to assemble all of that data.”

If accountants have more time to analyze, they’ll become more comfortable living in an ambiguous world. Additionally, companies that empower finance to add insight instead of simply compiling numbers will be able to attract a more talented, analytical workforce, Axson said.

Accenture research shows that top-performing companies are more likely to allow finance to think more about data and less about collecting it. Not only are those companies able to be more in touch with changing economic conditions, they also are more likely to be able to recruit top talent.

“The companies that do that well—that can get to that point of what’s happening, why is it happening, what should we do, much earlier in the cycle—they’re going to be in much better position to respond in a volatile environment,” Axson said.

Neil Amato ( namato@aicpa.org ) is a JofA senior editor.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: EARLY CAREER

Making manager: The key to accelerating your career

Being promoted to manager is a key development in a young public accountant’s career. Here’s what CPAs need to learn to land that promotion.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: MIDDLE CAREER

Motivation and preparation can pave the path to CFO

CPAs in business and industry face intense competition to land a coveted CFO job. Learn how to best prepare yourself for the role.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: LATE CAREER

Second act: Consulting

CPAs are using experience to carve out late-career niches. Learn how to successfully make a late-career transition to consulting, from CPAs who have done it.