Accountants Care More Than You Think

If you have ever wondered whether accountants care about a company’s numbers, then read on. Karen was the accountant for a client of mine. She had twenty years of experience, starting as the receptionist and working her way up to become an indispensable part of the team. She was quiet and dependable, keeping the invoicing and payroll systems going through changes in legislation, system problems and people’s comings and goings.

That is, unless you tried ‘pulling a fast one’. If a salesperson tried getting some of next month’s sales recorded in this month for bonus purposes, she had a way of making a grown man feel like a little boy who got caught with his fingers in the cookie jar. I don’t think she ever put the company before her children and husband, but it came a close second.

Accountants care about where they work

In my experience, Accountants take their jobs personally. If anything goes wrong with the company, they feel it, even if it is something completely out of their control. At the same time, they are the company’s conscience, asking the difficult questions about why the budget was not met or why so much money was spent. In good times, accountants are invisible. In bad times, nobody wants to talk to us.

I remember attending a meeting with 15 volunteer treasurers from local churches. It was a three-hour meeting about such things as whether people who were paid by the church (e.g. musicians, choir directors, replacement ministers, etc.) should be treated as employees or contractors for income tax purposes. We also discussed reporting requirements for charities, budgeting, the disposal of church property and other technical matters. The treasurers then had the responsibility of going back to their churches, implementing any necessary changes and explaining the results to their boards.

Volunteering Time and Skills

As I looked around the table, I saw a lot of caring people. I remembered when my mother was elected treasurer of a volunteer group. The requirements were much simpler back then, but I remember her and my father, who actually had a business degree, spending a week of evenings wading through the mess of what had been done previously.

We don’t thank volunteers like these nearly enough. Say thank you to those who volunteer for you (and maybe include your Accountant)!

5 Hallmarks of a Good Financial Planning Report

The woman beside me and I were reviewing the financial planning report and looking at the travel expenses entered in their General Ledger (GL) and in my report. They didn’t match. My financial planning report was in a different format than their Ledger and I pointed out that if we reorganized the cost centres in the GL to match the reporting format, she wouldn’t have to do so much reconciliation.

“That’s true,” she said, “But they keep changing their minds about what they want.” Then she corrected herself. “Actually, they have been pretty consistent since they started that three-year plan.”

And exactly that is the secret of financial reporting: the planning process needs to drive reporting. To give you an overview, here are five hallmarks of a good financial planning report. It should:

  1. highlight the organization’s drivers;
  2. make responsibilities clear;
  3. span more than one year;
  4. be intuitive to non-financial readers; and,
  5. be brief.

 

  1. Drivers

What critical forces contribute the most to your business? (Hint: If your list has more than 10 items on it, try again.) For example, commodities prices and the foreign exchange market might have a significant impact on the cost of your raw materials, which in turn affects your profit on each sale. Maybe your research department has contributed new products that have led you into new markets and higher sales. Maybe your business is highly sensitive to inflation or interest rates.

Whatever you identify as your business drivers, make sure their effect is front and centre in the financial statements. Don’t bury them in some page 10 inventory schedule.

  1. Responsibilities

You should have one schedule that breaks down your goals by the people or department responsible for carrying them out. Often this is done by having a separate column for each one. Every number in the report is someone’s responsibility, so there can be no finger pointing.

  1. Multi-Year

Even if you feel that you can’t see more than six months into the future, creating a multi-year plan helps you see the relationships between the different elements of your business. If this is unfamiliar territory for your staff, make them do it anyway. The trick is not to ignore the results when real-life experience makes mincemeat out of your forecasts. Have a Lessons Learned session with the managers and go through the reasons why the forecast went south. Everyone will learn, and forecasting abilities will get better.

  1. Intuitive

Good leaders can see through the fog of business and maintain a clear vision of their goals. Good financial executives can grab that vision and express it in financial statements. Some tricks of the trade are:

  • Divide your income statement into sections, with subtotals for each driver;
  • Don’t cram too many columns of numbers onto one report (no more than 4);
  • Put the most important expenses first, and;
  • Anticipate the questions and make sure your format answers them.
  1. Brief

“Nice analysis,” the Chair remarked to me. “Now get it down to 3 pages.” When he saw the look on my face he added, “If you write three pages with lots of bullets, they’ll read the whole report. If you write more than that they won’t read it at all.” He was right.

In a recent meeting, I was asked for a “one-pager” on an accounting issue. It was too complex for a one-page analysis, but the Chair knew what he was doing. The committee discussed the issue and asked me to provide a five-page analysis. Because they asked for it, they will be much more engaged in the issue than if I had presented the longer analysis first.

 

If you’d like a professional (Accountant) by your side to help finetune your financial reporting and forecasting, get in touch with us at Energized Accounting.

What Makes People Interesting?

When I think of what makes people interesting, British comedian John Cleese comes to mind.  It takes a great deal of talent to be a consistently funny writer for your whole career and he has done just that.

I was a Monty Python fan and watched the TV show every week when it was on – back in the days. I even quoted Python skits in high school. I watched their movies and Fawlty Towers, which was another comedy series by Cleese. Then, I also started listening to his podcasts.

When Cleese is just talking to the camera, he can be quite humble. In one video podcast, he talked about how fortunate he was to meet so many intelligent and interesting people through the Monty Python series.

Then he said, “. . . which wouldn’t have happened if I’d been an accountant.”

 

Them be fightin’ words!

Before I bristle with righteous indignation at the callous insult levelled at my profession as an accountant, let me state that I realize that no slight to accountants was intended. With all his royalty earnings, I expect that Cleese could truthfully say, “Some of my best friends are accountants.”

But it does raise the question of what makes an accountant (or anybody for that matter) interesting.

Here’s my take. (Feel free to agree/disagree in the comments below.) When I look back to all the people I have found interesting, the thing they mostly had in common was that they knew what they wanted and had the courage to go for it.

Actually, you don’t have to start an international comedy troupe to be interesting. You could even be just an accountant. All you need to do is reach down deep inside you and find a cause that resonates; or in business and life coaching lingo, “your why”.

Finding something or someone worth dedicating your life to makes you want to dig deep and find the personal resources you never knew you had. It forces you to look outside yourself and look to others for assistance. When you have a purpose in life, most other things just seem to fall into place and when they don’t, you will find previously untapped reserves of energy to take on the challenges.

Then, I guarantee that people will find you interesting … and by then you won’t care. You’ll be too busy following your dream. Like the accountant in the Monty Python skit who wanted to be a lion tamer . . . hey, wait a second. Maybe Cleese does have a thing about accountants after all!

 

Motivating Your Team

In September 1962, American President, John F. Kennedy, gave one of the best and most inspiring speeches ever made when he said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”  Many an MBA class, inspirational business speech and management book has since touted this as the perfect motivational mission. But where do you start with motivating your team?

One interesting article about motivation that crossed my desk is by Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden called “Motivation through Mission”. Their key concept is, “People don’t perform in an inspired manner without a big-time commitment to a compelling cause.”

It’s hard to argue with that; let’s consider this example. Let’s say you’re the head of an accounting team and looking ahead to the next calendar year. You have the monthly grind of accounting statements and management reporting ahead of you, budgeting and audit cycles. You are midway through a computer implementation that has been delayed due to problems converting the history, and you need to change the whole General Ledger to some new standards. What is the compelling cause you need to convey to get your people to perform in an inspired manner and feel motivated?

Catlette and Hadden’s thoughts are, “Whether your team competes on the global stage or a three-unit cube farm, they will move faster, get more done, have more fun, and make more money if all hands on deck share a common sense of purpose and direction. Make it your business to see that they get it . . . really get it.”

I feel somewhat cynical about this statement. I had a client in the insurance industry, where all offices and spaces had large motivational posters, yet the staff plodded through their jobs like robots. There was no shortage of messaging proclaiming the common purpose, yet it wasn’t motivating the team. The issue was there was no buy-in from the employees below manager level.

How do you get buy-in? How do you motivate your team on every level? The first thing you need to do is pay attention to the emotional conversation in the room. To borrow from Stephen Covey, Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” 

Start by abandoning the idea of motivating a whole team, and focus on the individuals. Simply put, if you really care about each one of them, they will really care about you. If you pay attention to their agenda, they will pay attention to yours. If you are honest with them, they will eventually be honest with you. I say eventually because it may take them a while to trust you and a new approach.

This conversation does not have to get too “touchy feely”. It can be limited to the job. You don’t have to take on someone’s personal problems, but you need to address their professional ones. The only way to find out what’s on their mind is to observe them and ask open-ended questions. Notice when they come through for you and each other. Encourage them. Ask them what roadblocks they face.

The feeling alone that someone notices and appreciates what you do can be enormously motivational. I was involved in a computer conversion, where the old system was a card based “automatic” bookkeeping machine, which belonged in the Smithsonian. We couldn’t convert the data – it had to be re-entered. The two women in the data entry department gamely took on this huge task and managed to convert a month’s worth of data every week until it was done. It was a year of the Olympics, so I got some ribbon and those large chocolate coins in foil to make two gold medals, which we presented to them at a staff meeting. Afterwards, I worried that the whole thing had been a little hokey but my boss said, “Look what they did with the ribbons.” Sure enough, both of them had pinned the medals up prominently in their workstations.

I have written before about being on a small team with big ambitions, and I have to agree with Catlette and Hadden that putting everything you’ve got behind an ambitious project (or a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” as another consultant calls it) energizes a team.

Just make sure they feel like a team first.

 

Link to a list of most impactful speeches: www.motivationalmagic.com/speeches.php

Budgeting Blues

The Division Manager looked at me balefully.  “Don’t ask me why we didn’t meet the budget. Those budget numbers aren’t mine.  They’re way too high.  I never agreed to that.”  He had a case of the  budgeting blues.

If you are a financial analyst, that quote might be very familiar to you.  It should be so simple, right?  The division budgeted $X million in sales.  The year is half over, so they should have reached 50% of $X million, but they’re actually less than that.  All you want is a reasonable explanation.  Instead, you get an argument about the budget.

Sometimes, it’s a stalling tactic, but sometimes the person really doesn’t remember or doesn’t know where the budget numbers came from.  Budgeting is more of an art than a science.  In theory it’s easy: Every division does some crystal ball gazing and submits their best forecast for the coming year.  The numbers are assembled for the whole company and after a negotiation about who gets what share of the available resources, the budget is set.

In reality, it can get a lot more complicated.  The negotiations can go back and forth.  Numbers get adjusted.  To understand the final number, you have to understand the history.  The problem with spreadsheets is that when you change a cell, whatever was there before is lost.  So, there may be nothing to indicate that the final sales number was increased due to a sales promotion that actually never happened.

Some budgeting systems solve this by allowing you to enter a series of budget adjustments instead of changing the cells directly, but if you’re like most of us (i.e. still using Excel spreadsheets), having a system that locks in previous versions of a spreadsheet can save you a lot of hassle later.  If you have locked-in versions of the budget, not only will you understand what’s in the numbers, you’ll be able to prove it.

If you would like help avoiding budgeting blues in your business, get in touch with us!

Financial Reporting System Weakness – Part 1

How much time do YOU spend doing financial reporting?  For many organizations, the simple answer is “too much”.  As a consultant, much of my time is spent helping companies with their financial reporting system for:

  1. Results analysis and forecasting by management,
  2. Oversight by the Board,
  3. Regulatory requirements imposed by government, and
  4. Project and program

To help in these areas, I have been using some powerful packages, which, however, all suffer from the same financial reporting system weakness:

The ‘weakness’ is simple yet far-reaching:  people just don’t use the software!

We spend a lot of time determining the requirements, setting up the system and training the staff but in the end when a new report is required, too many people fall back on Excel spreadsheets. They take the accounting data they need (or worse yet, enter it manually), do their calculations, format it and print it; a one-off custom spreadsheet that has no future value other than their immediate need.

It is true that this approach gets the job done, of sorts.  However, it can also result in mistakes in the data, inaccurate calculations, and unplanned overtime expense or delays.  And the next time a similar request comes in, the staff member has to start from scratch with a new spreadsheet.

If you ask them why, their answer is something like, “I don’t have time to fiddle with the new package.”

And sadly it’s true.  People don’t feel they have time to remember how to use the software.  They don’t take time to review their training notes.  They just don’t feel comfortable with the reporting software, so they revert to the tried and true, that second language of accounting, Excel.  Let’s face it:  when you’re in a hurry, you often don’t stop to question whether or not you have chosen the right tool for the job.

Getting Creative

When you have a planning session for a new reporting system, set aside time to talk about those last minute, I-need-this-right-away reports.  You might find that they fall into certain categories.  You might be able to design general report templates with parameters (such as the report start and end dates, the programs or products covered, or a range of vendors).   With a pre-designed and tested report template as a base, you will no longer have to start with the proverbial blank slate each time you sit down to create a report.  Suddenly, the prospect of spending hours slaving over a spreadsheet is too unappealing!

A Slight Warning

There is the risk that when you give managers faster, more accurate reports, they will want more.  Oh well, just think of the good performance review you’ll get!

If you need assistance with creating and implementing a new accounting system, get in touch with us at Energized Accounting.

3 Tips on Narrative Budgeting

 

Nobody likes administration expenses.  And if your organization owns a building, the same thing goes for repair and maintenance cost. Introducing: Narrative Budgeting.

Imagine running a church in a small community. Not only does it function as a house of worship, it also is a community space for meetings and celebrations. But when the Treasurer announces that the roof needs fixing and the boiler replacing, people only see Dollar signs. The same happens for other organizational costs, such as management salaries, employee benefits, computer and communication expenses.

This is why many faith-based organizations now have turned to Narrative Budgeting. It involves telling the story of how the organization’s resources contribute to its mission.  In the above example, the story would be told about how the building maintenance (of the boiler) and repairs (to the roof) contribute to Community Outreach, which is an important part of the organization’s mission.  Other specific examples could be, e.g. Scouts, Alcoholics Anonymous, and major anniversaries.

The accountant in me wants to say, “Wait, you are just allocating administrative costs to programs based on usage. That’s nothing new; we have always done that.”

That is true from the accounting perspective. The difference is the recognition that for many people a financial document is just a sea of numbers.  They don’t see the relationships between the numbers, and don’t see how the numbers translate into the programs that will fulfill the organization’s mission.  People need a narrative to help them connect the financial picture to the mission, a story they can commit to and support.

3 Tips on Narrative Budgeting:

  1. The narrative and numeric budgets need to be consistent and have the same totals.
  2. Use percentages or a graph to show the proportion of resources the organization is putting into each major goal.  The proportion for each goal should reflect its priority to the organization.
  3. Apply the narrative budget everywhere you use the financial budget:  at the Finance Committee and Annual meetings, in the Annual Report, for staff and volunteers, and with prospective donors.

 

More Information

The following web site is aimed at faith-based organizations, but the instructions are easily applied more broadly:

Finally, in the words of Judith Johnson, a passionate advocate for Narrative Budgeting,

A narrative budget is a key communication tool in a packet of information for visitors and new members, connecting the need for both their giving and their commitment to ministry programming. It is never too early to begin telling a story that draws people into wanting to know more and to become more involved.
[Source:  Narrative Budgeting:  Christian Practice, Purpose and Narrative, United Church of Canada, 2004]

 

What have been your experiences (good and bad) with budgeting?  What worked?  What energized the people? If you want to learn more about how to create a narrative around your organization’s mission, contact Energized Accounting.

5 Steps To A Status Report With C.L.A.S.S.

Whether you’re preparing a report for your Executive Director, your Board of Directors, or a funder – status reports are critical. They show your stakeholders that:

  • You are in control of current situations,
  • You are organized,
  • You are accountable for the resources used, and,
  • You can be trusted to continue doing a good job.

Take this visual example from the Ontario Non-profit Network’s website:
http://www.theonn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/04B_Dashboard-Quarterly-March-2013.pdf

 

It shows C.L.A.S.S. in that it is:

* Colourful

* Looks Ahead

* Action Oriented

* Scannable

* Simple Language

 

Colourful

Most people are visual. By using icons and colours, your readers can tell the status of projects faster. Just like a traffic light system, green means go, and red means stop or something needs attention. Even with a lot of information on the page, it is well organized with lots of white space.

Looks Ahead

Despite reporting on the past, there is a column devoted to next steps. This isn’t a historic document; it invites discussion and engagement.

Action Oriented

The report talks about actions, not roadblocks or plans. Even when progress has stopped, the report tells you what the new plans are. The reader can quickly see how these actions dovetail with the organization’s “Themes”, presumably set by the Board. By tying progress back to the overall mandate of your organization, the reader can assess the urgency and importance of devoting more resources to any stopped or blocked projects.

Scannable

This report can be read in a couple of seconds. You can skim the headings and status icons to get a quick assessment of progress. By making it scannable, the full report is more likely to be read because it doesn’t look overwhelming.

Simple Language

Avoid jargon. No Three-Letter Acronyms (TLA’s), which are a major communication hurdle for charities and public-sector organizations. It can be read equally well by a new Board member, as by a seasoned veteran.

 

So, next time you are asked to report on progress of a business, charity, or project, just remember the acronym C.L.A.S.S.! A special thank you to the Ontario Non-profit Network for publishing such a perfect example (http://www.theonn.ca).

If you need to prepare and present a complex status report that needs to be easy to read, get in touch with me at Energized Accounting. I love a challenge!

How To Get the Most From QB Connect

You know what QB Connect going to be like: the massive hall filled with app developers and accounting technology services, the break out sessions on a ton of different subjects, the inspirational key note speeches, and the huge crowd of accounting professionals and small business owners. So how do YOU make it a worthwhile experience? How do you take something away from the QuickBooks Connect conference that will actually make a difference in your business?

Come to QB Connect with Your Own Agenda

Intuit may know accounting and tax, but they don’t know you. They don’t know the specific challenges you face. They don’t know your context. So take some time to answer this question: “If only I could _________________, I could grow my revenues by 50%.” Now maybe you think the answer to this question is actually a laundry list and if so, limit yourself to the top issue. What is the one thing which, if implemented now, would transform your business? Solving that one problem is your agenda.

Someone at QB Connect Has Already Solved Your Challenge

A major hurdle for me was learning to view other people providing accounting services as colleagues rather than competitors. And it was QB Connect that helped me transform my view. I met so many helpful people.  Even the ones who work in the same city as me were happy to tell me what works for them. I began to realize that there’s actually plenty of work for all of us. The reality is that there’s a shortage of good accounting professionals, not a shortage of work. The real challenge is to help business owners understand the value of a well run financial system.

So, as you speak to Intuit staff, software vendors, break out session speakers, as well as the people sitting next to you at lunch, be open about your agenda and ask them how they solve your problem and who else they know who can help you. Find out how they deal with staff turnover, clients poaching the best bookkeepers, breaking into a new niche, deciding which apps to support, or wrestling with tax forms.

When you get home, you’ll have a stack of brochures and business cards and if you’re like me, you won’t remember exactly why you took them. Don’t be afraid to make notes directly on the paper about who the person is and why you should stay in touch with them. That’s also where your social media accounts can help you. When you connect with them on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter, you will stay in touch even if they move, as well as being reminded about what they’re currently up to.

Promise Yourself You’ll Keep this Energy Alive

QB Connect is an exciting event, filled with people who speak your language, who face the same kind of challenges you do. It’s easy to feel inspired there. The challenge is to keep that energy alive as you return to the world of juggling multiple client demands, supporting your staff and finding new business. That’s why you need to focus on that one important idea you can take home and bring to life.

The secret is not to wait until you get home before deciding what to do next. In your hotel room or on your way home, make a list. Start with “To increase revenues by 50%, we need to:” and list the steps. Include who’s responsible for each step and when the step has to be completed. I know you don’t have a lot of spare time for this. None of us does! So you need to keep the individual steps small, but make sure you do something, no matter how small, every day.

Final Tip: Come Back to QB Connect Every Year

Make it a part of your annual planning.  Schedule a staff retreat around it.  If it’s impractical to bring everyone, ask the people who come to make a presentation to the whole group about what they learned and how they can apply it to the business.  That will help them focus, as well as spreading the QB Connect energy!

 

PS: My agenda for this year’s QB Connect is to meet as many people with nonprofit experience as I can. I’m writing a practical book on nonprofit management and I would like to fill the book with quotes from real people solving actual problems in this niche. This can be a dry subject for many people, so I have created a comic strip to illustrate the book at http://ClariseComic.com

Energized Charity Apps

Software applications (“apps”) are like people:  the more connected, the more powerful!  The hosting of apps on internet servers (“cloud computing”) has opened up a rich world of connected applications that allow your transactions to flow without manual intervention.

  • Invoices are downloaded, coded, and posted into the accounting system,
  • Payments are suggested, submitted for approval (by a person!), and paid without printing a single cheque,
  • Email campaigns are planned, executed, and followed up without having to pull together a list.

Recommended Apps

Many Canadian charities use QuickBooks as their accounting system.  Here is my list of recommended apps, based on experience and knowledge of the software developers:

  • Hubdoc – https://appcenter.intuit.com/hubdoc – is a Toronto based system that fetches invoices from suppliers, lets you scan / email invoice scans, and has its own cell phone app so you can take pictures of invoices and receipts as well.  The advantages to charities are:
    • Replacing filing cabinets with scanned images you can access from within QuickBooks at any time
    • Giving volunteers an easy way to submit expenses (without losing bits of paper)
    • Speeding up audits by connecting directly to the original source documents selected by the CRA or financial auditor
  • Sumac – https://appcenter.intuit.com/app-b7qkiupntt – is a Toronto based fundraising package that will track donors, manage fundraising campaigns, issue receipts, and connect with your web site.  What I particularly like about it is the pricing that gives small charities a break.  It also has a large number of add-on packages to handle additional functions, such as:
    • Grant Management,
    • Course Registration, and
    • Auctions
  • Method:CRM – https://appcenter.intuit.com/method-crm – is a Toronto Customer Relationship Management developer that is much more than a CRM system.  It is actually a development platform that allows end users to create their own system without programing.  It also has a powerful deep synchronization with QuickBooks that allows both systems to update each other in real time.  Method allows you to have the revenue generation of support available from a CRM, as well as the custom system you need for tracking clients / participants, all in one powerful system.
  • Telpay – http://www.telpay.ca/
  • Plooto – https://appcenter.intuit.com/plooto – Telpay (Winnipeg) and Plooto (Toronto) are both payment systems, with Telpay having lots of QuickBooks Desktop experience and Plooto working with the online version.  Both offer the ability to set up and pay vendors (corporate and personal), as well as handling pre-authorized debits from bank accounts.  Because many nonprofit officers are volunteers, being able to approve the payments without having to come in a physically sign the cheque is a major time saver for many charities.

There are many other apps for a variety of purposes, but these are the ones I consider for most new clients.  Please leave a comment about your favourite apps!

 

 

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