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Ron Rael, CPA
Ron Rael

Improve your skills as a leader in the middle

Four obstacles standing in the way and how to overcome them.

July 19, 2012
by Ron Rael, CPA

The downfall of many controllers, CFOs, and finance directors is that they are so busy fighting fires that they are unable to devote time to preventing those fires. This step illuminates the real hurdle and its sources that you must face and overcome. It also provides valuable tools that will enable you to use your objective reasoning and business acumen to be a creator of solutions.

For the majority of management accountants who felt the urge to walk through the leadership door or have found themselves in a situation in which they had to be a leader, there is a huge hurdle to overcome. This hurdle is the most difficult part of management accounting leadership, which is moving from knowing what you need to do to really doing it.

Sources of your most difficult hurdle

This hurdle has four sources, which together or individually most often prevent you from being the leader you know yourself to be and the team needs you to be. Each arises from middle leader issues you face daily.

Source 1: Your employees

A misplaced or disheartened employee says, “I hate it here but am stuck until I can afford to retire.” A situation like this will produce problematic results if you do not address it while building a productive and reliable team. You will have people on your team whose heart is not in their work and are terrified to leave. As leader, you must address this problem and ensure that all employees contribute their best work. The true CFO knows that by setting high expectations and holding every employee to them, you set the tone that everyone, including you, must perform each day at 100%. Then you compassionately and directly work on each person’s attitude and remind them to stay positive.

Source 2: Your work

The great CFO and everyone else all face similar work, which can be demanding and is time-sensitive. However, you should never let the urgent crowd out the important.

  • Deadline pressures—The great number of deadlines we face makes them seem to be the most urgent matters your team must work on today. However, more important duties are in your leadership in-basket, such as building a high quality and loyal team. Great CFOs turn deadlines into some­thing meaningful, which, in turn, helps their employees enjoy the work.
  • Repetitiveness and boredom—Repetition is supposed to build perfection. Yet poor leaders allow the necessity of doing the same work over and over produce boredom, inappropriate shortcuts, inat­tention, and passivity. The leader in management accounting uses the nature and volume of the work as a catalyst for measurable improvement and a commitment to quality.
  • Massive quantity and never-ending flow—Similar to the problems created by repetitiveness, the unfor­tunate fact that most of us have more work than people can harm our credibility. A CFO shows poor leadership by not using this situation as a catalyst for the team to focus on cross-training, streamlining, and simplifying. A CFO challenges his or her team to find ways to become lean so it has more time to work on activities that personally are meaningful and rewarding.

Source 3: Your firm’s culture

The culture is an area in which too many management accountants let the manager-in-the-middle syndrome defeat them.

The accomplished CFO restructures any part of the firm’s culture that undermines the effective­ness of his or her team. Even if you feel you cannot change your employer’s overall culture, you already (a) affect this culture and (b) set the tone for your department’s culture. As someone who wants to be an effective leader, you must take charge of changing cultural norms so your team feels like winners, not losers.

  • Lack of external support—Using your leadership talents as negotiator, change agent, and role model, you must build support for your team’s efforts one fan at a time. Management account­ing is sometimes looked down upon by people who do not know any better. Your duty as leader is to teach others that the management accounting team is vital to the organisation’s overall success.
  • Demanding employer—Many of us work for entrepreneurs who push themselves hard and expect everyone else to work impossible hours and weekends. Yet you and your team members want to have time for family and activities outside of work. Here, an excellent CFO can show asser­tiveness and care. As team leader, it is up to you to find the appropriate balance between com­mitment to the firm and to the individual. Once you find it, you must protect it and, when needed, stand up for your employees’ rights and needs.

Source 4: You

We can and do undermine our desire to be great. Following are areas in which the true leaders have learned to stop getting in their own way.

  • No sounding board—To be a great leader, you must seek out honest feedback regarding your effectiveness. The following are common excuses management accountants give when asked to consider using a coach or mentor:

    “I don’t have time.”
    “I know how I am doing.”
    “I can’t trust anyone to tell me the truth.”
    “He (she) will only tell me the bad things I am doing.”
    “I don’t trust anyone that much.”
    “I work alone most of the time.” 

All of these are false excuses that tell me the individual is afraid. The great CFO knows that having a sounding board goes beyond using one to obtain honest feedback on your leadership abilities. The management accounting leader in a typical organisa­tion may feel isolated for a variety of reasons. You will always need someone to bounce ideas off and provide suggestions, critiques, and insights. Unless you work in an organisation where you have multiple peers who perform the same work that you do, you will not have access to peer support. It is up to you to seek out and recruit a mentor or coach.

  • Too many projects—Because of your multiple responsibilities, you may burn yourself out. All CFOs know that they need to regularly relax to refresh and replenish. It is acceptable to be a Type A leader if your busyness produces excellent results while still building a great team. It is not wise to be busy if you never produce anything great.
  • Misspent or wasted energy—Just as being overly busy can make you an ineffective leader, so can applying your precious energy in the wrong areas. The CFO treats his or her energy like a cash investment. Each investment of energy must be wise and produce a measurable or meaningful payoff. If the benefit does not exceed the cost, rethink what you are working on or turn to your sounding board for clarity.

This article has been excerpted from The Traits of Today’s CFO: A Handbook for Excelling in an Evolving Role. You can purchase the publication on CPA2Biz.com.

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Ron Rael, CPA, is a leadership coach and an award-winning speaker and facilitator who uses advanced learning techniques to deliver measurable, bottom-line results.