An Accountant's Coming of Age Story

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Accountants are a strange breed. They love math and numbers. Many love the feeling of control. They start out young. Later in their career most experience a “coming of age” and shift from bean counters to bean growers.

We were all once young. We all experienced growing pains. This article is about the coming of age of accountants. Their maturing is an especially painful process.

The common coming of age experience

Since I am a male, ladies you will need to tolerate my setting the foundation for describing an accountant's “coming of age” from the perspective of a boy. However, there will be similarities for a girl.

When we are young there is so much to explore – our neighborhood, our friendships, our bodies. Our bicycles were our start for exploring our environment. Our bikes gave us the freedom to roam relatively great distances compared to just walking. I am 64 years old and grew up in the 1960s. When I was young we had no Internet or MP3. We just went out and played with our friends as long as we returned home when the street lights turned on. We all drank from the garden hose and shared soda pop from a bottle. And no one died from this.

Eventually we discovered girls. Sometimes if we were lucky and had older brothers they would slip us a “dirty” magazine. That was trouble. Now we wanted to ask a girl if we could walk them home. And if we were really bold we'd ask them out on a date. That might have been limited to going the ice cream shop, but it was a big step. The problem was that we were shy. We'd think about this but not always act. How does one build the nerve? What if you are rejected?

Typically if you dated the same person for a while it led to the ritual of “going steady” with a symbolic ring.

If you have not experienced this then you may likely be a young Millenial. So you can stop reading now. Look at your mobile or log on to Facebook. You may not understand or appreciate the rest of what I have to say.

Accountants' coming of age

The accountant graduates from a college or university with an accounting degree. Why this choice? They love numbers and math. They love that the numbers will total up to match another total. If the two totals do not match and equal, then accountants will persevere with relentless energy to find the error. The totals must reconcile. Accountants love their self-interpretation of control.

Many accounting graduates get CPAs and join CPA auditing firms. Their earlier years with their firm involve examining T-account journal entries and sampling documents to seek conflicts with three-way matching of purchase orders, receiving documents and vendor invoices for accounts payables checks. Many accountants are control freaks.

Then they discover the equivalent of the opposite sex! Keep reading to learn what that discovery is.

Accountants in the 21st century

The vast majority of accountants with university degrees who join CPA firms do not successfully get promoted to be a partner or director of the firm. The “up and out” tradition eventually catches up with them. So they take jobs with organizations – often employers that were previously their audit client.

Then the accountants' mission and focus changes. It is no longer about control and fraud detection. Their purpose shifts to enabling good decision making for their work colleagues. They pay more attention to cost accounting. Many of them realize that in commercial companies setting prices for customers is based on strategy and policies but costs are facts. The accountants' focus shifts from external financial accounting (for regulatory compliance with generally accepted accounting principles – GAAP) to internal management accounting (for insights and decision support). Financial accounting is about “valuation” whereas management accounting is about “creating value.”

This “shift” is the accountants' coming of age. No more “dirty” magazines. This is the real deal. Their job includes helping their marketing and sales colleagues know which types of customers to retain, grow, win-back, and acquire – and which ones not to. Further, they help them determine how much to optimally spend on each customer or prospect micro-segment to retain, grow, or acquire. They help operations colleagues to manage costs and make better economic decisions.

Accountants are beyond “going steady”

What is my message here? Using a metaphor of boys and girls becoming adults my point is that accountants are now getting past high school dating and petting. Their work is serious stuff. Organizations are more complex today. Volatility is on the rise which leads to greater uncertainty. Accountants are using business intelligence tool to reduce uncertainty.

Managing obviously involves non-financial factors than costs like quality, cycle time, service levels, asset investments, and capacity management. But ultimately money and financial information is the only universal common denominator to evaluate decision alternatives and monitor performance. Accountants can also enable performance improvement for their colleagues – if they come of age.

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Gary Cokins shares his advanced cost management and performance improvement systems expertise with the Business Finance community.

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