Future-forward philosophy can pay dividends in the accounting world

It’s not hard to find where the “stuffy” stereotype of accounting has come from: boring offices, firms inflexible with their rules, and an overall stiff work environment for so many accountants. 

But that’s why I’ve been so impressed with DeLeon and Stang, a firm that takes all those stereotypes and throws them out the window, creating their own future-forward culture. I talked to Rich Stang and Brad Hoffman, partners at the firm, about what makes their office so different from other accounting firms. 

One of the core components of DeLeon and Stang — one that might initially sound sacrilegious — is taking care of employees first, clients second. “If we take care of our staff first … there’s not as much turnover,” Rich said. “And so that’s ultimately going to be good for the clients as well.” 

At DeLeon and Stang, the firm has made an effort to put that employees-first philosophy into practice. The team goes out to happy hour together, letting loose and having fun, even if it’s 4 p.m. on a Friday and they’re “supposed” to be on the clock. 

The firm has also instituted unlimited paid time off — a policy still in the beginning stages but that lets employees know they have options for when things happen in their lives. Employees also have the option to work from home sometimes when they don’t have client meetings.

When employees feel comfortable in their work environment, they start to naturally have each other’s backs. Accounting doesn’t have to be cut-throat or boring. It can just be fun, and a work environment where people are happy to be there, like at DeLeon and Stang. 

From that environment comes less of a need for staff oversight. 

“They’re starting to really buy into this teamwork approach,” Brad said. “So they don’t want to let others down. So there’s a lot of them holding each other accountable. And you’re leading, not managing, which is way more fun. You’re encouraging, you’re strengthening. You’re not standing over top of them telling them what to do.” 

That kind of flexibility extends to virtually every aspect of DeLeon and Stang — including the reasoning for their latest location, in Frederick. The partners realized many of their employees lived in that area and were spending significant portions of their days commuting. 

That new office – in addition to being convenient – also builds on all the aspects of an accounting firm no one would expect. Having those elements attracts better candidates, which is just another example of the firm’s future-forward philosophy. 

“We want to be the first to the race with the Millennials, because they’re going to be the future of the firm, and they want cool space, they want flexibility,” Brad said. “We’re here to accept and challenge the Millennial workforce, and want them part of our team.” 

You can listen to our full podcast here

How Accountants Can Be More Future-Forward In an Evolving World

Trying to keep up with innovations in technology is a challenge in any industry—but maybe even more so in the accounting world. It’s a very formulaic business, with (traditionally) little wiggle room when it comes to trying new things.

That’s why talking with Amy Vetter was such an eye-opener. She’s a CPA, a certified information technology professional, certified Global Management Accountant, a yoga studio owner, and the author of two books. She also is an expert when it comes to helping the accounting industry look toward the future, and find ways to fortify itself against any technological changes.

Change is certainly coming. AI, machine learning, and Cloud Accounting are all evolving and shaping the future of the industry.

“Anything like accounting that’s as structured as it is, AI machine learning can enter because there’s a structure to program into a system,” Amy said. “What artificial intelligence is basically taking our own business intelligence and trying to program that into a computer so that the computer can start figuring out those things.”

The most helpful thing for accountants to remember? Despite increasing technology that can seemingly do your job for you, AI and machine learning don’t have one crucial piece: They’re not human beings, and can’t provide the relationship that accountants can.

Accountants don’t just have to be numbers whizzes (a quality that can be replaced by a computer). They should realize their status as “cherished advisor,” as Amy puts it. There’s value outside of simple number-crunching.

“What you want to strive for is to be cherished – that your clients can’t imagine not having you as part of their business because you are providing so much value,” she said. “That the money is not the issue. It’s like you’re an integral part of their business.”

Contrary to popular belief, artificial intelligence can actually be helpful to accountants—not just something that’s going to steal their jobs.

“It actually frees up our time so we can spend more time with our clients,” Amy said. “It doesn’t bring our value down. What it does is give us the information quicker so that we can start analyzing it.”

Seeing all the technological changes within the accounting industry as a positive can be difficult. That’s true for anyone — but especially accountants.

“When we are given a standard or regulation, we’re really good at changing,” Amy said. “But when we’re given like, ‘This is where the future is going,’ but there’s not necessarily a standard or a checklist of how to get there, we drag our feet a bit in this profession.”

The solution? Remembering the standard that doesn’t have to be written down: Keep building relationships with clients. Be a human, not a computer. And learn how to become the “cherished advisor” that every accountant has the power to be.

To listen to the full interview, click here

 

Why Accountants Need to be Data Storytellers

We’ve all been in CPE with “that instructor.” You know, the one who drones on and on about FASB this or tax code that for hours and hours. When someone back at the office asks you what you learned, you draw a complete blank. 

Or maybe, you were “that instructor,” and when you looked out at the audience, you saw a sea of heads in the conference prayer, bent down over their phones. 

But then there was that time when your instructor peppered her presentation with stories. And not only do you remember those stories, but you remember the points she was making with the stories. 

When you combine numbers with stories, you’re taking the numb out of numbers. And when you take the numb out of numbers, what you’ve got left is e-r-s: Effective Relatable Stories. 

Why do we need to tell stories? Don’t the numbers speak for themselves?

We accountants are fluent in the language of accounting, a foreign language for most of our clients. We see the meaning in a balance sheet and appreciate the beauty of a set of perfectly reconciled books, but to our clients, it’s just a baffling mass of numbers. 

Technology today is changing the work we do. Artificial intelligence, bots, machine learning and automation mean that the repetitive number-crunching pieces of our jobs are going away, and what’s left for us will be what the robots can’t do. 

That means we need better communication skills now. We need to be data storytellers. 

What is a data storyteller?

In today’s high-speed world, business owners, taxpayers, and decision makers are in desperate need of the insights hidden in their numbers. Because we understand this foreign language of numbers and accounting, we can see the messages hidden in those numbers. Storytelling is the way we bridge the gap. 

Data storytelling is when we communicate what the numbers mean. It means using Effective Relatable Stories to convey the information in those numbers to the people who need that information. When we’ve succeeded in communication, they understand and remember what those numbers mean, and they can make the right decisions for their business or their financial future.

Now, some people confuse data storytelling with data visualization. They think that if they just add that pretty waterfall chart to their presentation with arrows pointing to all the key inflection points, then their job is done. All the numbers are right there. 

But they’re not the same at all. Data visualization is a tool we can use to communicate complicated accounting information. As a tool, you need to keep it simple enough for people to understand. And unless we explain those charts and graphs with Effective Relatable Stories that our audience understands, we haven’t communicated anything at all. 

Why do stories help us learn and understand?

Stories aren’t just for entertainment. Powerful stories evoke emotion and can inspire us to take action and make changes in ways that a PowerPoint data dump can’t. Those just put us to sleep like a lullaby.

If you want your audience to take action, they must be emotionally engaged. Master marketers know this: they know exactly the hook to use that taps into your raw emotion and convinces you to click on that Buy Now button. 

Neuroscience backs up the role of stories in helping us learn. When we hear a gripping story, that story lets loose a flood of dopamine in our brain. That’s right. Dopamine — the same neurotransmitter that gets us addicted to drugs, alcohol and gambling. The feel-good chemical. And when those brain circuits get lit up with an emotional charge, we learn better and remember more.

According to neuroscience researcher John Medina, author of Brain Rules, “Dopamine aids memory and information processing. You can think of it like a Post-It note that reads ‘Remember this.’”

Do you remember where you were last Tuesday at 9 am? Probably not. But I bet you remember in crystalline detail where you were and what you were doing on September 11, 2001, when you heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center. That’s an event you experienced exactly once, but you remember forever. 

That’s the impact an emotional charge can have on memory.

Contrast that with studying for the CPA exam, where you had to repeat the same material over and over to get it in your brain for the short time you needed to remember it. A few years later, and I bet you’ve forgotten much of what you learned. But emotionally charged memories stay with us forever.

Using stories to explain complex topics: a real-life example

Not convinced that you can use stories to make accounting interesting or relevant? Here’s an example of how I used an Effective Relatable Story to explain consolidations of variable interest entities when I was teaching an accounting and auditing update at the Arizona Society of CPAs. Consolidating variable interest entities is a complex topic that almost never fails to send audiences of accountants into dreamland, so here’s how I kept everyone engaged.

I asked the audience to raise their hands if they were married. About 80% raised their hands. Then I asked how many had a mother-in-law. I got a few snickers, and everyone kept their hands up. 

Then I told them to imagine their mother-in-law as a variable interest entity and showed a slide with an older woman labeled VIE. Then I said, “Your spouse wants your mother-in-law to move into your household, but you do not want your mother in law to move in. This is also known as consolidating into your household.” 

Now I had everyone’s attention, and many were smiling. “Your mother-in-law gets money from Social Security and a retirement account, and she loves to play the slot machine.” Next, I showed a picture of the six kids from The Brady Bunch. “Your mother-in-law has six children, who all contribute to her financial well-being. Your family contributes the most because your spouse is a high-school principal and loves to be in control.” 

“Let’s recap. Your spouse — the principal — wants to consolidate their VIE mother into your household balance sheet. You prefer that she not consolidate into your balance sheet. You prefer that she spend two months with each of her children, or her agents, so that no one has to consolidate her into their balance sheet.” 

Now when I return to Arizona to teach another course, at least one person will come up to me and say, “You’re the mother-in-law guy, right?” They still remember that one story that I told once several years ago. 

Next time you have to explain a complex accounting concept to a client, try putting it into terms that your client can relate to, and tell an engaging story around those relatable terms. At the very least, you won’t have numbed them with the numbers!

This article was adapted from my latest book, Taking The Numb Out Of Numbers: Explaining and Presenting Financial Information with Confidence and Clarity. 

Brain Science Tips to Engage Any Audience

Attracting — and retaining — an audience when you’re a speaker can be a challenge. People get distracted by phones, sometimes aren’t interested in your topic, or, worst of all, you feel like they don’t like you.

But there are pieces of brain science speakers can use to get the most of their time in front of an audience.

Dr. John Molidor, a professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and past president of the National Speakers Association board of directors, visited the “Change Your Mindset” podcast. And he was full of brain-science tips for speakers to incorporate into their presentations:

Mix story and emotion with data and facts

We’ve heard plenty about “left-sided” and “right-sided” brains (brains that are more analytical and data-driven vs brains that are more emotion-driven). But as a speaker, you have to learn to touch both sides. Our brains crave an integration of both pieces.

Some presentations and keynotes are naturally more numbers-driven or more story-driven. But if you find yourself leaning too far to one side, try targeting the other side of the brain.

“Talk to both hemispheres,” John said. “Tell the story. Show the emotion. Give the data. Give the numbers. Both of them the brain processes, and it actually would like to have both.”

Be consistent

It may feel natural to want to switch up aspects of your presentation sometimes — font, headers, symbols. But our brains naturally gravitate towards patterns. Once the brain is able to find that comfort in a pattern, it’s better able to pay attention to other things (like your presentation). If there’s no consistency to your presentation or slide show elements, your brain is going to inherently be too distracted trying to find a pattern that it doesn’t retain the actual information as well.

Use an F-pattern on your slides

No, this has nothing to do with using salty language.

Eye pattern studies have shown the ways in which our eyes naturally move when looking at something new. So presenters could benefit from using that science. Typically, our eyes move in a pattern that looks like an F: up and down, then left over the top, and then in the middle. When creating slides for a presentation, it can be helpful to keep that pattern in mind and keep the important text higher up.

Incorporate brain breaks for your audience

Naps to increase learning potential? That’s just one brain tip John shared. To put it simply, the human brain is not meant to be a machine when it comes to retaining information. We have to give it a break every now and then if we want it to actually perform optimally. One of the best ways to help your brain learn something, John says, is to give it time to rest directly after.

Of course, you don’t want your audience napping during your presentation. But you can still incorporate pre-planned breaks into your time on stage.

Cater to the brain’s need for visual elements

Use pictures to break up all the text you want to get across. “The visual cortex in the back of your brain is a huge amount of real estate,” John says — so take advantage of it.

“Death by bullet points” is not the way to go: So be sure to include pictures that will help illustrate all your main points.

Eliminate unnecessary words

Did you know that your brain sometimes naturally fills in words and letters that are missing? Even if two letters of a word are switched, your brain will naturally unscramble the letters and read the word as the correct word (like if “please” was spelled “plaese,” your brain would still read the word the same).

So how to translate that knowledge as a speaker? Take out unnecessary words — your presentation doesn’t need every “a” or “an.” John has even been experimenting himself with taking some verbs out, in an effort to pull audience members in and have them actively participating in the presentation.

Remember that your audience’s brains need oxygen

Much like the human brain needs frequent breaks to keep up its productivity, it also needs oxygen. John incorporates “fact or crap” sessions, where he invites audience members to yell out whether they think a particular sentence is true or not. Telling a joke (laughter brings in oxygen) also works, or encouraging everyone to get up and stretch.

Get out of your own head

This tip is the simplest at its core, yet often the hardest for speakers to do. If you focus in on the one person in the audience not paying attention — or not exhibiting overtly positive body language — instead of the 50 other people who are engaged, your brain will take notice. John equated this to your cells eavesdropping on what you’re sending your brain: “If you’re sending your brain sort of this negative information or positive information, your cells tend to pay attention to that,” he said, “which then can cause a chemical reaction.”

So staying out of your head (and all the worries and scenarios your brain has cooked up) will help in any speaking scenario. A particularly helpful mantra to remember is the one John uses before his speaking engagements: “I will tell myself all I can really do here is share what I know. That’s so much easier for me to go, ‘I’m just going to share,’ versus ‘I hope they like it,’ or ‘Are they getting it?’ or ‘Oh, you know I’m not getting the reaction I wanted.’ In the end, am I sharing it and am I doing it in a way that’s real? I’m not judging myself as I do it.”

To listen to the entire interview with Dr. John Molidor, you can click this link and download it from my website or you can download the episode on C-Suite Radio, iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play. Just search Change Your Mindset with Peter Margaritis.

 

Facilitated Collaboration Key to Surviving the Evolving Corporate Landscape

 

Today’s business buzzword? Collaboration. But how do you do less talking about collaboration and more… well, collaboration?

“We think the secret sauce is that it should be facilitated,” said Eddie Turner, who joined me for the Change Your Mindset podcast. “Facilitated collaboration is what accelerates performance and drives impact.”

Eddie is a C-suite network advisor, international certified coach, a professional speaker, and President of the Association for Talent Development’s Houston chapter. In short, he knows facilitated collaboration better than most.

Facilitation can be the way through a myriad of issues: process mapping, conflict resolution, and strategy planning, to name a few.

The key to that facilitation? Having a dialogue — not a monologue — and asking engaging questions that allow leaders to come to their own conclusions, without being told what to think. Through that facilitated approach, where they’re being asked probing questions, leaders learn more. And now — with sweeping changes affecting nearly every industry in the world — is not the time to forget the importance of continued education.

“Some people never take a class after leaving a university. I know some people who don’t even pick up a book after leaving university,” Turner said. “So if we’re not continuing to educate ourselves, we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable to the disruption that technology will introduce.”

The best way to think about the constantly-changing landscape that requires constant education? Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.

To stay ready — no matter what changing industry you’re a part of — you could stand to benefit from facilitated collaboration.

Whether you’re lower on the totem pole and need to stay up on the latest trends, or you’re a leader looking to inspire the masses, you have to be facilitating. Because “collaboration” runs the risk of being just a word without facilitation.

And without facilitation? You risk being left behind.

“We need to be continuous learners,” Turner said, “scanning the horizon looking to see where we can improve ourselves as individuals and staying ahead of the curve.”

 

To listen to the entire interview with Eddie Turner, you can click this link and download it from my website or you can download the episode on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play. Just search Change Your Mindset with Peter Margaritis.