Pete’s Blog

Why Your Employees Leave & How to Keep Them Longer

If your firm or department has struggled with employee turnover, my latest podcast will be of particular interest.

My guest, Cara Silletto, whose mother was actually a corporate accountant, is now a workforce retention guru. Her company, Crescendo Strategies, works with companies to reduce their employee turnover, and to bridge the generational gap within the workplace. (You can listen to our full conversation here (https://petermargaritis.com/s2e7/).

The hot topics Cara deals with certainly appear in our segment of the world: Accounting firms and corporate finance departments alike all deal with some of these same issues: Gaps in understanding between the millennial generation and Gen Xers or Baby Boomers. Constant turnover within their workforce. A judgment of millennials for not being “loyal” enough. The list goes on and on.

So how do managers in the finance world fix this? A little flexibility goes a long way. Gone are the days when employees were content with mandatory Saturday hours: Instead, employers are finding ways to empower their staff to make their own schedules.

“It’s not that they’re expecting any less out of their people, but they’re giving them the flexibility to bill those hours any time during the week,” Cara said. “If they want to pull later days, or come in on Sunday or Saturday night, work from home, wherever they can hit those billable hours, they can still do it. But they’re not requiring people to come in from nine to noon every Saturday morning anymore because you don’t have to do that.”

As a retention strategist, Cara gets plenty of calls from various companies: But the most common type of accounting firm or finance department she hears from are those who are “set in their ways,” who have policies that they haven’t revisited in years. They are the ones who call Cara and say, “We can’t recruit anybody.”

Put simply, the old way of doing things isn’t working any longer: Times have changed, and the next generation of workers isn’t loyal to a company, just for the sake of being loyal. Today’s workers stay in jobs where they feel appreciated, have scheduling flexibility, and see multiple avenues of promotion.

Flexibility is advancement is one lesson the accounting world can take to heart, maybe even more so than the others: Today’s employees aren’t necessarily going to stay at a firm for years on end, waiting for the day they’re promoted to partner. That’s why we have to be flexible with creating multiple avenues of advancement. Sometimes that means taking into account employees’ unique abilities and creating a position around those talents.

“I love when organizations create multiple paths for advancement,” Cara said. “You hear a title like senior advisor or something like that, which tells me that person is so good at what they do, but they probably shouldn’t be managing people, and that’s fine because they can still be promoted, and they can be a mentor or advisor for somebody else, or for a team, but they don’t have the direct responsibility of leading and managing others.”

Even for more entry-level employees further down the food chain, it’s important employers offer robust training opportunities. Today’s workforce won’t tolerate taking a job and then not being appropriately trained for it.

And important to remember, too: When you invest in your employees (whether that’s training, hiring, or retention efforts), you’re investing in your firm or department as a whole, too.

 

How to Switch Your Presentation from Spreadsheets to Storytelling

When it came to presentations, Jennie Scheel’s initial strategy wasn’t exactly foolproof. As CFO of Five Nines Technology Group, presenting was a core part of her job description. But …

“My strategy was to get up there, put all my beautiful spreadsheets up there with lots of numbers, talk as fast as I could, smile, then sit down and hope there was no question,” Jennie said.

It won’t shock you to learn that Jennie’s audience didn’t always share her appreciation for a beautiful spreadsheet. And since they weren’t interested in the method of presentation, they often didn’t understand the information being laid out for them, either.

That’s when Jennie switched up her presentations. Instead of only speaking in her language, she presented in a language that everyone could understand. To break up the boring financial numbers, Jennie instead broke down all the numbers as part of a dollar.

For example, instead of explaining that company benefits were 6% of the company’s expenses (which doesn’t really mean anything without context), Jennie illustrated the information to reflect the fact that six cents out of every dollar are spent on benefits, like health insurance or a 401(k) match.

And instead of throwing a meaningless alphabet soup of letters up on the screen (COGS), Jennie instead illustrated what Cost of Goods Sold actually meant.

“I have to remember and try to say, okay, so here’s our bucket of revenue, here is a bucket which is hopefully not nearly as full of expenses, so that when you mix them together, that’s the number that makes up our net income,” she said. “So they can kind of see how those flow together and in proportion to each other.”

When it comes to accounting (or any niche, really), it’s important to remember that every niche has its own language. Engineers use words others don’t understand. Accountants speak in numbers and percentages and words like “accrual.” So when these niches cross paths (like when Jennie, a CFO, is presenting to her IT outsource company full of engineers), it’s crucial to use language that everyone understands.

“The second that I say the word accrual, I think that they automatically go straight back to their phones or lose any idea of what I was trying to say,” Jennie said.

Language doesn’t always have to be solely words. It can be body language, too: That’s why Jennie started wearing blue jeans to her presentations, instead of nice suits. Most engineers at her company dressed in jeans and polos most days — so dressing to match your audience can make it easier for them to listen to you.

And, of course, language can be simple pictures, as well. That was the quickest thing that Jennie — lover of spreadsheets — learned.

“The pictures are doing an excellent job of telling the story, instead of my spreadsheet,” she admitted. “Obviously I love all of my spreadsheets and all of the data, but those are not what will relate, and people will not be able to understand. So what I have learned through training and by actually utilizing it is that the pictures really resonate with people.”

The point of any presentations — whether they’re filled with spreadsheets, numbers, photos, or videos — is for the audience to understand the content.

So when it comes to presenting, tailoring to your specific audience can make a huge difference in them understanding your content (versus zoning out, and not retaining anything you say).

“I’m always trying to analyze what pieces of information they’re looking for and then how we would break it down so that they can understand it,” Jennie says. “What details do I need to present to them so that they can understand the company or their role, and be successful with the decisions that they make?”

To listen to the full Change Your Mindset interview with Jennie, click here

 

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.