Finance Leaders, Don’t be Caught in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a classic story written by Hans Christian Andersen where, in a kingdom long, long ago there existed an emperor who loved wearing fine clothes and spent a fortune on them. In his obsession to find ever higher quality clothes, the emperor is tricked by a weaver into believing that he has been sold the finest set of clothes with the thinnest cloth material ever devised. To celebrate, the emperor arranges a grand procession through his capital city so that all may look upon his greatness.

The whole town, seeing the emperor in his new impossibly thin (see invisible) set of clothes, just look on with amazement and cheer with thunderous applause as he walks past them.

The people had all heard of the weaver’s great abilities and the unimaginable properties of his cloth. Not one person was willing to admit they hadn’t seen a thing; for if they did, they would be seen as either stupid or unfit for their job.

“Never before had the emperor ever worn such a wondrous outfit” they all exclaimed to each other in excited unison.

As the procession continued, a single small boy cried out… “But the emperor has no clothes!”

“The Emperor Has No Clothes”

The term today is now frequently used to declare “Bullsh*t” when many people believe or feel forced to believe that something is not accurate or right because of fear of reprisals from the authority that they exist under.

In the realm of business, it has become all too comfortable and easy to continue with the attitude of “business as usual.” There is something peaceful about living by a traditional methodology of working in a certain way, thinking in a certain way, and saying “Hi” to Jane by the coffee machine in a certain way.

However, accounting and finance are at a critical crossroads between the realities of the New World colliding into the Old World. The time is right for us to each stand up in our own organizations and declare “The Emperor Has No Clothes.”

The unfortunate reality is not everyone who has a position in accounting & finance today will have one tomorrow. The good news, however, is that you are now aware and because of that, you will be in a position to take action today. As professionals, the time has come to look in the mirror at who we are and acknowledge that we all need to step up, adapt, and begin adding value.

What do I mean by the assertion there are two different worlds and what are the defining factors of each?

The Old World:

  • Transaction based roles
  • Accounting as a back-office function
  • “Don’t rock the boat mentality”
  • Leadership owning the decision-making

The New World:

  • Transformational based roles
  • Accounting as a value-add function
  • “Leave no stone unturned”
  • Change is championed by building influence with company leadership

These two very different types of mindsets exist in the workplaces across the world today. Even though The Old World way of thinking still dominates through sheer force in numbers, rest assured, there is an expiration date being stamped onto this exhausted convention.

What are the driving forces behind all of this change? Technology, Awareness, and the “Rise of Millennials”.

1. Technology

First up is technology. New technology has been successfully developed, tested, and implemented over the last several years throughout organizations of all sizes. Whether the goal has been to optimize, automate, or eliminate task-based work defined by a set of fixed rules, the technology has proven to meet these challenges and also continues to advance in sophistication each day. The name for this new tech is RPA (Robotics Process Automation. In business, the gravity of this development means that the work of AP (Accounts Payable), AR (Accounts Receivable), and data entry are the first and easiest entry points for organizations to cut costs.

The ability to automate entire functions down to a single person or two isn’t the only opportunity within technology. In all businesses, there is still a tremendous amount of work being manually completed on a daily basis by each employee. For most companies, though, we will not see RPA widely adopted and integrated for another few years due to the messy current state of affairs where complexity and analog-ism thrive. Fortunately, there are still many other more practical technologies that we can embrace to move forward.

With Excel alone the ability to transform a role is very practical and accessible. Newer additions to Excel such as ‘Get & Transform’ (Power Query) allows users to connect to a data source and automate the data import, cleaning, and summarization. By taking the time to learn and apply advanced functionality, formulas, and macros, employees adapting to the New World will have the freedom to redefine how they work. The power is already in our hands to transition from wasting time checking off tasks manually to instead clicking a button and sitting back while the machines work.

2. Awareness

The second driving force in which we will see the New World upend the Old World is Awareness. Many professionals find sites such as LinkedIn to be excellent resources to connect with other like-minded people, share experiences, and also share knowledge. For me, discovering and connecting with the Finance Business Partnering (FBP) community was a game changer.

Before exposure to this group on LinkedIn, I certainly had ideas in my head on how finance and accounting can work together with the business to deliver a better value proposition, but I felt a bit isolated and alone. I found myself surrounded by people who were adamant about always doing the same things as those who had come before them had done. Awareness to the FBP community connected the dots for me on how other professionals who were more advanced in their career than me were not only talking about doing these things but successfully implementing them in their own workplaces.

I was now connected to a series of professionals who I could see and hear actively championing for a complete paradigm shift between what is and what could be. They were comfortable helping businesses transform how they operate by putting bold statements and ideas into action:

  • Accounting as a value-added function instead of existing as a back-office function
  • The need to build influence and relationships to transform roles from transactional to transformational by working closely with all areas of a business.

Anders Liu-Lindberg was that first connection and is known to us as the “Godfather of Finance Business Partnering”

Awareness isn’t only limited to online professional networks. The rise of digital technology has made access to webinars, conferences, and trade group publications incredibly easy to find and integrate into your own orbit of awareness.

3. Millennials

The third driving force is the shift in workforce demographics. Millennials, a generation raised on technology, now make up the largest portion of the U.S workforce.1 Millennials are first-generation digital natives who feel very much at home on the Internet and are comfortable exploring new ways of doing anything and everything.

As many of us have entered roles in the corporate world left behind by a non-digitalist, it has been shockingly easy to identify and make improvements. Printing files and putting them in folders? Well, now they are in digital folders. Copying/pasting data into the system and doing the math on an old-timey calculator? Now we sync data into a calculation engine and have results produced in seconds. You get the idea.

Millennials have also come into a new world where the workplace agreement between employer/employee has been upended from the expectations of decades past. Whereas older generations accepted the exchange of working at one place for their whole career with the promise of a pension upon retirement, they have(had) every motivation to not challenge the establishment. It was perfectly fine and acceptable to wait your turn for promotions based on seniority and to not cause too much noise with management that might identify you as a trouble maker.

The world that millennials live in today is driven by a focus on delivering value in order to obtain growth. If we can deliver value, we can then use that as leverage to get promoted, get better pay, or find a better company. We (for better or worse) don’t have a safety net and, as a result, we need to be more creative in the way that we think and approach work.

In roles that I have worked, my number one priority has been to eliminate and expedite all of the non-value-added responsibilities so that I can instead do the things that move the performance needle for my employer. “Leave no stone unturned” is a battle-hymn that we march to as we seek to build career success by discovering and capitalizing on new opportunities.

Where do we go from here?

If you are like us, you know that a turning point has been reached and that more professionals all need to stand up and declare, “The Emperor Has No Clothes.”

We need to announce that we all recognize that we have the tools and potential to drive business performance and our careers to new heights.

To accomplish this, we will need to harness technology, build even further awareness, and harness the power of younger generations.

1Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force By: Richard Fry, Pew Research 2018


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