Finance business partnering update

Posted by: on Jan 12, 2016 in Business Partnering | No Comments
Finance business partnering update

shutterstock_122895541I thought I would use this blog to update you on how finance partners around the world are getting on in their quest to be trusted and be fully integrated members of the management team. I have just finished running the workshop at the annual CIMA Finance Business Partner academy held in central London. It is the third year I have run the workshop at CIMA’s flagship event and I know some blog subscribers were there when we first started and thought it might be interesting to see if things are changing in the world of the finance business partner.

As usual there was a good cross section of business partners and senior finance leaders from across industries and countries and they were thankfully happy to share their experiences and opinions.

Boring accountants

When I first ran the workshop, business partners talked about how they stuggled to overcome the inherent perception of “the boring accountant”.. Although “the boring accountant” is something stemming from comedy all the way back to Monty Python  some delegates said they still found it hard to be fully accepted and struggled to dispel the myth that finance was “the police” with whom only the basic of information should be shared. The general view of the delegates was that building trust with stakeholders was still a challenge. However there were lots of good examples of ways in which partners have been successful in developing trust. One suggestion was for the business partner to prove how they can add value by trumpeting success stories e.g .one partner explained how he had reduced a £2million mobile phone bill by £900k and made sure the business was aware of the benefits of getting involved with your finance business partner. In other work I have done with clients one partner was highly trusted and valued as a result of taking a nice cake to every group meeting – so it doesn’t always have to involve rocket science!

Time taken up by transactional accounting and budgeting was also a problem many business partners had not been able to get out of. I think this could also be linked to the issue of how the role of finance business partner has been defined and what are its key objectives. It would seem that many business partners work in organisations which have great ERM systems such as Oracle or SAP but for some reason don’t use them to automate the transactional processes more. This is still a major challenge needing to be overcome for many business partners and is like having a Ferrari but never getting out of 1st gear.

Role definition.

This is important as in some organisations the finance partner who has a vague brief and gets involved in everything is in danger of becoming an expensive luxury and vulnerable to removal. My advice here would be to get clarity of your role and also keep a tab of the benefits and savings which you have catalysed in your role as a business partner and let everyone know about them.

Building trust with stakeholders.

Trust is not a given and something that successful partners earn by showing how they can add value. Partners that take the initiative and provide information that is often unexpected but gives a stakeholder a valuable insight gain the most trust. One partner explained how without any demand from the sales team had spent a couple of hours reworking some of the costing information so that the sales team were able to much more clearly understand the contribution from different services. The delighted sales director and team are now forever in the business partners debt.

Communicating with the business.

To communicate well with the business successful business partners need to be fully conversant with their business model. If you can show your understanding of the business model and demonstrate through action how you can improve it your status will rise.

Time

It seems that many business partners were still dragged into month end work limiting their time available to focus on partnering. Those that overcame this barrier had done so by redefining the role and ensuring that the IT systems capabilities were focused on improving transactional accounting automation.

In summary partners achieved success when they showed an interest in what their stakeholders were doing and gave a solution to a problem they were having. They kept things simple often using pictures rather than pages of tables and avoided jargon at all costs.

They were also likely to utilize some of the lessons from influence discussed previously and gained empathy with their business stakeholders by sharing some thing personal about themselves outside work to demonstrate they had a human side. This empathy was further improved by those finance partners who ran inhouse seminars to improve the financial literacy of the non financial staff.

However amongst all the above great examples there were also quite a few organisation in which the role of a finance business partner was still nothing more than a management accountant with a new job title.

To find out more about how wise up now can catlyse change in your finance function contact us  and to communicate informally with finance business partners around the globe why not join the Finance Business Partners discussion group.

 

The Science of influence – pt. 2

Posted by: on Apr 13, 2015 in Business Partnering | No Comments
The Science of influence – pt. 2

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In the last blog I was talking about how people with influence have traits and skills that can be learned. Therefore everyone has the potential to gain more influence in the workplace.

I focused on the work of Robert Cialdini who has done much of the recent research in the area and related his work to the world of finance.

I would be interested to here whether you have had any success in applying the techniques discussed.

As there was a lot to take on board I decided to split the blog into two sections and this time I am going to look at how we can show influence can also be achieved through:

  • Social proof
  • Liking
  • Authority

Social proof

Social proof is based on the principle that one reason people use to decide what to believe and how to act is to look at what other people are doing or believing. (E.g. McDonalds – Billions served). It is particularly influential in conditions of uncertainty and when people are unsure of what to do and then follow the actions of others believing them to be correct. People are more inclined to follow the lead of similar others (e.g. kids and their desire to fit in to the social norm)

A good example of this was demonstrated by a TV shopping channel which reframed their message to customers from “operators are waiting for your call” which could create a picture in peoples minds of a huge call center with lots of operators waiting by silent phones, to a message which said “if our operators are busy can you please try again”. This message created an image that everyone else was calling and therefore I better call up too and led to a massive increase in call up rate. Again a great example of it is not what you say but how you frame it!

In the world of finance we could create a newsletter that mentions how division X has benefited from some great suggestions from the current finance team working much more closely with them. This will deliver an underlying message to people in the organization that maybe your area might be able to similarly benefit if they engaged more with finance too!

Liking

This is based on the principle that people are likely to say yes to people who they know or like.

People tend to like people who are like them and sales people for years have looked for clues from their customers to try and find out their interests and then include it in a conversation. E.g. the car salesman when looking at a car of a customer who is now in the show room may have noticed some golf clubs in the boot and then slip into the later conversation something about golf thus making the customer like the salesman more

The liking principle is the whole foundation of the success of house selling companies like Tupperware where people will go even if they don’t need any more plastic boxes because it is for their friend. As a finance person with influence it might therefore be beneficial to try and find some common ground with your stakeholders e.g. where they live, what team they support, where there kids go to school etc. before you engage with them.

At the very least you should know the persons name and something about them. I am quite loyal to a hotel in Malaysia as every time I go there they say welcome back Mr. Purcell – it makes me feel loved even though the cynic in me knows they have a scan of my passport from a previous stay and they could predict what time I was arriving as I was flying in from London – despite all that I still choose them over other hotels

A successful CFO I knew used to make sure he memorized the names of all his teams spouses so he could greet them personally by name at the annual company conference when spouses were invited. No surprise that he was highly influential and successful in the organization

Authority

This principle is based on the principle that we are psychologically programmed to comply with requests from an authority figure.

This is the reason that professionals from finance, medicine and law will normally hang their certificates on their office walls. It explains why Frank Abagnale immortalized in the film “Catch me if you can” was so successful in committing cheque fraud dressed as a fake pilot.

As someone in  finance it is important for you to emphasize that as an expert in all things financial you are there to help.

Another strange outcome of the principle of authority is that people who take responsibility for their failures and say what they have learned from them have much more respect than those that blame external factors outside of their control. This is also reflected in corporate reporting where research has proven that organizations which take the blame for poor outcomes in their annual reports have higher stock prices a year later than those companies that don’t take the blame and blame the economy or the weather

If you are interested in learning from other peoples experiences in this area there is a linkedin group with members who are similar to you and you may want to join and maybe even share some of your stories of success with our linked-in group.

The Science of Influence

Posted by: on Feb 11, 2015 in Business Partnering | One Comment
The Science of Influence

shutterstock_154276715 copyI was recently doing some work with some very senior sales directors and was struck by the level of investment they make to ensure their teams have maximum impact. It got me thinking that if finance directors adopted a similar attitude the perception many people have of finance would be very different.

An area I find particularly interesting is the science of influence. There is a great book by Robert Cialdini in which he consolidates much of the psychological research in the area of influence over the last few decades into a succinct and digestible text. He shows that people who we consider to have impact and influence are not actually born that way but simply adopt techniques that all of us can learn.

I think its potential to change our behavior is so great that I am going to split it over two separate blogs so as to not overload you with information.

The Science of Influence according to Cialdini can essentially be the result of six simple traits, which are:

  • Reciprocity
  • Commitment and consistency
  • Social Proof
  • Liking
  • Authority
  • Scarcity

Reciprocity

Reciprocity is based on the power of indebtedness and that when we do something nice for someone they feel they owe us one and need to give us something back. Examples include when someone invites us around to their house to dinner or brings our kids home from a sports match – we feel we have to reciprocate.

How then can finance use this to their advantage?

Often finance is perceived in a policeman type role in the organization. In the best-case scenario this leads to other functions being often reluctant to share information with finance, whilst in the worst-case leads to the hiding of information from them. In both cases the organization is weaker as a result.

By reaching out and giving something unexpected, or beyond the call of duty, there will be a reframing of how finance is perceived. This will lead to business functions being more helpful and open towards finance; ensuring finance can create maximum impact in adding value.

Therefore in summary, rather than think who can help me here? We should start to think whom can I help!

Commitment and consistency

This is based on the principle that people who make a commitment to something are much more willing to agree to requests that are in keeping with their prior commitments.

Therefore it is important to try and induce people to agree to a position, which is in line with a behavior, which they will later be requested to agree to.

The phenomenon was best demonstrated by research done by Thomas Moriarty (1975)

In the study a blanket and radio was placed on a beach next to a random sun worshipper. After several minutes of relaxing and listening to the radio the person would stand up and walk off down the beach. Soon after, a researcher pretending to be a thief would take the blanket and radio and try to hurry off with it. As one would expect most people chose not to get involved or say anything to the thief and in the experiment only about 4 people would say anything. However when the procedure was tried again but this time the person, when standing up to go for a walk says, “would you please watch my stuff.” the outcome changed. The beach neighbors now propelled by the rule of consistency challenged the thief in an average of 19 out of 20 occasions even though there was a risk of harm to them.

Therefore if you can get people to commit to something, they’re much more likely to act in accordance with that commitment.

We should understand that being consistent is highly valued in our culture and is therefore a powerful motive.

Hospitals have shown that when they ask patients to personally write down their next appointment time there is a much lower percentage of no shows that when they are simply given a card with an appointment time on it

In the world of finance rather than just explain to your stakeholders the benefits they will get you should ask them whether they would support it and wait for a positive confirmation. Having got a yes then ask them why and what they will get out of it and why. Even better get them to write it down

This is also the reason that finance should always get the main budget stakeholders to sign the budget with them as approved so as to show their commitment to its outcome.

Also be careful how you frame your requests for commitment. For example a restaurant that says please call if you have to cancel will get fewer calls and more no shows than the one that asks the question will you call if you have to cancel and waits for a “Yes” from the customer

I think that is enough for one blog but maybe try some of these techniques yourselves. It’s an area which finance teams I work with find most useful.

Also how is that New Year resolution you agreed to going?

Further reading: Influence Science and Practice Robert B. Cialdini, Neil Goldstein, Steve Martin and Robert Cialdini

How did the story end?

Posted by: on Feb 3, 2015 in Business Partnering | No Comments
How did the story end?

pic of to do in 2015

Well we’re now into February 2015 and just a quick reminder that once upon a time there was a New Year’s Eve resolution. It had so much potential to change the world. But there was this nagging doubt, would it live long enough to succeed? What needs to happen so that a resolution has a long life and live ‘happily ever after’?

On a personal note I managed to stay alcohol free until about January 6th but I know you can do better.
Remember as a member of the finance team you were going to think about:

What do people want from us?

How could we provide this?

How can we make ourselves more relevant?

Who else could we include?

 If you are a subscriber who works outside of finance you should be challenging your finance colleagues to think
this way. All the very best in your year ahead.

Thoughts for the year ahead

Posted by: on Jan 5, 2015 in Business Partnering | No Comments
Thoughts for the year ahead

pic of to do in 2015Over the festive season I suspect that many of us have turned our thoughts to others. I’m sure that much of December involved you thinking:

What do they want?

What could we give them?

How can we make this time special for them?

Who else could we include in some way?

Now we are into the new year may I suggest you consider carrying these sentiments into the workplace as a new year resolution. Just imagine how much an organization would benefit if its finance team thought about:

What do people want from us?

How could we provide this?

How can we make ourselves more relevant?

Who else could we include?

All the very best in your year ahead

The Price of Fish

Posted by: on Oct 13, 2014 in Business Partnering | One Comment
The Price of Fish

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I recently was lucky to combine some work and pleasure on the north east coast of the USA indulging in my favourite food, lobster. As a result of me paying quite different prices for essentially the same size of lobster it got me thinking on how one goes about working out the price of something – sad I know!

In the last blog talked about how if we are to survive as accountants it is important that we can become more relevant to overall business decision making. One such area that would be helping the marketing function in their pricing decisions. I have seen this first hand in the motor industry where manufacturer has a portfolio of vehicles pitched at different types of customers e.g. small executive saloon, medium executive saloon, large executive saloon which, often due to economies of scale in manufacturing, have production costs which are very similar but have prices that can vary by more than £50k.  These price differentials are often the result of finance and marketing collaborating to make sure the business maximizes its return to shareholders. The prices chosen ensure there is no chance of customers substituting to a lower level model and maximizing the returns made.

Profits are maximized, as the small executive saloon will sell in much higher volumes but at a lower margin. In contrast the very expensive large saloon will have much lower sales but much higher margin and its high price is associated with greater prestige and quality and also incentivizes the consumer of the entry-level model to buy into the image.

Well, surprise surprise it would seem that the same issues occur when restaurants are trying to work out what to charge for a lobster. The price, which a fisherman receives for his lobster, has fallen significantly over the last five years with wholesale prices falling from $6 a pound five years ago to around $2 today. This is largely a result of supply and demand with many believing global warming contributing to bumper lobster harvests.

However despite the large fall in the wholesale price the price on the menu on restaurants has not fallen, and gone up if anything. One of the reasons for this is that most of us perceive lobster to be a luxury good and are therefore happy to pay a premium to enjoy it. Thus a pricing model based on a pure cost plus basis would be incorrect and the model adopted in this case is more of a psychological price as applied to the aforementioned luxury cars and designer handbags amongst others.

The psychological influence also results in people getting more pleasure from something when they pay more and to make the price lower could ruin the consumer experience. This can be complicated further by the perception that if the lobster is too cheap it may be because there something is wrong with it and therefore you avoid it on the menu. Another benefit to restaurants is that the highly priced lobster makes other seafood options appear to be good value.

What has any of this got to do with finance then? As you are an expert in financial modeling using spreadsheets and also having a sound knowledge of the profit impact of cost you are in an enviable position to help. However if you do not understand the fundamentals of marketing and are trusted by and able to work with marketing professionals you are unlikely to be of much use. Therefore to become a more valued partner the moral is; try and integrate with whatever departments are the value drivers in your organization to understand them and hence become the person people go to for help.

This is how finance will survive and continue its position at the heart of management decision-making.

The death of the traditional accountant

Posted by: on Dec 13, 2013 in Business Partnering | One Comment
The death of the traditional accountant

deadaccountant

If you work in a large multi national organization such as Unilever, GSK, Barclays etc. you may have been aware for some time that the role of accountants in business is experiencing significant changes. Academic journals have been reporting for some time the evolution of accounting moving its transactional traditional activies (financial reporting , month-end etc) to shared service centres and in some cases it is outsourced.

As a result finance has to evolve into a new role otherwise become an unnecessary overhead. There has been an increase in the recruitments market for a new type of accountant often referred to as a “Finance Business Partner”. The use of this term is quite varied with a fairly broad interpretation. It first came to prominence in the field of HR in the mid 90’s when HR’s role was been similarly outsourced and transferred to shared service centres.

A finance business partner is someone who is embedded within the management teams helping provide tactical financial support (eg budget planning and analysis) to business managers. Their role is not to produce accounts but resolve problems. Instead of a scorekeeper they have become a player. Instead of refusing to approve a decision because they are too expensive they help find a way of doing it differently, but profitably.

However the evolution into business partnering roles has not been an easy ride with many organisations finding that simply changing a job title and not financial organizational traits does not work.

To be an effective business partner you need to have the respect of the management team so that they will trust you to help them rather than think of you as a financial nerd without any idea about the real world.

Specific traits identified as lacking according to the research into this are:

  • Communication skills
  • Business Awareness
  • Coaching skills
  • Negotiation skills

If you feel weak in any of the above try and look at ways of improving them in preparation for the future. I will try and share examples of best practice from companies I work with in future blogs to help guide you, and share details of a recent survey WiseUpNow commissioned on finance business partnering in my next blog in the New Year.

Finance Business Partnering

Posted by: on Dec 12, 2013 in Business Partnering | 4 Comments
Finance Business Partnering

shutterstock_122895541Thanks for all of you who responded to my recent survey and I have summarised your views below.

The finance business partner seems to be the “new black” in the context of accounting roles with job sites increasingly requiring such skills. I have experience of working with companies with well developed finance business partnering competencies and am also currently writing a book on the subject. However I have been taken aback by the attitude from some of the business partners I have experienced at seminars I recently delivered for one of the major professional accounting bodies on their executive development programmes. It would seem that some of them have simply had their role either renamed finance business partner, or the role has been created and they were sent on a seminar to me to find out what they need to do.

The term business partner in my experience is used to apply to many varied roles with not all of them accurate. A finance business partner is someone who operates in a cross functional role helping the organisation understand the financial dimension of its challenges. A good finance business partner will have the trust of the management team and will be the person they go to for help on finance issues. It will normally involve very little transactional accounting and has evolved as a result of improvements in technology which have led to much of transactional accounting being automated, outsourced or transferred to shared service centres. In such organisations finance has had to redefine its role to remain a key business player.

There is a lot of academic journalist comment on how it is changing the role of finance and how everyone is embracing the role but from my recent exposure to many finance business partners I was not so sure and decided to conduct my own research to see what was happening.

Unlike a detailed rigorous academic research project I simply asked a series of short questions to a cross section of about 700 finance staff ranging in roles from group finance directors to newly qualified staff working in a cross section of organisations covering: financial services, healthcare, FMCG, media and public sector. 25% of the respondents worked in organisations with 54 000 average employees with the rest evenly spread from 25 employees to 2600 employees respectively.

I wanted to see what their take on finance partnering was and how their finance function operated as I was not convinced it was how many articles would have us believe.

I was interested in how much time finance staff spent performing transactional accounting work and nearly 28 % of respondents spent more than 75% of their time on this with only 22% spending less than a quarter of their time on transactional work. In the more progressive organisations you will find that a finance business partner is often completely free from transactional responsibility with organisations often creating their own separate dedicated transactional department.

I was also interested in the functional dynamics of the office. Often a finance business partner is more effective when not located in a financial silo but as part of a cross functional team. It was interesting to note that in 72% of respondents, the organisation’s finance team all sat together with only 10% working in an organisation that had no distinction between functions.

In terms of personal development 22% said that this was part of an organised program with 34% saying it was done on an ad hoc basis as and when time allowed.  Many successful organisations would provide people with the opportunities but would not force them on the individual but hope for them to use their own initiative and drive in their development.

In terms of where finance development had been focused, almost 30 % of people had been exposed to specific job placements with a similar number having had development on presentation skills, coaching and business awareness.

I had not intended the survey to be too finance business partner focused and did not actually use the term until towards the end of the survey and it was interesting to observe that nearly 50% of those surveyed had never heard of the term “Finance business partner” and the term was only used as a job title in 22% of organisations. In these organisations 50% of the respondents believed that its use lead to a more successful business.

The main challenges that most people considered most relevant were those of resistance to change when trying to implement partnering and a lack of trust and communication amongst the senior management team.

If you are currently working in a partnering role and would like to learn more and share your experiences with other partners I have agreed to coordinate a business partnering network on linked in. To enrol simply go to Financial Business Partner Network on linkedin  www.linkedin.com/grp/home?gid=6708360

To those of you who contributed many thanks and hope the information is useful.

Horsemeat in burgers – It’s been there furlong time

Posted by: on Sep 19, 2013 in Business Partnering | No Comments
Horsemeat in burgers – It’s been there furlong time

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All enlightened accountants know that there is more to price calculation than the just the cost and you may recall the horse meat in burger scandal a few months ago. Why would any supplier do such a thing? Some may argue that if the buyer (i.e.the supermarket) continually pushes the supplier to reduce its prices and that buyer represents a very large proportion of the overall sales then they have no choice. Their choice would be to stop selling to that particular supermarket (not an option if the buyer represents a large proportion of sales) or try and keep the buyer happy and find a way of satisfying their price point. The suppliers therefore in order to remain profitable are likely to have been forced to choose the latter option and consequently supermarkets when the discovery was made suffered serious PR damage.

I wonder if any input had ever been given from finance to maybe point out that the pressure to cut costs on suppliers could have a much greater cost in lost sales and negative publicity. If figures were able to be produced to help make the decision it could be argued that a better decision might have been made. It is interesting to note that Waitrose which is part of the John Lewis partnership and an observer of a stong ethical code had no such issues. It regularly receives awards from farming groups for its fair prices and therefore its suppliers are unlikely to have felt the same pressure and is likely to have picked up many new customers post the horse meat scandal.

Sainsbury’s were also in the news for their decision to increase their payment days from 30 day terms to 75 day terms for all non food suppliers thus imposing a 150 percent increase in the time it takes to pay them. The decision caused lots of bad press and influential lobby groups have put Sainsburys in their “hall of shame” for slow payers.

With my business partnering hat on I would hope that such a decision has been discussed in detail with a finance partner evaluating the cost impact of various scenarios and that their decision they made simply led them to now adopt similar terms to their competitors. To undertake such an evaluation would require the finance partner to be fully aware of all the influences in the retail environment and fully engaged with the commercial management team. Such skills will only be developed if finance steps out of its silo and becomes a player with other line managers rather than scorekeeper on the side

Why am I not a CFO?

Posted by: on Jul 7, 2013 in Business Partnering | No Comments
Why am I not a CFO?

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Many accountants on qualifying believe all the time, effort and sacrifice made in studying for their exams should now be repaid by being given a gilded ladder to take them to being a CFO. However many are shocked to find that all the examinations they worked so hard to pass are not really that much use and even less relevant to their job. Furthermore  an increasing number  of CFO’s are MBA’s rather than qualified accountants. Could this be the result of the MBA CFO having been exposed to a broader set of influencers than that offered from the traditional accounting background?

I recently helped a large finance team to develop a program to ensure that their accountants remained motivated and happy in the organization. They had experienced quite high turnover as many of their staff had felt that their career was in a cul-de-sac with little chance of progression. In preparing for the project I contacted over 500 accountants who had qualified in the last 5 years with varying experiences and industry backgrounds to see how they felt. It was interesting to find that there was a common theme amongst many of their frustrations.

The main weakness that they felt was holding them back was one of soft skills. Monty Python established the idea of “the boring accountant with no personality”, but as a qualified accountant myself I could of course obviously never subscribe to this view! It’s also interesting to note that no part of the qualification prepares people to improve these softer skills. Even more interesting is the dearth of such courses in most of the CPD offered from the various professional bodies.

Todays CFO is now a very different person to that which occupied the role a couple of decades ago and it has evolved from one in which the main role was one of financial stewardship to one in which a CFO is now more of a business partner. A good CFO should be able to take many of the management tasks off the CEO to free up the CEO’s time.

So to fulfill their changing role what skills does a CFO need?

It goes without saying that you need good financial skills but the most technically able accountant is rarely the CFO and such information can normally be accessed via your firms or auditors technical departments. Research by the big 4 accounting firms indicates that you also need to have great communication skills and an awareness of the business beyond finance.

A small number of large organisations have recognized this and actively develop their finance teams in these areas. However if your organization has no formal approach to developing these traits there is lots of self-development that you can do to make sure you are on the right track.

To improve your communication skills why not volunteer to present on behalf of the finance team in company meetings? Not only will this improve your communication skills but will also get you noticed as a contender for future more senior roles. To develop your business awareness many CFO’s comment on the benefit a sideways move away from a pure finance role gave them. Look to see if this is an option or if not try and do a six-month secondment in another function.

One of the best examples of developing business awareness I have seen was in one of Britain’s most innovative consumer goods companies where none of the functional teams sat together but were spread throughout the building. This might sound like a logistical nightmare but worked fantastically well as each function was constantly picking up snippets of information from one another. They didn’t realize it but through this interaction they were developing much broader business awareness than any formal training course could ever given them.

To be an effective organizational team it is imperative that you have a good understanding of what other functions do and what they are up to. Another great technique which I have seen work well is to encourage cross functional learning by putting on a half hour presentation once a month which people are free to attend in their lunch hour. This not only helps business understanding but also creates networking opportunities and also helps with communication skills if you are the one presenting.

If your organization has a CSR policy and commits to helping certain organisations, why not volunteer to help them organise their financial control systems better. If no such linkage exists why not initiate one?

It is important to remember that all these skills are skills that people are not born with but ones, which can be learned, and fine-tuned with experience. The sooner you start practicing them the better you will become.

…be more than just an accountant!