Nowhere To Go But Down

A few years ago I was receiving my annual evaluation and was disappointed in the overall rating.  I thought I had done several things during the year to deserve a higher rating than I received, but I decided the best course of action was not to question the rating, but instead to question what it would take to receive a higher rating in the future.  That’s when the Controller said “there is nothing you can do to receive a higher rating, all you can do is mess up and get an even lower rating.” After my initial disappointment to hear such a thing, I realized that attitude applies to a lot of critical areas in a Finance and Accounting group. 

Probably the most obvious example is Payroll.  No one in Payroll ever gets noticed when the deposits are made on time, the withholdings are paid to the right parties (especially the government), the W-2s are issued and the journal entries get the expenses to the right budget codes.  But make a $10 mistake on someone’s pay and the calls don’t stop until it is resolved.  The problem with payroll is that you are sometimes at the mercy of Congress and the IRS.

Take the recent example of the last minute changes to the social security tax withholding rates.  The two month extension at the end of 2011 as enacted so late that many payroll systems were not able to update their tax tables in time for the first paychecks of the year. This meant that too much was withheld from the first paycheck and that had to be corrected by lowering the withholding rate below the statutory 4.2% for the second paycheck of the year. Volatility in paychecks is not a good thing and despite all of the proactive communication efforts, I am sure the calls about a mistake in withholdings came into every Payroll office across the country.

Now congress is at it again.  As of this writing a compromise has been reached to extend the lower tax rate for the remainder of the year.  No matter what your political leanings, the problem with these last minute changes is that they simply cannot be implemented in a timely basis by the payroll vendors and employers. So once again Payroll departments will be playing catch up with withholdings and spending extra time and money to tell everyone the paychecks are really right straight because Congress can’t get their act together in any kind of timely basis. 

The surest way to get someone mad at you is to make them look bad through no fault of their own.  When it comes Payroll departments, Congress has done a great job of that this year…And Congress wonders why people in business (not to mention everyone else if you believe the polls) have such a low opinion of them.

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Unbalanced on Purpose

If the title of this blog looked familiar it’s because there is a book out there by this title.  I recently had the privilege of hearing the author speak and given the time of year the idea of never being able to achieve balance really hit home.  For those of us in the reporting world with calendar year-ends our busy time is upon us.  Our tax brethren are waiting for the numbers before they start up in earnest and the budget people are taking a slight breather before they start working on updated forecasts and projections and if you are in a small business with a small finance staff you are probably doing or at least coordinating all of these efforts.  The point is, no matter what you do there are times that are busier than others.

In this world, the idea of constant compartmentalized balance – work gets 50 hours a week, family 40, God 5 and personal interests 15 – is a fantasy that sets you up for failure.  The reality is that your life is always unbalanced.  Sometimes family gets priority – can we say vacation?  Sometimes it’s the church and sometimes you get to steal a few extra hours for that personal interest – like watching LSU get destroyed in football – and sometimes, maybe more often then the others, its work that gets extra hours.  Whatever it is, life is never in balance. 

I find this perspective truly refreshing and liberating.  Refreshing because it is so contrary to the accepted “people of have balance in life are happier” mentality that is such an urban legend these days.  Liberating, because as soon as you stop trying to achieve perfect balance you can stop feeling guilty about never getting it done in the first place. 

But if we stop trying to achieve balance, what is it we should try to achieve.  That answer will be different for each person.  There are lots of answers and none of them are wrong (and none of them a right for everyone).  The first priority is to earn enough money to provide the basics – food, clothing, shelter – after that it’s up for grabs.  Maybe your desire is to be CFO, maybe your desire is to have a work schedule that allows you to see the kids off to school and be at home when they return, and maybe your desire is to set the all time record score for angry birds.  Whatever it is is up to you.

The great thing about being a CPA is that our profession has such a diversity of opportunities in ways to earn a living that you can fit a work schedule to just about any unbalanced life you want.   Even better, our profession is great at allowing you to change the way you are unbalanced at different times during the year as well as different times during your career.  So my advice is to lose the guilt, stop trying to achieve balance and really think about where you want to unbalance your life.  You may have to make changes in your life and your job to get there, but as a CPA, you have a better than average shot at actually being able to do it.


CPA New Year’s Resolutions

It’s the time of year that everyone is making New Year’s resolutions so I thought it would be appropriate to come up with a list of resolutions for CPAs in Business and Industry to make for the New Year.

10. Stop distributing at least one report currently produced and see who notices.

9. Read at least one business related book during the year.  You can’t advance your career if you don’t advance your knowledge.

8. Volunteer to help out a not-for-profit.  They could really use your financial expertise.

7. See to it that your company comments on at least 2 exposure drafts. There are plenty to choose from in the coming year with FASB exposure drafts on revenue recognition and leasing, FAF’s proposal to (barely) change the process for private company standard setting, PCAOB exposure drafts on auditor’s reports and independence, the COSO exposure draft on the Internal Control Integrated Framework and potential SEC exposure drafts on the incorporation of IFRS.

6. Change at least one accounting process – automate it, streamline it or just plain eliminate it!

5. Vote in November or don’t complain about the results.

4. Volunteer for at least one position in a professional organization, committee or task force.  This is your profession.  The only way it will continue to be your profession is if you get involved.

3. Get involved in at least one social media outlet – be it Twitter, LinkedIn or your own blog – do something!

2. Do one thing to go green, and I don’t mean heading to Savannah on St. Patrick’s Day.

1. Take all your required CPE before December and make sure that it will help you do your job better.


I Write These Blogs

When I started writing this blog a little over two years ago I didn’t know what to expect.  My initial thought was that I would write about AICPA Board and Council meetings.  I had served on Council for three years and was about to embark on a three year stint on the Board of Directors.  Having come through Chapter and State leadership I knew many CPAs that were active in the profession, but many of these even most active CPAs didn’t have a complete picture of what the AICPA did or why they did it.  I thought a blog would be a good way to help people understand the AICPA.

So I started off writing my blogs about Council and Board meetings.  I also wrote a series of eight blogs on the eight elements of the AICPA strategic plan.  Then I started expanding my topics to cover other issues like accounting standards development and legislative and regulatory efforts such as tax patents and the tax preparer identification process from the IRS.  After that the topics expanded to cover everything from why I became a CPA to my philosophy on work and what it means to be a member of this outstanding profession.

So here I am at Blog #100. Of course I’ve tracked how many Blogs I have written.  I am a CPA after all. First off, to those who wonder, yes, I have written all 100 myself.  I haven’t had some PR staff person write them and then put my name on them.  Some blogs were reviewed by others for facts, but my main reviewer has been my wife.  When I review something I’ve written, I have a tendency to fill in any missing words.  I know what I meant to say so my brain just fills in the missing pieces, and anyone who writes on the computer much can tell you the fallacy of over relying on spell check and auto correction.  I have to laugh at some of the things that came off my keyboard.  Fortunately you never saw them or I might not be on Blog # 100.

The second question I get is how do you come up with topics for 100 blogs? First off, there is so much going on in the profession that I can honestly say there is never a shortage of things to write about, but if all I wrote about as the latest exposure draft issued by the FASB, this blog would get boring so I write about whatever is on my mind at the time.  Sometimes it is something serious like FAF’s attempt to subvert the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Private Company Financial Reporting, but other times it is little more fun like speculating on what was going on in the back office of the Minnesota Vikings when they had to trade out tickets for one stadium with those of a different stadium when the Metrodome roof tore open in a snowstorm.

The final question I get is why do I do it?  I do it for two reasons.  First, because you, my readers, seem to value it.  I love my profession and the whole reason I got involved in it in the first place was to give something back to everyone in the profession.  This Blog is just the latest iteration of that effort. The second reason is because it is an outlet for me.  This is my blog.  If I want to be a little politically incorrect, I can.  If I want to rant a little I can. I’m sure most of you have wanted to do that from time to time.  I guess what I am telling you is my Blog is my own little therapy session to keep me sane in this crazy world. So to end Blog # 100 I want to thank you, my readers.  Thanks for not crucifying me over the occasional typo.  Thanks for saving me a ton of money on therapy sessions and most of all, thanks for caring enough about the profession to read these Blogs.


A Week Off–Not Really

If you have kids you’ve probably heard the statement, “I can’t wait until I’m done with school and won’t have any homework any more.”  I’m sure there are some of you in college thinking that once you are done your studies, you’ll get to do your 9-5 and then the rest of the time is yours.  That will work if you want to be a staff accountant the rest of your life, but if you want to go further than that, it takes a little more than the simple 9-5.

According to my official time record, I was on vacation all of last week.  Indeed, I didn’t set foot in the office and I did travel 870 miles with my family back to Athens to spend Thanksgiving with my Dad and my sister’s family.  We had a great time eating turkey, watching football and going out at midnight to hit those early sales and pick up a few bargains. But having fun with the family wasn’t the only thing I did. 

First off, I had two conference calls early in the week that I had to attend, including one, while I was in the middle of Mississippi on I-20.  Fortunately, I didn’t have any follow up work from those calls.  More time was spent reading two large exposure drafts.  The first was the revised revenue recognition exposure draft from the FASB.  At 218 pages, it took several hours to get through the document and list some initial thoughts about what works and what doesn’t.  The second document was the preliminary draft of the Internal Control over External Financial Reporting guidance document. 

The guidance document is the second of two documents that will be issued by COSO in the coming months.  It’s a companion document to the revised Internal Control Integrated Framework which will be issued as an exposure draft in December.  At 171 pages it was a shorter than the revenue recognition exposure draft, but it still took a long time to read considering I was providing editorial comments throughout the document as well.   

Fortunately I made it through both documents, but as I looked up from my review and saw my daughter working on her U.S. History homework, I realized that the homework never really ends.  It just changes form.


Why I Love Working for AT&T

This week reminded why I love working for AT&T.  I had the opportunity to be involved in four critical business issues, a half a dozen smaller issues and more minor ones than I can count.  One of the questions I get asked by my colleagues in public accounting is “don’t you get bored doing the same thing for the same company month after month?  I wish!

This week alone I had the opportunity to work on a benefits project, an M&A project, a major IT implementation and a critical response to the PCAOB on their concept release on mandatory auditor rotation.  Benefit and pension work is something new to me that I just took on this year.  Working with the Benefits organization at AT&T you quickly realize it’s a lot more than dollars and cents.  Possible changes in benefits not only impact the company’s bottom line, they also impact people.  As a result we are always working to get the best benefit answer for the most employees and retirees possible while at the same time making the cost affordable to the company.  When you have over 1 million people depending on the company for medical insurance even small changes can have a big impact. 

I can’t really talk about the M&A work, but it can be some of the most interesting work to be involved in.  Determining fair values of assets, working through stock based compensation impacts and dealing with goodwill accounting provide insights to a business many people never get a chance to see in their lifetime. 

In a company the size of AT&T, there is always a system project going on.  Taking advantage of system changes to institute better, preventative controls provides a real level of satisfaction to the Management Accountant in me.  Explaining how to make the system comply with accounting standards and policy choices can be frustrating at times, but it also reminds you how important your knowledge is to the company.

Finally, while we write several letters a year from AT&T management to standard setters and regulators, rarely does a committee of our Board of Directors write a letter.  Getting to think as a Director and Audit committee member was a great opportunity.  Thinking about their responsibilities, how they fulfill them and how they depend on Management, Internal Auditors and External Auditors to make sure they are fulfilling their fiduciary duties is scary and inspiring at the same time.  It makes you realize how critical delegation and trust is to being successful in business.

And that’s just one week.  In public accounting you may get to see lots of companies, but working in business and industry you get to see lots of issues covering a wide variety of topics.  In twenty years working for AT&T I’ve used just about every adjective in the dictionary to describe my work, but boring has never been one of them.


Delegating

I always considered myself a good delegator.  I received compliments from my staff on delegating assignments to them and letting them do the work their way, while focusing on the results.  Therefore it came as somewhat of a surprise recently when I realized I was doing a terrible job delegating work to my new assistant. 

For the first time in my 20 years at AT&T I now have an Administrative Assistant.  After 20 years you get used to handling many “little things” on your own – managing your calendar, making travel reservations, filing expense reports, planning team building events and so on.   So it was just natural to keep doing those things on my own – natural, but wrong.

With all my new duties time is more precious than ever and I’m taking a whole new look at how I am doing things to decide what really more I can strip away.  Administrative tasks is one area ripe for change so I am re-learning all of those lessons about proper delegation.

First, you have to realize the benefits of delegation don’t come from the first time you delegate something.  In fact, it probably will take more time initially then if you didn’t delegate.  You have to teach the person what you want and in some cases how to do it.  When time is short this can be especially hard to swallow, but you have to focus on the long-term benefit of the time you will gain back in the days, weeks and months ahead once a task is successfully delegated.

Second, you have to be willing to let go of details in how something is done that really don’t matter.  Whenever you delegate something it will not be done exactly the way you used to do it.  The key is to decide what results or outcomes matter and then don’t worry about the rest.  There is a word for people who can’t handle this part of delegation correctly – micromanager.   If you worry about every detail, you cause two problems.  One, you end up saving no time which is one of the reasons you delegating something in the first place and two, you drive you staff nuts and then away which means you are constantly having to teach someone new and the vicious cycle continues.

The third lesson of delegation is to listen.  Maybe your staff has a better idea on how to do something.  Maybe they will even question why something is being done in the first place.  Whatever it is, as the delegator, you have to listen. Yes, you have been doing the task for a while and know how to do it in your sleep, but maybe that is the exact problem.  You’ve been asleep while things have changed.  The ability to generate new ideas on how to get something done is the hidden gem of delegation, but it will never happen if you don’t listen.