Accounting 501: Be Nimble

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By Bill Kennedy - The only time my father's employer changed was when his firm merged with another, whereas I have had several employers, including myself. I didn't plan it that way. In fact, I had every intention of staying with my first employer until I retired. But my generation was the one that coined the phrase negative growth, and so many things have happened in my career that I never expected:

  • International accounting firms laying off staff - It was the early 80's, before all of the mergers that turned the Big 8 into the Big 4.
  • Competent managers being counseled out - There was little room in the partnership, and it was either up or out.
  • Prosperous companies stumbling - During the job interview process, it never occurred to me to do a credit check on my employers. In hindsight, I should have.
  • Administration is an economy of scale - When two firms merge, the accounting department is one area where the new owners look for staff reductions.

As accountants, we have some advantages:

  • Transferrable skills - Allowing for regional and industry differences, accounting is pretty much the same the world over, if you keep up to date on your professional development.
  • Close to the truth - You know how well the business is doing. For example, when the owner of a company injected more personal funds to keep it going, I knew long before the other employees that we were in trouble.

Bottom line: be nimble. You have to be ready to change jobs at a moment's notice. Here is some of the hard won advice that I have received along the way.

  1. Update your resume - At least once a year, update your resume, ensure you can contact at least three references and think about what you would like to do if your job ended suddenly. This advice came from a manager who thought he had a secure position until he was told that there was no room for him in the partnership.
  2. Be business driven - If you are seen as being Administration, then you are expendable. If you are seen as being an integral part of Operations or Sales, then your position is much more secure. This advice came from a manager as our company was being reorganized from an independent unit into little more than a sales office.
  3. Specialize - I had a hard time convincing a computer consulting firm that I could go back to consulting after having been a corporate Controller. The advice the partner gave me was pick an industry or a software package, but you have to specialize.
  4. Constant learning - An interview question that lost me a job was, "What was your last professional development course?"
  5. Do the right thing - I have been following the Livent accounting fraud case. The accusation was that the owners, "Drabinsky and Gottlieb operated a kickback scheme with two Livent vendors which siphoned approximately $7 million (Cdn) from the company for their personal benefit". The defense has been trying to prove that the fraud was perpetrated by the company's accountants without the owners' knowledge. Even though there have been no allegations that the accountants made any substantial personal gain from this fraud, clearly their lives and careers have been affected.

I wish I knew how to handle the last point. What do you do if you suspect your employer is defrauding the company? There usually isn't a smoking gun. It's usually more a case of suspicions and trying to understand people's motives. Fraud and incompetence can look very similar in the heat of battle. Of course you should get out of there fast, but the reality is that it can be extraordinarily difficult to find another position quickly. Unless you've learned to be nimble, that is.

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