Are Your Financial Managers Killing Your Business?
In his book No B.S. Ruthless Management of People & Profits, business coach and consultant Dan S. Kennedy presents a straightforward assessment of the real relationship between employers and their employees, and dares you to take action. In this edited excerpt, the author explains why putting an accountant in charge—or even listening closely to their words of advice—would be bad for your business.
You know that saying: Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. Well, you’re a friend, so I’m going to try and prevent you from ever driving your business off a cliff by urging you to read Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business, by Bob Lutz, one of the last real “car guys” at GM.
One key issue Lutz points out is the disregard for vision and creative understanding in business—a pervasive problem in almost every big company, which is invading smaller businesses more and more. Lutz describes the disempowering of “the product guys” and transfer of power to the finance guys in painful detail. Bob’s insider story reveals a vital truth: When people who don’t love the product get control of a company or even get key positions in a company, trouble often follows. That's because CFOs love numbers, not products or businesses. They love rigid order, not entrepreneurial chaos or spirit. The very idea that each (successful) business has a soul is simply incomprehensible to them.
Bean-counters are great at choking the life out of a business—they kill spirit. “We don’t have a budget for that” is just as deadly as “We tried that before” and “That’s not the business we’re in” and a dozen other poison-tipped harpoons. Gradually, everybody with ideas just shuts up. As they say, invent and do less and less, a power vacuum grows, filled by—who else—the bean-counters.
Beware the bean-counter’s magical illusion
Bean-counters can appear to make money when they're often just sowing the seeds of future destruction. Goes on all the time. Companies get fat and sloppy. The new bean-counters arrive and find and cut the fat and slop. The trouble is, they don’t know how to do anything but cut—their entire toolbox consists of knives. And if all you’ve got is a knife, everything looks like something to be cut. They can make themselves look brilliant with their spreadsheets, showing all the fat cut and the temporarily improved bottom line to their masters in the boardroom or at the bank. But they have no idea where to stop. If they're left there in power or, worse, gain power, they just keep cutting.
Saving a dollar has a lot of merit. Recapturing a truly wasted dollar is a lot better than making one—you may need 10 or 20 or 100 to have one stick to the bottom line. But when a dollar is saved at the expense of crippling the business’s growth, damaging its relationship with and hold on its customers, or killing its spirit, it is a dollar saved with a future cost of 10 or 100. Bean-counters don’t grasp these distinctions. To them, a penny saved is a penny earned, period.
Anybody who thinks that is very dangerous.
I acknowledge, however, that bean-counters are necessary. You need bean-counters. But ...
• They must be confined and controlled.
• They must be made to count beans in a way you—the creative leader and entrepreneur—want them counted.
• They must never be given power or authority—that has to pass through you.
This is a simple matter. Different creatures have different purposes. Bean-counters are on this earth to count beans, not to exercise control over how beans are brought in to be counted.
I favor their isolation. They talk to you; you talk to everybody else. They do not talk to everybody else. They belong in quarantine. And you must steel yourself to mine them for information but stay immune to their opinions about all subjects they don’t know anything about, like how we make beans. It's the nature of bean-counters to try and assert influence and authority rather than just provide information. Beware.
Maybe the worst negative effect of excessively empowered bean-counters let loose on everybody else is the loss of the best and most valuable people. Top performers must be allowed to be and encouraged to be top performers. But they require motivation and respond very badly to demotivation. Anybody can manage mediocre people, even a bean-counter. Get the door open and the lights on, and the drones will go to work. It takes a totally different mindset and skill set to get top performance out of top performers.
You must ruthlessly rein in and manage your bean-counter(s). Whether they benefit or harm your business is your responsibility. You cannot and dare not expect them to manage themselves in a way that produces the best results for your company. They don’t even know how to do that, even if they were so inclined. They know how to count beans. That’s it. Get this through your head. They have little sense of and less concern over consequences beyond the edges of the ledger page. They have no creative vision. Left to their own devices, they'll wreak havoc and ruin if need be to wind up with a perfect spreadsheet or a nifty looking bar graph. This doesn't make them evil or stupid. It only makes them what they are: bean-counters. It's up to you to use them wisely, to enable them to be valuable, to prevent them from doing damage. You must be able to differentiate between information they can provide vs. opinion they’re not entitled to. Ultimately, you must lead.