Finance managers are human

CFO.com has brought to my attention a survey conducted by the CEB of finance managers. They asked finance managers whether they believe their direct reports are “effective in the behaviors and skills that drive excellent performance by the finance function.” The title of CFO.com’s article gave away the answer: Finance Leaders Bemoan Talent Shortage. Not only that, but they’re good at the stuff that sucks and suck at the stuff that’s good:

And on average, finance workers are more skilled in the areas that have the least positive impact on value creation.

You know how everyone likes to think they’re above average? Above average driver, above average intelligence, etc.? This is that. Finance managers believe they’re above average at their jobs, therefore those around them are likely below them, and possibly even below average. It’s OK. They’re human.

I also think there’s an element of confirmation bias at play. They’re finance managers, so they must be above average and have the skills and behaviours that the survey indicates is important.

But back to those hapless direct reports: First, who hired them? If it was those selfsame finance managers, shouldn’t that reflect poorly on their ability to assess competence and develop talent? Whose responsibility is it to put in place succession and training plans? (HR’s, they’d probably say, if surveyed about it.)

Overall, finance managers appear quite dissatisfied with the talent levels on their teams. [The CEB] acknowledges as much. “We weren’t particularly surprised that the ratings were so low,” she says. In fact, she adds, one reason CEB did a report on talent is that when it conducted its annual interviews with CFOs last year, 85 percent said talent was a major concern.

I’m not surprised either. This is never going to stop, until robots run companies completely. Even then we’ll probably sneak a “dissatisfied with direct report talent levels” easter egg into the code, just so robot CEB surveyors can have something to write about. What a chilling dystopian vision; I think the living will envy the dead.

Mercilessly, it continues:

Effective delegating is a capability many finance departments sorely need. “After the financial crisis, finance is overwhelmed with ad-hoc requests,” the report states.

If you’re delegating to staff that you don’t have (because they were all downsized during the recession), it isn’t going to be very effective. Perhaps that’s the reason they’re feeling overwhelmed?

There’s a reason why great people are hard to find: they’re scarce. And once found, smart managers do everything they can to keep them. As well, it’s highly likely those yearned-for “persuaders, strategists and builders” recognize a good situation when they have it. Perhaps that’s the most important takeaway here for finance managers. Build it, and they will come.

Survey says: ERM implementations maturing

A survey conducted in July and August of 2009 by Aon has revealed that companies are moving beyond “basic” ERM implementations:

62% of the survey respondents in the Global Enterprise Risk Management Survey 2010 reported going beyond basic ERM, compared with only 38% in Aon’s inaugural ERM survey in 2007.

I wonder what happened between now and 2007 that would’ve affected companies’ willingness to ramp up their risk management practices…

The survey asked respondents (of which there were 201) to rate the maturity of their ERM implementation, from “initial/lacking” through “basic”, “defined”, “operational” and “advanced”.

My take is that respondents are more likely to overestimate the maturity of their implementation and generally more likely to respond the more advanced they (feel they) are in the process. Still, the survey is a welcome indicator that ERM efforts are on the rise.

I also think the fact that ratings firms are taking ERM into account when they determine their grading is helping executives point to a tangible financial benefit and obtain buy-in from all stakeholders, which is critical. In my mind the primary indicator of maturity in a company’s risk management program is how comprehensive it is across all departments and divisions, as the “initial/lacking” stage is exhibited by a rigid, siloed approach.

The survey is available on Aon’s website (if you give them some personal information first).

Taking the wraps off materiality

Materiality is an important concept in auditing. The point of an audit is to certify the financial statements as being free of material misstatement. A material misstatement is one which would affect the decisions of a user of those statements.

This recent blog post at the VeraSage Institute, more known for their pioneering work in the area of value pricing for professional services firms than their work revolutionizing the audit report, brings up an interesting idea:

During a specific conversation on materiality and how it should be determined I suggested that maybe the first step to improving our audit reports would be to include the level of materiality used in performing the audit.

[…]

Would the reader of audited financial statements utilize and appreciate knowing the level of materiality used to test and determine the correctness and completeness of the associated financial statements?

I think it’s pretty clear that the answer is yes. I also think it would go a long way to closing the expectation gap when it comes to audited financial statements. It further emphasizes that an audit doesn’t mean 100% of transactions are examined, and that there is a level of acceptance for errors within the statements.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to me (with my limited experience) that much is done within the profession until it is mandated by the governing bodies or various governments. Going above and beyond what is required isn’t seen very frequently in terms of the disclosure in financial statements, either in the audit report or the explanatory notes appending the statements.

I don’t think it is entirely the auditor’s fault. The statements are still the responsibility of management, but it is the auditor who is in the unique position to make the suggestion to management that additional details would be helpful. For that matter, auditors need to start making the suggestion to their governing bodies as well.

We’re essentially in the business of ensuring that complete and useful information is provided, and this might be a situation where we aren’t doing a great job.

Using wikis or blogs to manage knowledge in firms

A recent article on WebCPA confused and inspired me:

Accounting firms need to become more intelligent businesses by better leveraging the time and knowledge of their professional staff, according to a survey…

[…]

Firms with a formal knowledge management program benefited from its implementation.

Hmm… Intelligence, good. Leveraging knowledge, check. Formal knowledge management program, bingo! Wait a minute, “formal”? Why must it be formal? With all the tools kicking around these days like wikis and blogs, does knowledge management really need to be formal anymore? Was that ever the best way to manage knowledge?

I think it becomes formal, informally. Wikis are self-organizing, and great at managing knowledge bases. Look at Wikipedia — better at organizing the world’s information than Google.

Wikis aren’t great at building community or starting conversations, however. This is where blogs shine. As for knowledge management specifically, blog posts are tagged, categorized, and searchable.

By formal, what they must really mean is traditional, hierarchical, top-down, autocratic systems that mean well but end up stifling the creativity of those they were meant to help. We really don’t need any more of that in accounting firms!

So, firms: Set your knowledge (and knowledge workers) free. If it organizes itself automatically in wiki or blog form, it’s yours forever.

Big Four dominate professional services globally

The Managing Partners’ Forum was established in 1995 and is “dedicated to enhancing leadership and the status of the management team in professional firms worldwide.” They recently released the inaugural Global 500, a ranking of the top 500 professional services firms in the world by fee volume.

The Big Four are at the top of the list, with PricewaterhouseCoopers coming first, followed by Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and KPMG. Interestingly, Accenture, formerly Andersen Consulting, formerly a division of Arthur Andersen, formerly the auditor of Enron, formerly in existence, occupies the number five spot:

  1. PwC – $22.0B
  2. Deloitte – $20.0B
  3. Ernst & Young – $18.4B
  4. KPMG – $16.9B
  5. Accenture – $16.7B

I threw the numbers into Excel to do a little analysis. First, I wanted to see how they stacked up in terms of revenue per employee, since the report provided the number of employees. The third ranked firm in total revenue, Ernst & Young, is #1 when it comes to revenue per employee at approximately $161,000. The average of the Big Four is $154,000. The remainder of the four are in the same order as revenues, with PwC and Deloitte shuffling down to make way for E&Y:

  1. Ernst & Young – $161,000
  2. PwC – $154,000
  3. Deloitte – $151,000
  4. KPMG – $150,000

Beyond the Big Four, the next largest accounting firm is BDO at 22nd overall. Rounding out the top 10 accounting firms are Grant Thornton (35th), RSM (36th), Baker Tilly (46th), Horwath (48th) and Moores Rowland (50th). The average revenue per employee for those five firms is $114,230, which is significantly lower than BDO, in the middle of everyone, at $140,500.

The bottom of the Big Four in terms of total revenue is KPMG, but it is 332 per cent higher than BDO. There is about 10 per cent separating each of the Big Four, with PwC 10% larger than Deloitte, which is 9% larger than Ernst & Young, which is 9% larger than KPMG. BDO is about 40% larger than Grant Thornton and RSM. So the Big Four more spread out between each other than I’d originally thought, but is leagues above the rest of the pack which comes as no surprise at all.

It’s an interesting list, by an interesting ‘Forum’. Management in professional firms is a different beast altogether from management of more traditional “operations”. Experienced employees are an intangible asset of any type of business, but in professional services firms there are unique challenges which require special people skills. A good managing partner is so important to retaining strong team members and keeping them (us) satisfied.

(Via Accountancy Matters.)