It can get tiring telling the same story over and over. Which is sometimes what, as editor of a magazine for finance directors, I have to do when I meet those in other executive disciplines or middle managers: I frequently have to sit patiently through that person’s clichéd view of the modern FD, and then try to dispel the idea that they’re a bunch of grey-faced abacus-botherers whose DNA is sadly bereft of any of the genes that grant someone a personality or a sense of humour. It seems that, though the FD world moved on from the pinstriped beancounter look some years ago – some say decades ago – those working around them, for them or even with them have not been told.
In recent months, I’ve crossed the paths of divisional managing directors and senior sales managers who, when I tell them what I do for a living, first give me an awkward chuckle, and then proceed to say something along the lines of, “oh, you mean the ones who make the fun stop”, “God, that sounds boring, I mean, aren’t FDs a boring lot?” and “that’s…interesting?” – coupled with a glance that is both bewildered and a bit sorry for me to be writing about FDs. I take umbrage (though quietly). It’s really an extension of the Holy Grail of clichés – that accountants are boring. It then follows that the most senior accountant in a business would be the most boring, right?
Even among other staff in the company that publishes Financial Director, I regularly come across people who still think FDs are cut in the shape of Nosferatu’s shadow and dress like Mr Bean: FDs are boring, their job is boring, and they’ve got nothing to do with me or my job, thank you very much. I’ve gone on something of an educational offensive in some cases, putting across a passionate defense of FDs and the fact that they’re actually as human as the rest of us, that they don’t sit in a darkened room cuddling their calculator while the real managers run the business and make the money, and that a conversation with an FD is as interesting as a conversation with anyone else. They’re not aliens. In three years on this magazine, I’ve come across maybe one or two FDs whose conversation made cleaning the toilet seem like a good idea, but that’s a good success rate in any social circle.
I’m wondering if FDs are getting that message across themselves and whether, if they aren’t, they need to. Our parents tell us when we’re kids that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of us, but in adult life – and intensely so in a complicated, frequently political working life – it can make or break you, and deeply affect your success. Isn’t that what being passed over for a job is usually about?
The finance job relies more and more on sound relationship skills, from the CEO down through a business as well as with all stakeholders, so should FDs worry about their image and their prospects when anyone from a divisional MD to a junior administrator makes presumptions about what you do and who you are? Is there a case for a Max Clifford or an Alastair Campbell to step in? If perception is indeed nine tenths of reality, then – considering what other people in the business world quite casually say to me about their perception of the FD – I think there might be.
There are already places for FDs to get things like presentation training so your investor presentations don’t bomb and kill your credibility. But is there anyone out there who can train FDs in the subtle art of convincing non-financial people that they’re not the ashen-faced abacus mafia? As an FD, do you know what others around you think of the FD job and of you – and how that might be affecting your future trajectory?
If you can get into that, you’d be doing me a real favour helping me to convince people that finance directors are not only vital, but also have vitality. They’re more brilliant than boring. I see and hear it every time I speak with an FD, but that’s because I’m on the lookout for it. Maybe others outside the FD world need help with that.
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