By Andy Burrows
[First published 19 January 2017]
How do you motivate a Financial Reporting team to go through the stress and pressure of “month end” and be happy about it? How do you stop it becoming a monthly grind that makes them curse the day they decided to train as an accountant?
I once took up an interim position heading up Group Reporting in a large business. The business had been through a lot of change, and I was stepping into the shoes of someone who was clearly one of the few people in Finance that had detailed knowledge of every area. It was a tough act to follow.
The team, and even the junior managers and team leaders, were new to their roles. At the same time, some team members appeared less motivated, and the team leaders were finding it difficult to get through the changes to a steady state. Every month end seemed to involve days of staying late into the evenings to get things done (a 9pm finish would be good going during month end). It was never due to the same thing. But the common theme was that the person I was replacing always seemed to step in and get things sorted, because they always knew the right thing to do and who to talk to.
What I decided to do with the team was to use the analogy of a football team (“soccer” for anyone who calls it that!).
I told them that our team was just like a football team. A football team spends a week training and preparing for a match, and then 90 minutes on the pitch trying to win (or trying not to lose, depending on the opposition). Each week the objective is the same, perhaps with subtle differences; and the tactics will be similar but with subtle differences. Likewise, a Financial Reporting team spends most of each month preparing for month end, but month end is where we are on the pitch doing what we’re employed to do.
Every month end is pretty much the same. But whereas you don’t see a footballer complaining about going through the same grind week after week, accountants often become numb with negativity about the monthly reporting process.
I pushed the analogy as far as I could, to the point where it became a bit of fun.
I was the manager of the team, and just like a football manager that meant that I wasn’t going to be involved on the pitch. Since I didn’t have any built up knowledge of the business, it had to be like that, at least at first. But what a manager does is to make sure that each team member understands their role, how they should work together and what their objectives are. The manager makes sure they have the training and the resources needed to do the best job possible. And the manager oversees and advises from the side-line during the game. So, I said that during the month end I would not interfere, but would stay in my “technical area” and advise from my general experience.
I must explain that I wasn’t just being lazy here! One of the big complaints of the team was that they didn’t get chance to learn and take ownership of their roles, because my predecessor knew everything, and since they were always short of time it was always quickest just to do as they said. In other management roles, I played it differently, helping where needed. There’s an art to knowing when to be the player/manager. But even then, the manager’s primary role is that of the manager.
My team leaders were like the football team captain – on the pitch calling people into position, and making sure agreed tactics were implemented whilst making necessary adjustments during the game.
The other thing we set up were “team talks”.
There would be the leisurely pre-match discussion of tactics – priorities, issues that might trip us up, changes that had to be put in place, training required. In football, it happens during the week, away from the stadium. For us, we went into a meeting room in the middle of the month and drew things on a whiteboard. We agreed plans and collaborated.
There would be the pre-match team talk – the motivational reminder of what we were aiming at (was it to score lots of goals, or avoid conceding goals?) just before entering the arena.
We also had a “half-time team talk” (in fact we had several – maybe three or four checkpoints – which worked out once every couple of days during month end), where we took a pause to discuss progress – were we winning? What things did we need to change quickly or re-prioritise to get things back on track?
And then there was the post-match review – what had gone well? What needed to be better next time? What additional help did the team need to improve?
Outside of the month end period (game time) we would work on things that would make the month end smoother and less stressful. Trying to re-do things that we’d had to fudge, or investigating differences we’d had to leave unreconciled – that was the equivalent of football practice. Then there was training – finding out things that we needed to know, gaining the skills needed, building relationships in the business.
And then I guess the post-match press conference or TV interview was equivalent to my run through of the results with my director.
None of these things are revolutionary. But the impact on the motivation of the team was tangible and positive. I could see, even in the first month of doing this, that the fearful, hangdog, demeanour of some team members, started to give way to a kind of nervous excitement – a tentative kind of “this is really weird but I think I might actually be enjoying month end” kind of feel about things.
And the main reason for that is summed up in one word – purpose. (The other reason I think was involvement, but that’s for another article!) It was the mindset change they needed to plot a course quickly out of their doldrums.
For a footballer, their purpose is clear. They have to help their team to win football matches by scoring more goals than the opposition. They are expected to try their hardest, to be well trained, well-organised, passionate and focussed. But both on the pitch and on the training ground, it’s difficult to be unclear of the objective. That said, it does sometimes happen, and it can be very frustrating to watch a team passing the ball around without thinking about pressing for an attack on goal
As accountants, on the other hand, our purpose is easily clouded. We get into a rhythm of just “doing stuff”, and month end becomes a grind. But once we get clear in our minds that month end is our football match, our chance to shine, to show how passionate, focussed, professional, well trained and effective we are, we can relish each one.
We need to be clear what our objectives are (to deliver accurate, timely, financial information to business managers to enable them to make value-adding decisions). Then everything we do, every meeting we have, etc, can be focussed on, and evaluated in terms of, how well it helps us to achieve success against those objectives. And it helps to make people happier and clearer with their roles, particularly seeing the difference between management and team roles.
There are other analogies and motivational devices you can use. But I enjoyed using this one, and it was fun to play with it and see how far we could push it.
What do you think? What methods have you used to keep things fresh at month end, or to breathe new life into a tired team? Please do share in the comments below. I’m interested in hearing.
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