September 24, 2018

Controllers Are Leaders Too: Here Are Tips for Being a Better One

leadership skills controllers accountants

When I was in my late 20s, I was thrown into the managing editor’s seat for a group of weekly community newspapers in the Chicago suburbs, after only having four years of experience as a beat reporter. Not only would I oversee six news reporters but also a staff of sports and arts and entertainment writers, photographers, and copy editors, most of whom were older than I was and had more experience on the job.

While our newsroom accomplished many good things while I was managing editor, I learned that I wasn’t really cut out for that type of responsibility—and I kinda sucked as a leader.

Maybe you’re like me and could learn a thing or two about being a good leader. So, I asked three controllers—David Bowers, CPA, of Half Acre Beer Co. in Chicago; Bernard M. Kramer of Rockville, Md.-based Goodwill Industries International; and Mark Monroe of Arlington, Va.-based services contractor PAE—about how I and others in their field can become a better leader.

“The traits that I believe you will find in every good leader include strategic vision, great team builder, unchallenged integrity, excellent listener and communicator, good decision-maker, and an affinity for change,” Monroe said.

Here’s what else they told me.

The leader as architect

Bowers, who also is the CFO of Half Acre, likens a good leader to an architect, one who has “the idea or vision and the framework of what they’re trying to work toward, but relies on the support of the team around them to make the vision come to life and achieve the end result.”

He believes good leaders exhibit the traits of empathy, fairness, creativity, and confidence. “They will also know when to rely on the opinions and advice of those who know more about a certain subject matter than they do,” Bowers said.

Because accounting is a structured field that operates within a rigid set of rules, Bowers used to think there was a right and wrong answer to every scenario and that businesses were driven solely to maximize profit for their owners.

“As I matured, I learned that decisions made for the maximization of profit didn’t always translate to being the best for the organization as a whole,” he said.

And it wasn’t until Bowers became controller of Half Acre that he was able to witness this firsthand from the brewery’s president and founder, Gabriel Magliaro.

“It is because of how he views the importance of culture within an organization that I have worked to change my leadership style to make sure I am approaching all business decisions with the same awareness and care,” Bowers said.

Monroe and Kramer agree that a good leader must be open to change and be able to adapt to changing circumstances and personalities.

“Team members change, thus the personality of the team changes, and this changes how a leader should lead,” Kramer added. “Additionally, leaders should be able to communicate.”

My failure to communicate

Ah, yes. Communication. That’s something I really struggled with as managing editor. It was always a challenge for me to lead a weekly staff meeting, for example. Communication is a skill that both Kramer and Bowers say they have had to hone through the years.

“Being able to effectively communicate a financial budget and the consequences of not staying within budget to co-workers who are not trained accountants or financial analysts is something that takes patience and skill,” Bowers added.

Another thing that I think put me at a disadvantage was I didn’t have a sensei to teach me the ways of being a top-notch leader. Yes, I’ve had bosses who I thought were very good leaders, and I tried to pattern my leadership style after theirs. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t make it work the way I wanted to.

Kramer said two people in particular influenced his leadership style.

“One taught me the importance of professional development for my staff; his goal was to develop his staff even if their development took them to new opportunities outside of the organization,” Kramer said. “The second guided me in increasing my understanding and reading of my team’s personality and matching that with the right communication method. Both skills have been very important in shaping me as a leader.”

To be (a leader), or not to be

Who knows, maybe someday I’ll find myself in another leadership role, whether leading a newsroom of journalists again or a bunch of pimply-faced teenagers at Chuck E. Cheese. Until then, here’s some more advice from Bowers, Kramer, and Monroe for both you and I to consider:

1. Recognize your team’s achievements. “Acknowledge the team’s successes—both individually and within the group,” Kramer said. “Take the things that go wrong and turn them into a learning opportunity. This does not mean you don’t hold people accountable—quite the opposite, you need to hold them accountable. The team must see that everyone is accountable, but have sensitive discussions in private.”

2. Anticipate your company’s needs well in advance. “Whether that be with insurance, benefits, financing, or reinvestment within the company,” Bowers said. “You never want to be caught off-guard.”

3. Let your managers and team members do their jobs. “If you have the right people in place, allow them to do the jobs you have given them,” Kramer said. “Nothing is more demoralizing than when a manager who expresses confidence in you then goes behind you and gives direction to another member of the team.”

4. Don’t be afraid to evolve your leadership style. “I think leadership is something you continue to develop with each passing day and year, benefited by the knowledge and experiences you gain and the lessons learned through your journey,” Monroe said.

5. Set a realistic financial budget for the next three to five years of operations. “Constantly revisit your assumptions and tweak them based on current performance,” Bowers said. “Share with other members of the management team, and make sure you’re all held accountable and working toward those shared goals as one cohesive team.”

Image: iStock/Jirsak

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