Hollywood Portrayals of Accountants

There is a common perception that there is a constant battle between the accounting department and the sales department. It is generally believed that the accountants are solely numbers focused and not interested in the details of the sales or marketing people. Perhaps this stereotype comes from accountants’ portrayal by one of the biggest ‘sales’ industries in the world – Hollywood.

In the movie The Accountant starring Ben Affleck, the CPA is depicted as sharp in the office but awkward socially. The classic 1982 film Shawshank Redemption paints a picture of Andy Dufrense as an astute tax preparer but dull in his personal interactions.

There are three outdated misconceptions about CFO’s or accountants that I will share my thoughts on. Many CFO’s are thought to be “bean counters,” technologically inept, and extremely risk averse. Similar to what I did in my previous article  “CFO Reading Tips,” I will break down what each of these really means and how it matches up with the modern day CFO.

#1 Bean Counter

“Bean counter” as an expression referring to accountants comes from a German translation of the word Erbsenzähler, used by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen in his 17th century novel Simplicissimus to describe a pedantic accountant. The phrase presents accountants as being people who work more often with numbers, budgets, and details than they do with people.

While there is some truth to the idea that some accountants can spend the majority of their time working with spreadsheets and similar tools, leaders in the industry know that communication skills are vital to succeeding as a CFO. Nowadays accounting and finance executives must be able to present their work effectively and develop relationships in order to lead an organization.

People who are not familiar with business today usually assume the CFO is a pencil pusher sitting in front of a screen and reading through different reports and worksheets. The truth today is, that many finance executives are instrumental in driving the business. Many executives get to that position by working in many different areas to broaden their horizons. In order to be a successful CFO, you have to use all of the knowledge gained from your experience to lead a business forward.

#2 Technologically Inept

The second misconception about CFO’s is that they are technologically inept. All leaders in business will tell you that in 2019, you have to be able to understand developments in technology to remain relevant and competitive. Many people believe long time accountants use outdated bookkeeping methods because they understand the existing controls and are fearful of change.

But in reality, a successful CFO today uses technology to his or her advantage by minimizing error and automating processes to enable his or her finance teams to delve deeper into problems and come up with more effective solutions. Good leaders understand that effective use of new technology leads to better decision making.

New technology allows for deeper and more in-depth analysis of company issues and streamlined operations. 10 years ago, a staff accountant might have been expected to focus primarily on one client or organizational process. But a strong CFO today will take advantage of different software or processing systems to maximize his staff’s ability and widen the scope of their work. Executives can use the enhanced data to make better informed decisions while saving their organizations both time and money.

#3 Risk Adverse

Thinking of a finance executive as risk adverse is the third common misconception of CFO’s. As I mentioned in “The CFO: Idea Killer or Innovator?,” accountants are not perceived to be risk takers or creative thinkers. However, the most successful CFO’s today are willing to take on risk – they first just need to properly understand the full scope of the risk and reward that comes with business decisions.

Thack Brown, General Manager and Global Head-of-Business Finance at SAP says, “[CFO’s] are risk-conscious, but they’re willing to take a risk if they see a commensurate payout.” He is absolutely right. Accountants today have to serve as leaders of strategic teams, and oftentimes they are in that spot to manage the team’s risk.

As mentioned above, there can sometimes be some degree of conflict between the finance department and others when discussing budget issues. The best CFO’s will factor risk and reward in every business decision to ensure that executive teams can come to a reasonable, sound financial decision while following the company’s strategic objectives.

What Purpose Do These Stereotypes Serve?

Stereotypes about any group of people are funny. With such a diverse and wide range of people within the workforce, it is difficulty to accurately make assumptions about an entire group of people who share a job title or position.

Today, many CFO’s are part of teams that lead their companies’ strategy. Even if these stereotypes are true for many accountants, leaders will always separate themselves and show what makes them different than the rest of the playing field.

These 3 misconceptions may be true for more than a few accountants today. But the truth is that any leader, whether an accountant, engineer, chemist, or any other professional, must always break out of their shell to communicate, lead, and inspire effectively.

Additional Resources
Olivia Berkman: 3 Outdated Misconceptions About CFOs (FEI Daily)
Gary Martin: The meaning and origin of the expression: Bean counter