All businesses face change. As every executive knows, how well an organization adapts to change can determine the success or failure of the business. Today’s accounting and finance groups are facing significant change as they move toward digital transformation. Many uncertainties arise along the way, but one reality stands out: Regardless of the excitement around a new technological advance, it won’t be fully successful unless it engages and motivates your people.
Accountants possess vast skills that form a vital strategic resource for any organization. Used at its best, technology can unleash those skills by removing the old barriers of manual grunt work and freeing up time to do other—and better—things.
To this end, it’s important for companies to provide opportunities for their people to thrive and contribute. To help our own customers and improve how we serve them at BlackLine, we decided to find out more about the people who employ, deploy, or otherwise engage with accounting technology.
With upwards of 180,000 users, we couldn’t sit at the elbow of each one, so we used internal research to create models of what we consider important accountant behaviors. Here’s what we learned:
- Titles are meaningless. While important for salary, training, promotion, and other reasons, job titles say little or nothing about how a person might function when dealing with change.
- Caricatures aren’t people. No matter how well we may think we’ve modeled a certain behavior, people won’t always act the way we expect.
- Change is capricious. As every manager knows, change can take place in a variety of ways. It can be from the ground up and organic. It can be handed down from above. It can come with a merger or acquisition. It can evolve over time or come bursting in the door at any moment.
In the same way that behavioral models aren’t real people, we need to bear in mind that there’s a big difference between theoretical change and change in the real world. All of that said, we found some consistencies in behavioral characteristics and how they relate to change in the work environment.
We can tell with some degree of accuracy how these model types—what we call personas—will likely relate to the different elements of progress as change occurs, gains greater acceptance, and is deployed in the organization.
To construct our models, we evaluated hypothetical responses to three questions that we believe are fundamentally related to dealing with organizational change. Based on the responses to these questions, we then combined the behaviors to create specific types of personalities, or personas.
We grouped the personas via “real-world” personality types: visionary, bellwether, model accountant, and so on. Finally, we determined where in the change process each persona would be optimally placed and what value he or she would bring to the project team.
We started with these three questions:
1. How do you feel about risk?
The scale for this first axis measures an accountant’s “comfort level” with taking risks. (See Figure 1.) At one end of the scale, the person might agree with the statement, “Change brings risk. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” At the other end, the person would be more likely to agree with the statement, “We can’t afford the status quo. We need change.”
We consider the first persona to be risk-averse, so avoiding risk is a top priority. The second persona is what we call change-positive. Either response is fine—there’s no wrong answer. It takes people of different mind-sets to work with change. But these responses can be helpful in determining where that person might be along the change-evolution curve.
2. What is the focus of your work?
The second axis tells us more about that person—specifically whether he or she is more accounting focused or business focused. (See Figure 2.) One end of the scale is the statement: “I love accounting. Let’s make sure we get everything just right.” This is what we consider a pure-accounting individual.
The second statement reveals a more business-oriented accountant: “Other teams need a good accountant to keep them in line.” The pure accountant is more likely to focus on the “what?” of accounting: What is happening? What should be happening?
The business-oriented person is more focused on partnership with the business side of the organization. That accountant is more likely to want to know the “why” of a task or function, as in: Why did this happen? Why are they doing it that way?
Again, there’s no right or wrong answer. What we’re looking for are the differences between people who have these two personality types.
3. How do you approach your career?
The third axis, which ranges from ambitious to steady, looks at how each persona approaches a career in general. It’s intended to gauge the level of impact an accountant may have on the organization. (See Figure 3.)
The first statement depicts an ambitious personality: “We should do it my way. Put me in charge.” This is an accountant who might be expected to “make waves” due to a high sense of personal motivation. This also depicts a person who might be somewhat volatile and could pose greater risks and rewards to an organization that’s undergoing change.
The second statement reveals the type of person who will be very good at the job: “I love this job. I’d do it forever.” This person can be expected to be dedicated and meticulous. These qualities are essential to working, sometimes under pressure, with the organization’s lifeblood—the numbers that make up profit and loss.
Each of these attributes gives us a one-dimensional view into our accountants. They’re useful as they stand, but they become more valuable when they’re combined into the multidimensional personas that will be called on to facilitate change.
To start, we separated all personas along the pure accountant/business partner axis. There are compelling reasons for making this division. Today more than ever before, organizational change, even in accounting and finance, will affect other business units.
To maximize efficiency, accuracy, and effectiveness, accounting automation solutions often work across multiple enterprise resource planning systems and other non-accounting landscapes.
Likewise, business and operations departments are increasingly looking to accounting and finance for help with everything from marketing to strategic planning. And accountants are often asked to work with other units.
Again, the pure accountant/business partner axis doesn’t suggest that either one is better than the other. Both are valuable and necessary in a well-functioning finance group.
This axis is intended to discover exactly what kind of work a person wants to do. What the axis suggests is how to best motivate various individuals. That can help determine where in the group, relative to changing conditions, each individual might ideally be placed.
Once the accountant and business personas are fully delineated, we add the other possible attributes to fill out the characteristics of the pure accountant and business partner categories to create six personas. A real-world mixture of these six personas on a team would play key roles as organizational change takes place. The color-coding in Figure 4 shows how the original character traits blend into each persona.
Visionary & Bellwether
The visionary and the bellwether are true leaders, with the visionary on the business side and the bellwether on the accounting side. Less risk-averse and more ambitious than their counterparts, they’re important change agents and can have a positive impact on any team they join.
Think of a visionary as a person who readily sees and understands the “big picture.” The visionary can be a major influence at the start of the change cycle since this person believes in the promise of technology to bring about change and can communicate that vision to others.
The visionary’s accounting-side counterpart is the bellwether, typically a well-respected change agent with deep accounting expertise. The bellwether can validate and evangelize new ideas because that person understands technology and is both precise and demanding. The bellwether has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and is the type of person who makes endless requests during a demo to know more about how the product works.
Visionaries and bellwethers can come from any level in the organization’s hierarchy, which is why titles and organization charts are irrelevant in determining who the team leaders might be.