Like many others, I’ve been watching the antics of the US government this week with a level of disbelief. It had been threatened for a long time, but were they actually going to shut down their government? And what exactly did that mean? I watched on the news the reports of the things that matter to us over on the other side of the Pacific: how all of the government run tourist monuments were closed. They interviewed people queuing to visit the Statue of Liberty who seemed justifiably unamused by the whole situation. I remember during my own trip to New York a few years ago there was a lot of unseasonal summer rain and I had to rearrange my schedule a bit so that I wasn’t outside so much at the start. It felt like a big inconvenience at the time, but, er, not to the same level as having something outright shut down.
In my experience, there can often be a temptation in negotiations to ‘shut things down’, holding onto our power positions, and expecting the other parties to eventually come around. I think this can be all too common with finance teams, using the power that comes from being the gatekeepers for the financial resources of an organisation. I can remember a time early in my career, when the Finance Director sent me off to confiscate credit cards from the recalcitrant staff that hadn’t handed in their receipts for many months. I must admit, I did get a bit of an adrenalin rush from the adventure. I look back at it now though and wonder what it really achieved? Yes, we stopped some unaccounted for spending in the short term. Probably quite insignificant in the scheme of a multi million dollar organisation. Maybe we proved our point in enforcing a policy? But we probably also reinforced the idea that the Finance team was uncooperative, encouraging people to try and circumvent our systems. And we did nothing to help those ‘offending’ credit card holders to comply with that system – or perhaps others – in the future.
I’m not saying that as Finance professionals that we shouldn’t uphold policies and procedures. Often we are called on to police systems, even be watchdogs. I can remember once when I was a Finance Director I had a heated debate with a management colleague about accounting treatment of expenditure. She was pushing for treatment that would make her department’s results look better. I was pushing for… treatment that would comply with the accounting standards. We reached an agreement by the end, at which stage my colleague announced “I expect you to set the boundaries by the way – that’s what I look to you for. But also expect me to push back as I want a result for my department.” I’m not sure why, but I was surprised that she was so accepting of my boundary setting role.
I think that it’s important though that we differentiate between when it’s necessary that we say no, for policy compliance for example, and when we just get in the habit of doing so. When we build up a reputation of “Don’t bother asking the Finance team to make that process more practical / try out a new system / come to the office social event – they always say no.” Does that sound familiar? There are a lot of wonderful ideas generated across organisations, and if we want to be integral players in our broader teams, we have to have reputations as people who say yes. We want to be known as people that say “That sounds interesting, tell me more?”, “Can you explain to me how this process isn’t working for you and we can see if we can make it more practical?” and when someone in a management meeting talks about introducing a new product, we say “Let’s make that work.”
That sort of mindset, I believe, will help the organisation to move forward; which is what we should be there to do in the first place but can lose sight of. A little like what is happening in America at the moment. What has been your experience of the Power of Yes?
PS I did manage to make my way over to see Lady Liberty on the last – and hottest – day of my stay!