The difference between a good accountant and a great Finance Director / CFO

In his play ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, Oscar Wilde described a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

That’s pretty much the difference between a good accountant and a great Finance Director or CFO….a good accountant can tell you what you’ve spent, a great Finance Director or CFO should be building value for your business.

Let me give you an example.

Some years ago I worked for a business which gave all its employees, after a qualifying period of, I think, a year or two, one day’s paid time every month to volunteer for a local community project of their choice.

Out of approximately 20 working days in a month, you might say this initiative “cost” the business around 5% of the salary bill for eligible employees.

The volunteering initiative was in place before I arrived at the business, so I can’t take any credit for it, but in reality it didn’t cost the business a penny. It made much more money than it cost…alongside doing a lot of sterling service for our local community. Here’s just a few of the more obvious benefits…

  • People who volunteer for community projects tend to be naturally enthusiastic, high-energy people who are dedicated to making the world a better place. Their presence lifted our whole business and their continued enthusiasm in the face of adversity brought incalculable benefits when our backs were against the wall.
  • They did their jobs, on average, much better than the rest of the workforce – typically by 10-20%. Nearly all of our high performers were also community volunteers, so they covered the cost of the scheme just through their own natural positive energy and their desire to do a great job for a company that let them volunteer on company time to support their passions.
  • You might be wondering whether those naturally enthusiastic people would have done a better-than-average job anyway, even without the volunteering scheme, and at some level they probably would. But even then, there’s a difference between doing a pretty good job and striving to do the best job humanly possible. The difference between those two levels of contribution is easily worth 5-10% on productivity, output and quality in my experience. By offering a volunteering scheme, we unlocked the “striving” level of commitment.
  • Not only that, but when skills were scarce our very best employees tended to stay with us, even when there was more money on offer from another local business, because they couldn’t get their volunteering time paid anywhere else. Were people occasionally tempted by a few grand a year extra in their pay packet…sometimes yes, but they tended not to last in their new job and often came back because they missed the opportunity to volunteer in their local community.
  • The cost of recruiting and training a new member of staff is somewhere between £20-30,000 a time, according to ACAS statistics. So every person who stayed with us saved the business that amount of money. This easily covered the cost of the volunteering scheme on its own in a high-turnover industry. It also mitigated against the risk that when we recruited a replacement for a top performer, we didn’t get an average (or worse) performer in their place which would have diluted the quality of our workforce as a whole.
  • Without us having to put on an expensive training and development programme, many of our volunteers ended up in management roles with the business a few years down the line. They were, without exception, great managers. The skills they learned while volunteering – how to deal with people, managing tight-to-non-existent budgets, developing their creative thinking and many skills they picked up along the way – made them first-rate managers who we “recruited” without an executive search fee and without the risk that someone who was “good on paper”, or a seasoned interview performer, but not that good in practice, would manage to sneak through our hiring processes and cause more problems than they solved.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The community volunteering scheme wasn’t a cost at all. It generated significant value for the business which more than covered any costs it incurred.

A good accountant could tell you this scheme cost approximately 5% of the salary for eligible employees.

A great Finance Director or CFO could tell you that the community volunteering scheme generated so much value for the business, in both obvious and less-obvious ways, that spending whatever it cost with a smile on our faces was by far the most sensible, and economically valuable, option.

At the very least, any costs were covered by the greater productivity our community volunteers tended to display in their “day jobs”. More likely there was a significant upside to the business as a result of having unwittingly developed one of the smartest staff retention, productivity enhancement and management training schemes we could ever have hoped for.

We learned the value of the volunteering scheme, and didn’t obsess about its cost. Oscar Wilde would have been proud.

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