Seasons of the Accountant

fourseasonsIn the Accountant’s Cycle of the Seasons, there’s four distinct seasons.

The hottest is the long 4 months from October til 31 January – the Tax Season, when many people not fortunate enough to have a loving relationship with their accountant become gibbering wrecks, haunted by the ghastly spectre of the Tax Man. The Tax Season can be capricious: an apparently comfortable situation can suddenly be devastated by a looming tax bill. Or the gloom of a huge tax burden can suddenly evaporate when the error in the spreadsheet is located.

The Tax deadline of 31 January passes.  And then … suddenly … on 1 February comes Winter. For 2 whole months all accounting dies a death while the polite world heaves a sigh of relief and catches its breath, in preparation for…

The End of Year season – that slightly sweaty period of a month either side of the 5th of April, the end of the Financial Year. This has 2 halves: the first half is all about “OMG have we done what we needed to before the end of year?” While the second half is all about “ah – a fresh start; let’s make good resolutions!”

And last in the Cycle of the Seasons comes Summer – not only does accounting stop but most commercial activity stops too. My clients find their turnover reduces to a trickle, our attention is taken up with festivals, our bodies cry out for sun. Greenery triumphs, and we gambol and carouse for weeks…

… until about now, when once again the Tax Season is upon us, and the cycle starts all again.

The Pleasures of an Intimate Accountant

me in conversationAs your accountant I get to know the intimate details of your financial situation. But there’s also another type of intimate connection I enjoy even more with my clients.

One of the richest aspects of accounting for me is that being someone’s accountant brings me into a very intimate connection with that person.  In British (and Australian) culture, talking about personal finances is often uncomfortable – it’s not a topic of polite conversation.  Money is something we usually only discuss in detail with one’s spouse, or perhaps one’s parents or adult children.

In this way an accountant is in a similar position to a doctor: the professional examination involves revealing “warts and all”.  Obviously the accountant can’t do their job without all the relevant information – but I always feel a little frisson at the moment when the client starts to tell me the detail.  It is, in a psychic sense, very much a moment of “undressing”.

I deeply value my clients revealing themselves to me in this way. I feel it is a very vivid demonstration of trust.  Even though I know most people routinely interact with professionals of many sorts who require us to share our “secrets”, each time a client does this with me I feel it is special, and deserves acknowledgement, and respect.  It really is a relationship of vulnerability: my client is vulnerable to the extent to which I caringly respect what they have confided.

But in my approach to my work this intimacy and vulnerability is not just one way.  All my clients are people for whom their work or their business is a creative expression of their soul – just as my own business is for me.  Thus although there is a client-practitioner relationship, there is also another level of deep mutuality:  we share values around authenticity and creativity, and around the challenges involved in being true to ourselves and earning a living.

Sometimes this comes out in snippets of conversation where we discover a shared passion around some element of business operations.  Sometimes it comes out in drawing on personal growth principles to help us address an issue in the business. Sometimes I need to tell them I am triggered by aspects of their profession or their business.  Sometimes it will come out in what appears to be a rambling natter about something else – which then suddenly and unexpectedly crystallises for the client a vital aspect of their business focus.

I share with my clients a vigorous belief in disclosing all this personal stuff, in allowing the emotional and the seemingly-unrelated.  Often the wisdom of our lives comes out to affirm the other, to support the other and to validate the path we are already on. Together we hold a trust that the connection between us is right, that it is powerful, and that our connection generates what is of mutual value to us no matter what it’s content looks like.

This is what Kimaya Kroller-Younger calls Radical Intimacy. The attempt to accept all of what is there in oneself enables us to be more deeply with ourselves.  This in turn enables us to be deeply with others.  Of course we get scared, of course the acceptance is never complete.  But the edges where we stop are also moments to honour the courage it takes to go right up to the edge.  And often that edge can shift simply when it is accepted – by ourselves or by another.

Having created an intimate openness, our work together can then proceed as a collaborative project. They need their tax done, or their admin dealt with, or to know how their profit is going – whatever it is.  I ask if they want to get skilled up themselves, or whether they just want it taken care of.  The project can be anything, and of any duration.  Then we discuss what needs to be done to complete the project, what our skills and respective time constraints are, and then decide who does what and when.

The work proceeds well because we have created an intimate connection.   We have each brought ourselves present – not necessarily in our entirety but very much authentically in the moment.  Our beings resonate intimately with each other – and this enables a smooth working-together.

Last week I had several days which seemed to be a continuous dance of wonderful encounters with clients interspersed with work on collaborative projects.  By the end of the week I felt so full, so blessed to be in connection with such rich beings, and blessed that I have the opportunity to use my abilities in our mutual service.

Truly – the pleasures of an intimate accountant.

“Doing everything yourself” vs. “Ensuring everything gets done”

There’s so many different aspects of a business – sales, marketing, admin, the technical ability or skill to deliver the core service, finance, design, and so on.  Some of these areas require exactly the opposite skills required for other areas – for instance sales requires empathy and people skills while finance requires a logical mind and abstract skills.  Its a very rare person who can bridge all the areas required.

But all these aspects of a business have to be attended to.  As a result, many business owners put huge pressure on ourselves about the areas we are not good at: we can see that things need doing but we struggle to do them. So we feel guilty about not doing them, or worry about them and do nothing, or beat ourselves up because we “should” be able to do it, or blame others for the poor performance, or get frustrated or angry that the stuff has to be done at all, or any number of other responses.

None of these responses really help, of course.  They’re just perfectly natural responses to feeling jammed into an impossible situation where something needs doing, you’re responsible for it, and yet you lack the resources to do it.  Awful!

To help my clients with the tensions around all this, I often find myself drawing attention to the business owner’s role as director of operations.  The shift here is to acknowledge that, yes, the owner is of course responsible for everything – but that responsibility is more specifically to ensure everything gets done.  This is NOT the same as “doing everything yourself”.

“Doing everything yourself” is like a rod for your own back.  “Doing everything yourself” is part of the stoic old-style grit-your-teeth model of masculinity – which carries over into the world of small business no matter what your gender is. It assumes that we are all isolated units, each entirely self-sufficient, and that we are judged by how capable we are of living up to this unrealistic and even cruel ideal.  In this world, responsibility is a massive burden that can kill.

“Ensuring everything gets done”, on the other hand, is a softer more humble approach yet it also implies the power to take action.  It assumes that we are limited creatures, who have strengths in some areas and are weak in others.  It’s part of the new spiritually-oriented or values-driven entrepreneurship which holds that we all have a unique contribution to offer, and that business is a collaborative effort which is a vehicle for each of our unique contributions.  In this world responsibility is empowerment to create the world of our dreams.

Ensuring everything gets done means getting other people to fill in the gaps where you’re not good at stuff.  This usually costs you money – though not always:  all sorts of creative arrangements are possible.  But whatever the exchange is, the pay-off can more than offset it – which is the whole point of synergy through collaboration.  If you get other people who, in supplying that service, are also pursuing their own unique contribution, there’s 3 returns:

  •  Bottom line: Every aspect of your business functions as it should.
  • Personal affirmation:  You get the space to pursue your unique contribution as well as the satisfaction of seeing you are a good business director.
  • Community celebration: Your own values, and the values of everyone involved, are affirmed and celebrated.

Its so easy, of course, to fall into “doing everything yourself”.  Thank goodness, these days there’s more and more support  for “ensuring everything gets done”!

Relationship wisdom we can learn from Accounting

Accounting systems make the very sensible assumption that we are human – which means that mistakes are inevitable.  No real human ever does things perfectly. Entry errors, mis-readings, absent-mindedness, distraction all actually happen – not because anybody intends to make mistakes but just because Life is Life and shit happens.

So one of the most powerful steps in the accounting cycle is to check for errors.  The process of “reconciling the accounts” or “doing a reconciliation” involves using a third party’s record of transactions to cross-check your own records.  Most commonly the third party’s records is a bank statement, but accountants will also use the records of customers, staff and suppliers – any party which has dealings with the business and which has a separate or ‘third party’ accounting system.

The reconciling process allows us to locate mistakes, identify how they arose and then fix them.  Because accounting systems get reconciled there is no penalty for mistakes. People don’t get blamed.  Mistakes just get located, identified and fixed.

The same pattern is relevant in relationships as well.  Relationships involve humans, and so inevitably mistakes will be made.  I will hurt you, you will invade me, I will disregard you, you will insult me. Very seldom are these things intended. Mostly we intend to do the best by the other person.  So when I make a mistake it’s not because I’m stupid, or I intended to hurt you, or I don’t really care about you, or any one of the million reasons you can make up.  I made a mistake because I’m a human.

What Accounting teaches us is it’s not important that the mistake has been made.  That’s just inevitable.  What’s important is that there is a system in place to catch the mistakes and fix them.  In other words what’s important is doing the reconciliation.

The reconciliation process involves a third party to me – which in the case of our relationship is you.  You, or your actions, alert me to a mistake having happened. Something’s off in our interacting, and that’s a signal that stuff needs to be attended to.  So we need to identify what the mistake is, and then fix it.  We can do this without blame for the mistake happening in the first place.  Removing blame is a hugely freeing step, which allows us to have much more clarity, and to work together to identify the mistake and to work out ways to fix it.

There’s another possibility here, though: it might not be my mistake.  I’ll use Accounting again to clarify.  Those third parties whose records we rely on to reconcile our own accounts also have their own accounting systems, and so they also make mistakes.  Most banks put a little notice somewhere on your bank statement saying something like “please check all these transactions to make sure you agree with them.”  This is not just marketing fluff – it’s a core part of their own accounting system.

So when I’m doing my bank reconciliation I’ll find a mistake. I check and re-check my own system, using the bank’s records, and after a few iterations I find that the mistake is not mine but the bank’s.  Bingo – I have to tell the bank.

The same possibility occurs in a relationship.  I may feel you’ve done something terrible: I feel really hurt, and so on.  But the only thing we can say with certainty at first is that a mistake has been made.  If I’m reconciling my accounts I tend to assume that the mistake is made by me.  When I’m feeling hurt in a relationship I tend to assume the mistake has been made by you.  But this may not be so.  It takes the first step of a reconciliation process – a back-and-forwards of active listening without blame – to identify exactly what the mistake is.  Only then is it possible to agree on how to fix it and carry out the fix.

Not only does Accounting show us that mistakes are inevitable.  It also shows us that reconciliation is normal.  It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong in a relationship. Reconciliation is just a normal, routine and standard part of any good relationship.

I love it that there is such similarity between accounting systems and human relationships.  It affirms to me that The World is a fractal pattern, which occurs everywhere.  We are inside the pattern, the pattern is inside us, and the pattern occurs in its entirety in every single aspect of what exists.  Everything is intimately connected.

Identifying our cultural attitudes to money allows us to be empowered

It’s common that people with left wing or progressive values, people in the helping professions, and people involved in personal/spiritual development feel suspicious about money.  At one level this makes sense:  Capitalism is damaging the world in such horrific ways and generates huge inequalities.  And many of our internal obstacles to growth and fulfillment come from pressures to “fit in” to a soulless commercial culture.

But is this really a problem with money? William Bloom, a Fellow of the Findhorn Foundation, points out that money is just a thing in the world. It doesn’t have a morality in itself.  It’s neither good nor bad – it simply exists.  What connects money with “evil” is what we do with it, and especially our attitudes to money.

Western culture contains a profound split in attitudes to money. On the one hand, money is morally dangerous: “the root of all evil”. The biblical question “do you serve God or Mammon?” clearly implies that it is impossible to serve both – it’s impossible to be spiritual and be financial.  On the other hand money is a primary theme in the news, government, and politics, and is often the main measure of how we are going as a society or a nation.  And for many people money is so important that they feel they must compromise their values in order to get it.

William Bloom contends that this is nothing to do with money itself.  Rather, what we are looking at here are the cultural attitudes we bring to money.  We believe that money is dangerous or sinful.  At the same time we believe money is more important than anything else.  Is it any wonder, then, that most of us have “stuff” around money!

Increasingly in progressive circles, however, this split is no longer passively accepted.  More and more of us are refusing to go along with the either/or attitude to spirituality and money.  There’s increasing recognition that it’s crucially important to link money and one’s income to one’s passions, values and path.  This is often a tough call, as it’s common that what one is passionate about is something which doesn’t yet exist – and so it’s inherently difficult to ‘monetize’ it.

Widespread negative attitudes about money mean that many people have not learnt the skills of handling money or finance, doing the accounts or reading financial reports.  But strip away the negative attitudes, and money and finance are just skills – a combination of knowledge and practices that are learnable and teachable.

Of course not everyone wants to learn these things – not everyone has the interest or the time.  Luckily, there are accountants.  But even when you use an accountant it’s incredibly helpful to understand the difference between money itself, the cultural attitudes in which we live, and the attitudes you personally carry and operate within.  In fact it’s more than incredibly helpful; it’s empowering.

Money isn’t dangerous or scary. It’s not inherently anti-spiritual.  Money isn’t vital to our wellbeing.  It just feels that way because of how we are culturally supported to approach it. Making the distinction between money itself and our feelings about it means that when we have these feelings or perceptions about money we can make internal shifts within ourselves, rather than simply acting out in relation to money itself – avoiding money, grasping for it, worrying about it, and so on.

We might still have the same feelings, but being empowered means we also have space alongside those feelings to take new and positive life-affirming actions.  And then everything feels alright!