Controllers, What Happens When You Blow It?
It happens, I get it. Yep, I used to be a controller too, and we all make mistakes. No one is immune from blowing it.
Looking back, two situations come to mind that I would like to forget.
Aggressively Drawing on an LOC
In the first situation, I drew $1 million on a $20-plus million line of credit because, well, we needed to pay vendors that were weeks past due. My boss didn’t like it. I later said some things to him that I wish I could take back.
My initial mistake? I didn’t ask the boss if I could execute this draw. In this case the vendors not being paid were my ultimate boss (at least that’s how my 30-something mind justified the action). Since I had the authority to draw the funds, I did so without seeking the input from by boss. I knew he would say, “No.” That’s why I pulled the trigger.
I visited him the next day and told him I was wrong for my action and how I communicated to him. Between you and I, my reasoning was proper. My error was 1) I by-passed a protocol on such draws, and 2) I let my self-righteous temper do the speaking. That is, I spoke with my heart, not my head.
Interestingly enough, when I uttered the words, “I was wrong,” my boss became uncomfortable. He started to defend my actions and the way I stood my ground.
No, I was not practicing reverse psychology. I was doing what I thought was appropriate–trying to right a wrong. And I was clearly wrong.
Disrespecting a VP in a Heated Discussion
A few years later, I committed another mistake similar to the one above.
I was meeting with the company president and one of the vice presidents who happened to be married to the prior owner (who still worked for the company on a volunteer basis). We were discussing some very slow-paying customers. I needed the support of the VP to speak firmly with one particular slow-paying customer.
I was getting nowhere because the VP was worried we might lose this customer. I just wanted to get paid and this customer was taking advantage of our generosity.
Oddly, the President agreed with me, but he was not helping my case very much. He was quiet during most of the meeting.
Frustrated with the futility of the meeting, I muttered something I should not have and left the room after slamming the door.
I learned the following day that I got their attention. To this day, I’m not sure who called the customer, but we got paid quickly thereafter. He stayed current afterwards.
But I was wrong. I should have not let my emotions take over. I apologized to both. One of them winked at me after the apology–you’ll have to guess which one.
Communication flops like those above can be disastrous in a senior-level position. You can lose credibility very quickly. That’s why I waited a day in both situations before apologizing. That gave me time to think about what I had done.
Thankfully, those episodes were both few and far between.
My Very Strong Recommendations When You Blow It
I’ve come clean. Now it’s my turn to give advice.
I probably have more grey hair than you do, so please chew on this guidance over the next few days (and beyond).
1. Take Time to Reflect, Then Apologize
That’s exactly what I did in the cases above.
In the story about drawing the $1 million, I needed to cool off after the call with my boss. I told my accounting manager I was leaving for the day. To do what? I spent the rest of the day working outdoors in 90 degree heat clearing my head and replaying what I did.
That was needed therapy. After that hard day of work outside and contemplating my screw-up, I was able to face my boss the next day and apologize. That was a great conversation. And I’ll add that I’ve learned more from that man than all the years combined in public accounting at KPMG and RMS McGladrey. He will forever be a mentor and friend.
In the second situation which occurred some five years later, I told my accounting manager I was leaving for the day. What did I do? No, I didn’t work. But I ran about six miles to clear my head and to replay the episode that occurred earlier in the day. Coincidentally, it was really, really hot that day.
Again, the run was great therapy. My heart was right, but I was clearly wrong for disrespecting one of the senior management team members in front of the President. Even as I type this, I am still disappointed in myself over that situation.
The following day, I promptly apologized to both the VP and the President. They were both appreciative and professional. And they apologized too. Consequently, there were changes made in that past-due situation I mentioned earlier.
I think you get the idea. When you screw up, get away (if possible). You need time to contemplate your error. Think through why you blew it. Put it on paper if needed. Discuss with a friend, a spouse, or another person you trust. Then apologize. Don’t fake it. Be sincere.
Contemplating your error. That’s easy, sort of. Apologizing? That’s like getting a root canal without Novocain. But you have to do it.
And you know what? You’ll grow from the experience if you allow it.
2. Develop a Plan to Minimize Your Mistakes
You probably noticed the common theme from the two mistakes I mentioned above.
Introspection, then apologizing is critical. But we need to take this a step further. If blowing it is an isolated occurrence, consider yourself human and move on. Strive to keep getting better and better.
But if there’s a common theme with blowing it from time to time, let’s back up and get to the heart of the situation.
I have purposely placed myself around key people in my life that can challenge me when they start to see an edge in my personality. Would you believe me that I let my best CEOs (my clients) know I can be terse and intense at times? They are given carte blanche to call me on it any time they see fit. That’s how close I am to most of the CEOs I serve.
As a controller, you are working in a key role of the business. You are a leader, and one that needs to keep growing. Follow this advice and there will be no limits on your journey upward.
Are you game? Do you have what it takes to take your personal game to a much higher level?
If so, develop a plan to eliminate mistakes, miscues, and screw-ups that seem to occur periodically. This is a situation where you need to turn those weaknesses into a strength.
3. Step Down or Backward if You Need To
I believe it takes a very special person to realize they may be in the wrong role if they repeatedly make mistakes (and I’m including ones that no one else ever sees).
Unfortunately, I’ve seen my share of ‘accidental’ controllers. Accidental controllers are weak-performing professionals that should have never been promoted by bosses. The bosses promote them because they do not have a strong handle on accounting or finance.
This is unfortunate for the CEO because they do not have the right person on the team. And it’s unfortunate for the controller because they are in a no-win situation.
I only see three scenarios for the controller making repeated mistakes:
- Not being accountable and blaming others. Self-preservation is the driving force.
- Hoping the CEO will overlook the errors as he/she has done in the past. Fear is the driving force.
- Admitting there is a problem and being willing to step aside. Courage is the driving force.
So what does a person do?
Door number three. There are scores of reasons why this will be the rare choice–pride, ego, drop in pay.
To the controller, has it occurred to you perhaps you shouldn’t be in this role?
At a minimum, find a coach you trust and seek their advice and counsel. Then do the right thing.
Two Resources to Consider
I believe it’s Copyblogger’s Sonia Simone that first used the term likable authority. When we blow it, it’s when we have doused our likability factor. Or it’s when we are lacking in being an authority.
If likability is an issue, I highly recommend the book How to Win Friends and Influence Others by Dale Carnegie. Read it, then apply it.
If your authority (expertise) keeps taking hits, I question whether you should even be a controller. Or perhaps you are not meant for a management role. Accordingly, I recommend Strengths Finder 2.0 and take the test that is referenced in the book.
Blow it, go make it right.
Keep blowing it? It’s time to find your true north, and that takes guts. But I know you can do it.