Let me explain to the handful of readers who actually noticed my absence from these virtual pages that this is what it takes for a small business to close a $20 million three-year capital financing deal with a global bank (such as Citi): You basically have to put your entire fucking life on hold.
That is, of course, if you are someone like me - a CFO who rolls up her sleeves and plunges herself into the nitty-gritty of negotiating every single definition, every single term, every single condition, and every single covenant of the Term Sheet and then the Credit Agreement in a pursuit of getting the best deal possible; someone who has the grasp of a fox terrier, who can shove pushy bankers and lawyers right back where they belong, who is not afraid of the ambiguous formulations, obscure terminology, and legal jargon.
But that's it, isn't it? In order to be able to get exactly what you need out of any deal that involves money-holders and their supporting infrastructures you need to know your business better than anyone else and their business better than they do. You need to speak their language and your comprehension of it must be more nuanced than theirs. It's nothing short of a battle for the business survival, and if you don't prevail you and those who rely on you lose. It's like in Game of Thrones: Tyrion's Champion, Prince Oberyn, mortally forfeits the battle to The Mountain, and that spells really bad news for Tywin Lannister's youngest son.
The problem is that most corporate financial executives don't see it that way: just like many other salaried employees, they don't care to know anything beyond bare necessities and they don't feel fiscally responsible for their companies' wellbeing. Hence, the low levels of professional awareness and circumvention of sophisticated issues is observed in most CFOs and Controllers today. And it ends up costing employers a pretty penny in unnecessary legal, accounting, and consulting fees.
Hey, you don't have to take my word for it. By the way, all numbers below are real and quotes are taken verbatim from various communications.
Let's see. When the bankers presented us with the Term Sheet back in March, I did not get either our corporate attorneys nor independent CPAs involved at all. The bank's credit risk group and I spent two months going back and force, until I got the document into an acceptable shape (estimated savings on legal and financial consulting fees - $50K). As a part of the Term Sheet, I insisted on the bank's due diligence and legal expenses (changeable to us) being capped (estimated savings - $35K).
The Citibank people, stuffed to the gills with data and reports I've provided to them during this process, kept telling the other members of my Board of Directors things like, "Oh, that Marina, she is amazing! She is the best! She is so tough!" They would write emails like: "Thanks, Marina. This is very helpful, plus your expertise is tremendous!" As if I was performing some magic tricks - I was just doing my job... thoroughly. When the Term Sheet was signed and sent to the bank my future relationship manager asked me in confidence (referring to the owners), "Do they understand that the only reason they are getting this deal is you?" Hmm...
After successful due diligence and final approvals from the bank's Credit Committee, the Agreement package (186 pages of documents) was emailed to me by Citi's lawyers. The lead attorney asked me in the cover email to provide him with the contact info of my legal representation, so that lawyers could start dealing with each other directly. I was like, "Fuck, no!"
You see, as soon as you officially appoint a lawyer as your representative, the other side is not allowed to discuss anything directly with you. Here's what happens: Let's say the bankers propose an additional clause or some adjustment; they call their lawyer; their lawyer contacts my lawyer; my lawyer, who doesn't know much about the intricacies of my business and is not allowed to make any decisions on his own, delivers the request to me. And then in the opposite direction: I formulate my response; now I have to explain to my lawyer all details in a digestible format so that he can deliver them to his legal counterpart; the latter than communicates them to the bank.
Are you counting the connections? We are talking quadruple billable hours on both sides! And it's like that for every single issue and point. I'm not doing that! I say, "Excuse me, sir, but for now you will be talking directly to me - at least until all business and financial kinks of these documents are ironed out. Okay?"
Professionally lawyers are just as obnoxious as doctors - they think that their diplomas make them better than other people (yet, they discuss economic matters with me as if they too had a PhD in the subject and an MBA). So, at first the bank's attorney bristles, but, as I start beating him up on one point after another, he gets quite tamed and develops respect. He actually says, "I hold you in high esteem," which is very nice, because the majority of these assholes don't ever want to admit that you are their equal (estimated legal fees savings - $30K).
On the day the deal was closed one of the shareholders wrote to me: "...Your performance transcended what could reasonably have been expected from a typical CFO."
Well, that' nice, isn't it? Except that all these praise-singers probably think that I'm flattered by their compliments (as if I live for their approval). But I am embarrassed: I keep thinking how all those ignorant CFOs and Controllers taint the image of my profession. And everybody thinks that you are just like the rest of them until you prove otherwise.
People say to me, "What difference did it make for you personally? Did you get a deal-completion bonus?" And some ask, "Why try so hard? You don't even care about 'business' things as much as you do about art!"
They are absolutely correct: Yes, some music passage, or a scene in a play, or an image, or a hand-written poem will make me cry; yet, most people with whom I work can't even imagine tears in my eyes. And no, I didn't get an extra bonus. And I don't consider this my personal vocation. But the circumstances of my life made this into my paying occupation and I have to measure myself by my own standards: as long as I must waste a huge chunk of my life on making other people rich, I'd better do it to the best of my abilities. Why other CFOs don't feel like that? Well, everyone probably has her own story, but mostly it's that plunging-quality-of-everything effect I like to write about so much. It's pervasive.
A knack for making small talk is a valuable social skill. Only when we speak to people who are close to us (family, friends, coworkers), or completely transient (sales people, customer service reps), we can direct a conversation straight to the subject matter. And it's not a simple following the polite protocol either: The opening banter became a custom pretty much in all cultures because it is natural for most humans.
Barely a handful of people have absolutely no psychological barriers regarding social interactions and feel comfortable in any environment. The rest of us can always use some warming-up, some beating-around-the-bush. It is necessary for all parties involved because it lets us step over the initial awkwardness. While it helps a lot in private communications, in business it's simply mandatory.
One must always keep in mind, though, that the diapason of topics acceptable for small talk is not that broad. And it varies depending on your audience. The idea is that it should be something trivial enough for the person on the other side of the conversation to find an easy response. That is why, sports in general and football in particular is the natural choice for the heterosexual-male crowd: they are on common ground there, even if they root for different teams. Female execs, such as myself, have no choice but to familiarize themselves with the subject of football in order to keep up with their male peers.
Do you remember Mike Nichols's The Birdcage? The hilarious small-talk lesson aka "How about those Dolphins?" moment? When prepping his partner (Nathan Lane) for the meeting with an ultra-conservative right-wing politician, the South Beach cabaret owner (Robin Williams) goes straight to the subject of Miami Dolphins - the most natural ground-softening topic for a white male chauvinist. Conversely, when you talk with a homosexual men, you will be better off discussing Broadway's latest Tennessee Williams starring Zachary Quinto.
The pervasive demands of political correctness made the small-talk "safety" into a concern. Many topics of common interest for the majority of people are considered absolute taboos - politics and religion are the first on the list. Some issues, while not completely prohibited, are still qualified as "dangerous territory." Nowadays, people rarely ask the kids-and-family questions - they fear the possibility of opening a can of worms: divorces, adoptions, sexual orientation, stands on the women's choice, population issues, autism, etc.
Entertainment used to be a relatively safe harbor, especially television. But there is too much of it now: some programs cater to millions, while others are intended for relatively small audiences. It's never guaranteed that you will find mutual cultural interests with some new business acquaintance. So, many people avoid it.
Yet, the WEATHER is somehow still the first thing that pops out of everyone's mouth - on the phone, when shaking hands in the meetings, after ordering food at business lunches, and around the proverbial water cooler. People still think that because we are all exposed to atmospheric conditions it's an easy topic.
Well, I think it stopped being a "safe" topic long time ago.
It's September 28th in NYC (it's in the NORTH-east, in case you didn't know), yet it's 74 fucking degrees outside! The forecast indicates that it will be 79 on Wednesday and 80 on Thursday! And it's not like the air is summary. No, it's the unbarricaded UV rays - so hot, they fry the Earth. (And the fucking UN's environmental commission just published a report yesterday saying how it's now scientifically proven that humans are responsible for "at least" 50% of the global warming!) I am unpleasantly aware of this sun while walking down Broadway in the Financial District. Yet, the guy walking right in front of me turns to his girl and says, "What a gorgeous day!" Are you kidding me? I want to kick him; I want to swing my handbag real hard and land it on his head! No sir, it's not a safe topic for me.
But there is more: Nowadays, it seems to me that everyone is desperately clutching to conversations about the weather out of fear that they may betray their dissatisfaction with Life; not just to the others, but to themselves. Moreover, they rather blame the weather for the way they feel than face the truth. I came to this realization when I noticed that people started resorting to the "weather talks" even when there is no need for any ice-breaking.
At work I'm constantly exposed to people: they call, I call; I have internal and external meetings, lunches, dinners; people keep their office doors opened and you cannot help but overhear their conversations. And it's all day long: "How's the weather over there?" and "It's very cloudy today, but they promise a lot of sunshine tomorrow!" or "Aw, the mornings are getting chillier - I will have to get my coats out." Why the fuck everyone wants it to be warm and sunny all the time? Because that's going to make them feel better? We are supposed to have four seasons!
If you are as bitchy as I am, you can try to see what happens when you stall the weather talk and get real for a hot second. In the middle of a wonderfully gloomy day, after an unpleasant marketing meeting, one exec deliberately crossed the hall from her office to mine only to say, "Oh, my God! This weather really brings me down!" My response was: "Yes, life is depressing, and sunny days are scary to me." She acted literally like a fish out of the water - her mouth silently opened and then closed; she turned on her hills and swam away. Hopefully she will think about it before blabbering about weather next time, but I'm not holding my breath.
A bank's field examiner (read my previous
joke if you don't know who that is) comes to review books and records of a company in the NYC's Financial District.
The company leases space in one of those pre-furnished/pre-wired office suites setups with reception services, heavy-duty business equipment, and highly presentable conference rooms shared by various renters.
(Educational Side Note:
It's a very profitable business. I believe Regus, headquartered in Luxembourg,
is the largest player in the world. Started only in 1989, today it has presence
in 99 countries, operating over 1400 centers. During my career I have dealt with Regus in Amsterdam, London, Moscow, Frankfurt, and New York.)
Those who have never been in such places don't realize that owners try very hard to maximize the rentable footage and fit into the space as many offices as they can without violating occupancy regulations. There could be, like, 120 companies, some of them consisting of a single employee, on one floor. And, therefore, during business hours it never feels empty or quiet. People are coming, going, walking by. The noise level is much higher than in a conventional business space: at any given moment one can hear at least three phone conversations and virtually participate in two neighboring meetings - one with a real estate attorney and another with an advertisement outfit specializing in cosmetics. It's pretty much your garden-variety beehive that sometimes gives an impression of being even more populous than it actually is.
One of the specific aspects of the office suites is the absence of companies' signs and name plaques - just the numbers on the doors. Yet, if you give the name of the company you are visiting to the doormen, they will direct you to the right floor. There, receptionists will not act surprise when you ask for a particular person and will call him or her up right away. (I mean, there is a reason why these businesses are doing
This is how the field examiner found her way to the company's CFO, with whom she was in contact after the assignment was scheduled. The auditor was set up in a separate room next to the CFO's office. Most of the electronic communications and data exchanges transpired between the two of them. The supporting documentation was provided by the CFO's staff. But in the hallways, reception areas, at the coffee station in the kitchen, through the open doors of multiple offices - everywhere the visiting woman saw, to put it mildly, quite a few people.
Please keep in mind, this is a little story about a person of numbers. Moreover, one of the key requirements of qualified auditors is their ability to gage the validity of the data in front of them. The examiners cannot possibly look at every recorded transaction - they make representative selections for documentary proofs; they construct trends; they look at schedules and statements; and they must apply analytical scrutiny and critical thinking to every number to make sure that it makes sense in the context of the examination's scope.
For example, it is expected of an auditor, who already studied a company's Profit & Loss statement, to understand the physical reality of annual rent expense of $85,000 (especially in NYC's Financial District) and annual payroll of $1 million. Call me crazy,
but I don't think one needs to have a business degree and a CPA to interpret these numbers. I mean, any logical person can effortlessly come to the correct conclusion, right? One can only hope.
The field work was going very smoothly; the company's finance and accounting staff was well prepared and accommodating; the books were clean and the paper trail was flawlessly coherent. Yet, at the very end, when the auditor was reviewing prior exams'
statistical questionnaires to see if anything required an update, all of a sudden she hit a stumbling block...
She walks over to the CFO with the papers in her hand, looking genuinely puzzled. She points out to a section in the questionnaire, "It says here that the total number of
employees is 10." Now, it's CFO's turn to be baffled as she doesn't understand
why this is so surprising, "Yes, that's correct. Ten total."
The field examiner looks into the CFO's face, still confused, "But I thought this whole floor was you..."
I always complain about the general population's low level of intelligence heightened by inertia and group mentality. The gray matter deficit upsets me in its many manifestations: the music that tops the charts (Justin Bieber!), the books that become uber-bestsellers ("Fifty Shades of Grey," judging by the synopsis, didn't really stray too far from 1919 "The Sheik"), the movies that break box-office records ("Pirates of the Caribbean, part XX"), the TV shows that attract most viewers (American Idol - over 6 million watching every airing!), the celebrities who get the most hype (Angelina Jolie, who has not shown us a glimpse of decent acting since 2001 "Original Sin"), etc. Even dear to my heart nerdy world of independent filmmaking is degrading (more about this in another post). Some say, "Stop oppressing people with your judgements! Why do you care anyway?"
I'll tell you, why I care. Only a small group of people can construct their lives in isolation from the world. The rest of us are forced to interact with surrounding individuals, frequently in a very direct manner. The general population is where those unbearable customer service representatives come from, those waiters who screw up your orders, those cab drivers who don't know where to go, those doctors who throw random diagnosis at you and prescribe the most expensive procedures, and so on, and so forth.
Most importantly for the frustrated CFO, this murky pond spews out the job applicants as well as auditors, field examiners, bankers, investors, etc. - people that have an impact on our professional lives. Most are so dull and limited, dealing with them quickly turns an intelligent and composed CFO into the frustrated one.
Once in a blue moon, though, you may get lucky - the wave of professional activities may land on your shore someone with a spark of genuine intelligence in his or her eyes.
I have a client with a trade finance line provided by one of the major banks. Among lender's requirements are periodic field exams of the client's books and records. All banks conduct these reviews from time to time. That doesn't mean, however, that they employ departments full of highly-paid auditors. Instead, they outsource and make the clients bear the cost. There are large and small consulting companies and CPA firms that have built their practices specializing in this type of work.
I've helped this particular client to go through their first field exam. The examiner flew to New York from a medium-size firm in Chicago. My expectations were pessimistic (what else is new?): I was preparing myself for days of explanations about the nature of the business, the accounting principles and pronouncements that apply, the international trade conventions, etc.
But this guy was different. Five minutes after the introductions I knew this was a kindred spirit: someone who is not just smart, intellectually quick, logical, and absorbent, but also a person with the same high standards for the quality of work as I have; someone who doesn't allow garbage to come off his desk. Just like me, he has developed his own analytical tools and instruments that set him apart from everybody else.
Working with him was a gift, an unexpected pleasure. In 3.5 days we have completed the field exercise. Of course, both of us understood that such meeting of professional minds is quite rare, so we felt compelled to share our future aspirations. I genuinely hope that our paths cross again soon.
When he concluded his work and was ready to leave my client's office, I asked him how many other associates in his firm were as good as he was. He said, "Just one other guy." And here you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the real-life statistics on the proportion of professional intelligence in the general pool of employees: 2 to 58, or 3%.
"CFO Techniques" was NOT written from an academic perspective, such as of a typical university professor with a consulting-for-large-business on the side.
On the contrary, it WAS WRITTEN by your fellow CFO, who earned her professional stripes in the small-business trenches. During more than 20 years of this hands-on experience, with the last 18 in CFO and Controller positions, she was fortunate to gain exposure to all facets of financial management and organizational administration. Just like the most of you, she knows only too well what it means to wear many hats at the same time.
Yet, the author did not loose a constructive touch of a theoretician. In writing the book, she employed her:
The result is the crystallization of the vast experience into a streamlined functional system, easily adaptable to various types of businesses and industries.
"CFO Techniques" doesn't try to rehash official regulations, statistical information, bits of hot technology news, results of narrow studies, and such. The book's mission is to spotlight the most important areas of a CFO's or a controller's functionality:
These professional cornerstones are broken down into crucial components described in bite-size, easily digestible chapters written in a fun and lithe language. The book presents the most complex financial and accounting concepts in comprehensive forms, which can serve as introductory aids for those who just attained their first controllership appointment and as concise refreshers for seasoned professionals.
It is an unfortunate truth that millions of small businesses struggle (and frequently fail) to survive not because they are neglected by owners and managers, but because these hard-working people simply have no clue what exactly is wrong with their companies, where are the weakest points, which areas require immediate improvements. Smaller enterprises suffer the most from the lack, even complete absence, of business intelligence and performance analytics. "CFO Techniques" is a part of the author's personal crusade to help small and mid-size businesses by providing them with survival tools (analytical, budgetary, procedural, etc.) that don't require expensive and complicated software.
One of the most unique and valuable devices offered within the book is the proprietary chart
INCOTERMS FOR ACCOUNTANTS.
Originally developed by Eclectic & Dynamic Controllership Consulting (E&D CC) specifically for businesses involved in buying and selling goods, it expands the definitions of standard Incoterms to include such accounting notions as title transfer rules and description of applicable source documents, thus accommodating needs of proper revenue, COGS, and inventory recognition.
One of the main underlying themes of the book is the necessity for small-business CFO's and controllers to raise themselves above the bean-counting stereotype and become critical thinkers, indispensable members of the executive management team. "CFO Techniques" emphasizes this pressing demand throughout every section and accentuates the tasks that may facilitate such transformation.
While shedding new light on the day-to-day routines and spinning conventional accounting and finance tasks as crucial and indispensable cogs in the business machine, the author's functional system gives equal rights to new categories of CFOs responsibilities, such as company-wide Information Technology Management, Risk Control, and Strategic Planning.
The book takes a holistic approach to multi-faceted positions of CFOs and controllers and supplements specific structural guidelines and practical functional advices with discussions of more general topics applicable to any senior professional operating in private-business environment. Among others, it includes observations and suggestions on how to deal with people on different level of corporate hierarchy and what changes to expect in your future, even if at the moment you feel 100% secure.
Even if you don't learn anything new, or if you'll find the book not applicable to your specific professional niche, at the very least you can entertain yourself with the multitude of eclectic cultural references and business insights from the author's personal experience woven through the book's text.
As a corporate controller, CFO, and consultant, I've been on auditees' side of the table for the past 20 years. Yet, I still remember the gratifying excitement of coming to a company as an auditor and testing the depth of my expert knowledge in an unfamiliar territory, quickly absorbing the business's specifics and immediately identifying the scope of testing. Well, Ok, I've been called a "show-off" and "know-it-all" many times, so forget me. Over the years, there were other public accounting professionals (not many, but some), who impressed me with their knowledge and sharpness, but it doesn't happen anymore.
I've been complaining about the decline of the quality of work across all jobs, from customer service representatives on the phone to the cardiologists in fancy hospitals, for years. But somehow I still get very frustrated when I encounter the same trend in my own profession. I cannot even explain why. After all, I am very conscious of the managerial accountants' limitations. The main reason for writing "CFO Techniques" was the desire to fill their knowledge gaps. Just a few weeks ago I wrote about The Unimaginable Abyss of Accounting Ignorance in the small-business environment. So, I should not be surprised when I am faced with the same situation while dealing with financial auditors. Nevertheless, it still gets me.
It's audit season, so in the past couple of weeks I've been helping my client (a young company) to go through their very first independent year-end examination of books and records. It's conducted by a small CPA firm hired before my consulting engagement commenced.
Under my guidance, the client's accountants did what I always advise to do in preparation for an audit (see Chapter 30, What Guarantees Fast and Painless Audit, in "CFO Techniques"), i.e. they loaded the appointed auditor in advance with statements and schedules of data required to make all testing decisions. He definitely had time to prepare well.
The client is an importer of raw materials. So, the revenue/cost recognition and cut-off tests are very important. Accordingly, the auditor gives a list of sales and purchases he wants to test. We provide all supporting documents to verify the propriety and accuracy of each transaction. After a little while the auditor knocks on my door with a bunch of papers in his hands. "How do I know," he asks timidly, "if these invoices have correct dates?"
Inside my head I scream, "Are you fucking kidding me?" But this is not about my frustration, this is about my client. So, I calmly explain that he needs to compare the recording dates with the source documents proving the product's ownership transfer as defined by Incoterms. I go further and demonstrate with one of the selected items: this sales order states CIF (cost, insurance, freight), which means that the customer owns the product as soon as it's loaded on the transport; hence, your source document is the Bill of Lading (BL) attached right here to the Commercial Invoice and the Packing List; the BL's date is the sale's date.
He soon comes back with another file and he is very apologetic, "I am sorry, could you explain this to me again? I never heard of those... terms... before. What did you call them?" I help him out, "Incoterms?"
Will somebody, please, explain to me, since when it's Ok for an auditor, who is responsible to lenders, investors, and other outside users to verify the correctness of books and records, to come to the client without the full knowledge required to perform his tasks? Why is he not even embarrassed to admit that? Why the hell in 2012 it did not occur to him to get his ass onto the world wide web, as soon as he heard the word "Incoterms" from me, and study them?
I guess, that would be too much to ask. Hey, he didn't even know what a "metric ton" was and asked me for the ton-to-pound conversion ratio instead of finding it by himself. He continued coming over, I continued providing him with definitions and rules. At some point he got so comfortable with this teacher-student setup, he even asked my advice on how to "test for prepaid expenses." Seriously? Did he forget that I was their from the client's side, essentially being audited?
And here I have to bring up my book again. There is Chapter 29 in "CFO Techniques" called Choose Your Auditors Wisely... Dear business owners, CEOs, CFOs, and controllers, please, read it if you want to avoid paying $25,000 - $100,000 (average range for small businesses) for low-quality accounting services.
When iconic bands like Tool go on tours the good tickets land onto scalping sites almost instantaneously. Well, a middle-aged CFO with uber-eclectic cultural tastes is used to it: the same is true for Radiohead, Kanye West, The Cure, Wilco, Florence and the Machine, etc., and The Met charges scalping prices in its own box office. The biggest concern is handling the crowd: you want to be on the floor, but you are too old to fight off the crashing violent tendencies and the crowd-surfing of the young fans. It's fine to be in the front row of the GA pit at the Radiohead concert as there is no pushing and shoving, but the Tool audience may get carried away in the pit.
So, when fate brings an assigned-seat concert (the audience rocks standing close to their ticketed seats) and as near as East Rutherford, NJ (Tool have not given a full performance in NYC since 2006), you thank the blessed benefactor for the floor tickets and go. After all, who knows if you can summon the courage for the next time.
I guess, the front-man, Mr. Maynard James Keenan, who is mere 3 years younger than me, for a hot second felt middle-aged as well. The sentiment was rather of the nostalgic than the physical nature: he looked as robust as ever and his voice did not loose an iota of its incredible beauty and strength. But this is what happens: you get to a place and a memory of seeing Van Halen there 25 years ago hits you - fuck, I've been alive for quite some time already.
So, Maynard addressed the audience as if it consisted 100% of younglings born before his experience of the band with the most #1 hits on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. This was absolutely unjustified - to my quick eye the distribution of attendees was pretty much even over a broad spectrum of age groups, from 19 to mid-50's, with slightly higher density of late 20s to early 30s. But as I said, he felt like it, so he promised us that the band will "try" to perform some tracks that they have not touched for some time... as long as they "don't forget" what they are supposed to do, because they "are old". "So," he said, "if you see us wondering away in search of mashed potatoes..."
This made me laugh. Not because it was funny (Maynard is capable of better jokes), but because it reminded of me of myself always telling younger people how "the most brilliant I've ever been was at the age of 25-27, when I was writing my dissertation," and how "I used to have a near-photographic memory, but it's not the same anymore," and how "when you get older, the expertise replaces originality," and so on and so forth.
Pretty much the same coquettish crap that Maynard was trying to feed us right before him and his band-mates pulled off a set to die for, a performance one can never forget (there was a woman next to us who said that she saw Tool eighteen times and this was THE BEST CONCERT EVER!). Indeed, they were rocking like fucking hell, testing the reality and the nature of humanity with their existential lyrics and mind-blowing visuals. Their force transcended all ages; the generations converged and disappeared, chanting in unison the haunting lyrics of "Forty-six & 2" and "Aenema."
You know what? We, boys and girls born in the 60s, the so-called Generation X - the first generation conceived with The Beatles and The Stones playing in the background, potty-trained with the Pink Floyd's accompaniment and hit over the head by puberty while Led Zeppelin was hitting the Big Time, we should really stop this self-deprecating bullshit.
Nobody bought Maynard's "old-age" tirade, just like nobody buys my "I am not the same" crap. I just wrote a book full of novel ideas, I still enter companies and within a few weeks uncover their weaknesses, embarking on solving their problems and quickly coming up with solutions.
Is anybody going to think of Quentin Tarantino (1963) or Richard Linklater (1960) as "middle-aged" directors? How about Eddie Vedder (1964) or Thom Yorke (1968), would we qualify them as "middle-aged" rockers? If the beloved Kurt Cobain (1967) did not act on his disdain for human existence and kill himself at the age of 27, would we think of him as "old" now? C'mon, his fucking widow (1964) still acts like a juvenile delinquent. I can go on and on.
For better or worth, we are made differently. We count our years and we think, "Oh, I should be changing," but we are not getting "old" and we don't want to. And I don't think we will. 25 years from now, if the world is still in one piece, I intend to be at a Tool concert and expect Maynard to rock his hardest ever.
Ah, December! The month of office parties and corporate gatherings. Small or large, every company feels obligated to do something: sandwiches from a nearby deli with soda in plastic cups, or formal cocktails and fancy dinners - whatever fits the budget (frequently, way over budget).
On Monday I had to take part in my client's festivities. The company is small, but has a lot of external relations (bankers, financiers, big-time suppliers, shippers, brokers, lawyers, consultants). So, the gathering turned out to be pretty significant. As their acting CFO I am viewed as an insider and, therefore, was placed at the head of the "finance and legal" table. Funny! Other tables - operations, logistics, etc. were vividly mixed-gendered. At my table - I was the only woman.
"But no matter, no matter!" As all of us - females of corporate finance, I've been working in the predominantly testosterone environment my entire career. I know how men operate and expect them eventually, after obligatory discussions of each other's success, politics, economy, and the stock market, to fall into a football patter. And even though I myself find basketball and tennis far more exciting (and, as my readers know, prefer arts altogether), I am ready. It's not really that difficult - here, in NYC, they are predominantly Giants' fans. All it takes is to remember few key names and events, and they feel like you are "one of the boys."
So, here we are, in the third hour of the event, with enough liquor in all of them to knock a team of stevedores to the ground (ever since the martini lunches have become their industry's long-gone past, the thirsty bankers make up for them in the evenings), when the Giants sneak their way into the conversation. Only this time around, there is a twist - a politely contained and quiet tiff erupts over Eli Manning.
You see, there is this guy, second from me on the left, in his early sixties, who looks like the Nazi who got the scepter's head burnt into his palm in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Only 30 minutes ago he said that the best presidential candidate right now was Michele Bachmann, which made me bit my tongue so hard to prevent a spontaneous response, I bled a little in my mouth. Now he is arguing with other neighboring boys, telling them how much he hates Eli, and the way he sits on the side, and his smile, and his hat, etc., etc. The fact that he is one of the only three Giants' players ever to be named a Super Bowl MVP apparently means nothing.
Let me tell you, I don't really give a rat's ass about either of the Manning brothers. It's the underlying principle that's important to me. So, I look the man in the eyes through his round glasses and say, "Many conservative men don't like Eli Manning, because he looks like a goofy high-schooler." "Yes, and that stupid grin of his," says the man. And I say, "But that look, and that grin, and that hat - they have nothing to do with his performance on the field." The conversation ended right then and there.
More than a year ago, I finished my post "He Looks Like an Accountant..." by saying that young crowd at rock concerts don't believe that I am a career CFO. The truth is that, unless I am introduced as one, nobody ever guesses it. Moreover, there is always an element of surprise in people's reaction, when they learn about my profession. It doesn't matter that I am very good at it and have a book on the subject coming out, I don't come off as "corporate finance," at least not by American standards. I am not tall, not skinny; I don't have the fake gloss all over me. And that crazy hair I could never tame! I am acutely aware of this discrepancy with people's expectations. That's why "CFO Techniques" doesn't have my picture on the back cover - I don't want to confuse people.
Life screws with people: neglectful parents, inconsiderate spouses and partners, selfish children, boorish bosses, and disdainful co-workers create scores and scores of attention-deprived people desperately seeking approval. Most frequent manifestation of this subconscious desire is excessive, out-of-place talking - lengthy stories with self-boosting subtext.
This type of behavior is usually classified as social awkwardness. I don't know a single person capable of keeping a grip on himself under any circumstances. Once in a while certain conditions come together and something activates the stupid switch even in the most brilliant people. I've seen some pretty impressive humans falling into this mode during lectures, important meetings, fundrasing parties, and social gatherings.
During 2010 New York's World Science Fair, I attended a panel Consciousness: Explored and Explained with the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation) and the neuroscientist Giulio Tononi. It was monitored by the actor and director Alan Alda (better known as Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H) - a fairly smart guy who got close to popular science by hosting PBS's Scientific American Frontiers. One concept that Giulio Tononi has described was too much for Mr. Alda to grasp. He restated the scientist's words once, was corrected, then again, and again. Finally, he realized that he wasn't getting it, but he couldn't help himself - he kept talking, and talking, and talking...
Hey, sometimes I catch myself doing it and thinking, "What's going on? Why am I relating my interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire to this uninterested person?" But only very self-aware people are capable to recognize the symptoms and stop themselves.
Consequently, the degree of this affliction widely varies. In some people it gets triggered by a selected audience (sometimes even one particular individual), or specific circumstances. I had a sort of a paralyzing effect on my boss of two years ago. He would be acting his aloof self around everybody else, but every time he would come to my office, he ended up ranting. Eventually, I became wary of starting even super-important discussions with him. It was always, "Let me tell you,.." and we would be off on an absolutely irrelevant tangent. At one point he was telling me that he shares a surfing coach in East Hampton with Gwenyth Paltrow and Chris Martin. I kept thinking to myself, "I am not impressed, dammit!"
In many people this trait blows up to extreme proportions: people simply cannot stop themselves. They don't need any special circumstances or triggers - they grab every chance they get to talk, even if they have nothing to say. In public these people are usually extroverted, talking non-stop. The overwhelming popularity of Facebook and Twitter is the testimony to the pandemic proportions of verbal diarrhea.
In social situations you can simply walk away, or turn your phone off to stop seeing three tweets per minute. However, you cannot do the same at work. You have to deal with it one way or another. Ok, so not everyone can find the right way to tell their bosses to shut up. And my advice - don't do it. Even if it seems that you've done it in the mildest way possible, they never forget it. And, as we all know, no one can hold the grudge as long as bosses do. On the other hand, when it comes to your peers or subordinates, the issue must be addressed if it interferes (and it does) with the normal course of a meeting, an assignment, or a working day.
The best way to approach it is with a friendly private talk. Most likely the person is not aware that what he is doing is an obvious display of insecurity, and that people recognize it as such. Explain to the person that he achieves the exactly opposite results: while trying to impress and seeking approval, he gets co-workers and supervisors annoyed. To earn this person's trust, you can share your own experience in similar situations (just like I did here). Most importantly, tell them that the best way to make a difference and get appreciated is by doing the best job they can.
C. G. Jung: The Red Book (*****)