Lessons from Accounting

I haven’t always worked in HR. I started as a front line manager, worked in the legal department for a while, and, in the middle of my career, managed several departments in the accounting function of a large public corporation. How did that happen? It’s a long story . . . but I learned a lot while working in accounting. Here’s what I learned:

Use Excel, not Word. In accounting, they put everything into spreadsheets and, for some reason, call them “schedules.” In HR, if you have something to say you prepare a document. I quickly learned that, if you want people in the accounting world to pay attention, put it in a spreadsheet and call it a schedule. The lesson: People will be more receptive to your message if it’s in a familiar format.

Everything Has an Offset. When accountants record a transaction, they need a debit for every credit and vice versa. Often, there is a lively debate about how something should be recorded, and in particular, what the offset should be. I learned that I could sound intelligent in meetings by waiting until the right time, and then saying (thoughtfully of course), “Ok, but what’s your offset?” The lesson: Everything we do has consequences, and we need to think about how what we do affects others.

Things Should Balance Out, but Not Necessarily Exactly. In accounting, all the numbers are supposed to tie out. But, if the difference is small relative to the size of the transaction or the organization, you can just ignore it. This is called the Rule of Materiality, and it is the most wonderful concept in all of accounting, and maybe in life itself. The lesson: Be careful and accurate, but at some point, differences aren’t worth the effort to resolve and you should just move on.

I was happy when my career path led me back to HR, but I’ll always be grateful for the lessons I learned during my time in accounting.

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