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It Figures Podcast: S2:E17 – Beers, Beets, Governmental Accounting

Whether you’re managing a governmental accounting team or a Pennsylvania-based mid-size paper company, you’ll benefit from this episode of It Figures: The CRI Podcast. Tune in as CRI Partners Rob Lemmon, Ray Roberts, and April Shuping illustrate their personal experiences in the industry, recount government-specific junctures, and divulge some of their secrets to managerial success.

Speaker 1:

From Carr, Riggs & Ingram, this is “It Figures: The CRI Podcast,” an accounting advisory and industry-focused podcast for business and organization leaders, entrepreneurs, and anyone who is looking to go beyond the status quo.

Rob Lemmon:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the CRI It Figures Podcast. My name is Robert Lemmon. I’m one of the governmental audit partners in the firm and we have a governmental episode for you today. The topic is going to be managing an accounting department. I’m really looking forward to talking about this with our two presenters today who have got some really good experience in this area. I’m going to turn it over to the presenters to let them introduce themselves. First of all, Ray Roberts is with me today. Rey, do you want to introduce yourself please?

Ray Roberts:

You bet, thanks Rob. I appreciate you allowing me to join you today. My name’s Ray Roberts, I’m the government industry line leader for Carr, Riggs & Ingram. I’m out here in Albuquerque, New Mexico, loving the weather at this time of year. I’m looking forward to sharing some knowledge I had about managing a government accounting department.

Rob Lemmon:

Thank you, Ray. You and I have done a number of these podcasts together. You’ve always got a wealth of knowledge, so I know you’re going to have some great contributions today and some great ideas. Our second presenter today, joining me is April Shuping. Now April has a terrific background and really unique background specific to this subject. April, why don’t you introduce yourself?

April Shuping:

Thanks Rob. I’m April Shuping, I’m an audit partner in the Gainesville Florida office. I have been in public accounting in and out. Actually, I was in it, left and I’ve come back. But in between I spent about 15 years working actually in the finance department of local governments. Most notably, I spent 12 years with the city of Gainesville and by the time I left to come back to public accounting, I was the finance director there. I got a lot of experience in different levels of the finance department, all the way up to leading it. I’m really excited to talk about that today.

Rob Lemmon:

Yeah, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with April for a number of years and it’s no exaggeration to say she really knows her stuff as good as anyone out there. Like she said, she’s been modest, but she worked herself to the top in the finance department of the city and I had the pleasure of working with her best. She knows her stuff.

Okay, April, so I’m going to start with the question just for you, because you’ve got, as I said, that unique finance director experience from the city. Just walk us through a day in the life when you were the finance director, what were your typical duties? What did it consist of? Is it reviewing and approving transactions? Were you researching, debt opportunities dealing with elected officials, I guess, personnel type issues? All those sorts of things come to my mind. But, from your perspective, when you were living it, what was the average day like?

April Shuping:

I’ll say yes to all of those things. It could have been any of those things on an average day, but it really did change from day to day. Anyone in a leadership position in any entity probably would see that situation. But the one thing that was consistent was lots and lots of meetings. We had some defined seasonal things like our audit and budget seasons and the budget process in local governments is really one of the most integral important and time consuming things we can do. That one had the most meetings with department heads, all the way up to those public presentations to elected officials. My best answer is to say that an average day consists of a lot of decision making, a lot of surprises, being able to adjust. I never knew at the start of the day, everything that I would do.

Rob Lemmon:

Very good. The ability to think on your feet and be not afraid to get caught by surprise, I guess, as you say, you never know what’s going to come across your desk during a day. Not a skill all accountants have is the ability to deal with that stuff, but I know you’re very good at it. But, from your experience, what was the best part of the job and what was the worst part for you?

April Shuping:

Yeah, it’s a great question, Rob. I’d say there were a lot of best parts. It’s amazingly interesting and rewarding work. Working with the team I got to work with definitely stands out as one of the best parts you’re so tightly connected with your team of accountants, budget analysts, payroll specialists, all different levels of staffing. The department became like family. One of the benefits of local government is typically there is lower turnover and so you get people that you may have worked with for a decade and they become really good family and friends. In seeing those people grow and succeed, it’s been amazing.

The other best part, I think and one of the things I really miss is getting to be a part of and have some influence on some of the big projects and initiatives happening in my own local community from funding the project, helping get the debt structured so it can be successful, all the way up to completion stands out as one of the favorite things from when I was working directly in local government.

The worst part. Yeah, I think you guys can probably all imagine it was politics. All jobs have some kind of internal politics involved, but when you’re working in a local government finance, it means you’re on the first name basis with your local reporters to get your cell phone. You’ve got to be very conscious of the political issues and positions more than you might expect if you are thinking, oh, I’m a CPA, I’m an accountant, I’m just putting the numbers in. Really, you get pulled into a lot of decision making and a lot of really high profile projects that you have to be careful how you talk in front of the commission at public meetings and how you interact with the news media on those types of things.

Rob Lemmon:

Yeah, that’s really interesting for me to hear because, obviously I’ve worked on the other side on the audit side and consulting side with a number of governments for a number of years and just the tiny glimpse of the political implications and pressures that I’ve seen is enough to keep me on this side of the fence, for sure. I don’t envy you or anyone who has to kind of deal with those pressures, but it’s great to hear that you had an excellent experience being able to impact your community positively and working with a great team.

That’s really good for me to hear. I’m glad you had a good time doing it and I know you’ve made a terrific impact to your community, so I’m sure they’re glad you were there as well. But, moving on with a few more questions. You’ve summarized some of the keys to success. I work from what I can hear is the multitasking, not getting flustered by surprises, which would force to me. I would imagine you’d also need to stay very organized with all the different things coming your way from all angles. Am I right in saying that those are kind of the top keys to success or do you have any specific top tips for success as a finance director?

April Shuping:

Yeah, it’s a good insight, Rob. Those are all really important items. I think you are not going to be successful unless you can do all of those. I’d add to that list, interpersonal skills. Some of that emotional intelligence becomes real key when you’re leading a large complex team of people with different personalities and skill sets and being able to get that team is my other biggest tip that really, you need to build a strong team.

If you try to do everything by yourself or even to understand in great detail, everything that you’re going to be in charge of you won’t be able to be effective in that role. Building that strong team, treating them well, understanding them, knowing them well enough to know their strengths and weaknesses, and then delegate, delegate, delegate. It could be really hard to do that when you’re already busy, but the extra time it takes to train and supervise that team is minuscule when compared to the increasing effectiveness you’ll get, when you take those daily routine tasks off your list. That builds that room in your day and year for making real change, real improvements and a real impact, not just your department, but city government, and the community as well.

Really the side effect of that as well, which is wonderful is your team’s going to love doing new things, feeling important, feeling valued, feeling like they’re adding value to the organization. As hard as it is, and as many times as you’ve probably heard it and intended to do it, but not done a delegating is really going to be your primary key to success, in my opinion, in that role.

Rob Lemmon:

That makes perfect sense. It’s actually somewhat consistent with what I’ve seen from other places. Any good leader is going to have some good people around them to assist them. We’re recording this in 2021 and right now, everyone seems to be struggling with hiring good talent. Like you said, you need to have a good team, so recruiting the talent and maintaining the talent, you have training them up to be able to help you.

I have been seeing that as well with other and governments who are trying to keep all of their talented people and make sure they have that good team around them. I think that’s a great key to success, but let me flip it around then. That’s one of the must do things for success. What would you say, the must not do items? Are there any big mistakes that you made or have seen other people make that you’d like to share or things you’ve just in general would advise people to stay away from?

April Shuping:

Yeah, so of course I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I’m probably not going to advertise those right now. But I will say the one thing…

Rob Lemmon:

Fair enough.

April Shuping:

The one thing I’ve seen really hinder people’s ability to be successful, and I’m going to say, this is local government specific podcast, but this, again, is going to apply to any leadership role anyone is in. But when I’ve seen people try to make that step and really not be successful, it’s that lack of vulnerability and humility. There are people who feel like I’m in the role of a boss and so I have to act like I know everything to get respect. I’ve seen that backfire time and time again.

Any time, but especially if you’re starting a new job, don’t come in and immediately criticize and make changes and think, or act like you have all the answers. Even if you’re right, taking the time to observe, build connections, ask questions, legitimate with the intent to learn, and then listen, listen, listen, coming into any kind of leadership role, but especially when is complex and visible as a finance director and local government, a lot of those people there may have been there 20, 30, 40 years.

The things they do, they know, and they understand what it’s going to work and what isn’t. They may be resistant to change, but it’s your job to help them see how that change helps them if it’s necessary and really the best way to get everyone on board with those changes is that that may be really good for the organization and the department as well is to get the buy-in that you’re only going to give that, building those relationships first, asking the questions and legitimately listening with an open mind to the answers. That added with the fact that if you don’t understand or know something, admitting it and asking, that’s how you earn the respect of the people who work with and for you. Once you have that, really, like I said before, that great team is what’s going to make you successful.

Rob Lemmon:

Yeah, that makes sense. Change doesn’t come quickly in any organization and I would hazard to say, especially not a government that there’s often a few extra layers of policies to go through, to implement change. But you want to do it right steadily and not try and disrupt everything on day one, if you were to be put into that position. That all makes very good sense. I’m going to drag Ray into this conversation here. We’ve let him sit on the sidelines long enough listening to us, so I’ll drag him in and ask, Ray, you obviously have terrific wealth of experience and have worked with some terrific professionals in the past. You’ve probably seen a few not of good ones. I don’t know, what we’re talking about here, does it ring any bells? Do you have any kind of top tips or things to do, or maybe not to do based on your experience of what you’ve seen go really well for governments or got not so well?

Ray Roberts:

Yeah, Rob, when I was listening to April, I think she had some really good points about becoming a leader, especially when you’re a new leader and about changing and getting the relationships built with your staff and creating a good staff that those are hard to do, but incredibly important to do. Those are things you need to do, and not come in and change and just blow off 20 years of experience and just say, make the people feel like they’re worthless on that. Some other things, I’ve seen a lot of smooth talkers over the years, and they’re real glad handers as I call it. They get along with everybody, but they have no idea what’s going on in their department or who’s doing what, so the glad handers and the real easy to get along with.

Everybody loves them in the room type kind of guy or go, that’s only going to last for a little while. Sooner or later the rubber’s going to meet the road and you’re going to have to know your job. That might buy you some time while you’re the new guy, but you need to know what’s going on. You don’t need to know how to do every bit of it, for goodness sake I have no idea how to do half the stuff I’m responsible for, but I know who does. This goes back to what April said about having a great team. Then you got to make sure that you can deliver on what you say. Now there’s sometimes you think you can do it. There’s no doubt about it and it doesn’t happen.

But then you own up to it, don’t blame somebody else. I was just recently reminded of, I need to communicate better myself, but I’m taking care of it, but I owned up to it. It doesn’t matter how busy I am, that’s just part of my job. Own up to that and go forward from that. If you think it’s a stretch, be up front with them up front. Early on and just say, hey, I’m going to do my best to get this done. But it’s a stretch and we might not make this deadline, but communicate the heck out of that going forward and say, hey, you’re a week into it or a week away from the deadline you said. Update everybody and say, hey, I thought I could make it, but we’re not going to make it. But, I need a week, so knowing what’s going on and communication, I think are too big items that you need to know when you’re running a department.

Rob Lemmon:

Those are great insights. There’s always rare from you great insights, but I’m listening to you and I’m thinking, these things, obviously they apply everywhere. You’ve got to know your job in detail and not just be a smooth talker and you’ve got to communicate well. But for governments, it’s extra important because, if you don’t know your jobs sooner or later, you’ll get found out, and if you’re working for a government at the top level, you’re going to get found out publicly and that’s not good, obviously.

Same with the communication, if you’ve got public expectation, not just internal team expectations that are not being communicated and managed properly, obviously these things then blow up publicly because it’s not been managed and communicated properly. Yeah, I think just to repeat what you’ve said, knowing your role in detail and not just being a smooth talker, but also great communication, particularly key in governments and in my opinion.

Thank you for those insights. I’m going to jump back to April, got a couple more questions here to wrap things up, but like I said earlier, we’re in middle of 2021 now, and there’s been a lot going on in the past year, lots of stimulus funding, COVID related funding for governments. Change is always constant, but it just feels like for the last year and a half or two, it’s been particularly difficult for governments with a changing landscape. April, as you look at the landscape right now, what would you say is the biggest challenge for an individual who’s in a finance director role right now?

April Shuping:

Yeah, as usual, Rob, I’m going to give you more of an answer than you want. I think there’s some several really big challenges coming down the pipeline. One that’s probably you alluded to earlier in all organizations is getting, recruiting and keeping great staff. In governments, we can see that due to a whole lot of factors over the last 20 years, it’s getting harder and harder to find people who really want to work in government as a career. Specific to governmental finance, we’ve got all of these new Gatsby’s coming down the pipeline already issued, like the least standard or even coming, that they’re working on right now, like an entire new reporting model. That’s a lot to add on to everybody’s plate right now to figure that kind of thing out, in addition to what else is going on.

All of the new stimulus money, a lot of governments are still spending their old stimulus money from cares and now they’ve gotten multiple new funding sources from the federal government, which is a double edged sword. It’s great to be able to keep your services up and not be looking at layoffs. But there are a lot of requirements tied to those funds and a lot of decision makings, you almost get into an entire extra budget season of how are we going to spend these funding that you are going to be involved in. Really those to me are three big ones. These big new COVID related funding sources, major new Gatsby coming out and coming down the pipeline that as soon, and then keeping and maintaining quality people in that accounting team. I would say those are the three real big things facing finance directors today in a government setting.

Rob Lemmon:

Yeah, that makes complete sense. All this funding is completely new to people, there’s so much so fast plus, and that’s kind of the same thing. I’d say with the Gatsby, there seems to be so much coming so fast. I feel like they’ve accelerated the number of standards coming out, and as we’ve mentioned a few times, keeping a quality team that’s always going to be a challenge, and a very important one. I’ve got one more question for you April, if you were to give a piece of advice to somebody who wanted to be a finance director, what would that advise be?

April Shuping:

I do think it can be an amazing career. I loved my time in that role. I would say, start building early your skills, building yourself as a subject matter expert and that’s your technical skills and accounting, budgeting, governmental financial reporting, and also soft skills that I kind of talked about earlier. There’s EQ skills. Use those to develop relationships with your peers across the organization. I can’t tell you how helpful it was that I had department heads that I had been working with already and already had a positive relationship with when I moved into the finance director role, it just makes sure life a lot easier and makes what you’re doing more effective. They take a no from you, which is half of your job as a finance director is telling people no, that they take it much better when you’ve already built those relationships.

Then I’d say the biggest thing is finding a great mentor to help you as you grow. That may be the current finance director and assistant finance director in your organization, or someone within your professional organizations, in one of your state or local GFOA organizations, someone who’s at the job you would like to be at and is willing to really meet with you on a regular basis to help give you advice on different challenges that you may be facing or ways within your own specific organization to help you reach that level.

Rob Lemmon:

Great information and ideas. I always think a good mentor is invaluable and so I love that answer. Speaking of mentors, Ray Roberts, let me come to you and you’ve helped me a number of times in my career, but I’m going to let you close this out here. Similar question to you that I just asked, April, if you were to give some words of wisdom to someone who wants to get to the top of governmental finance and the profession, what would be those words of wisdom?

Ray Roberts:

April’s done a good job of making it more specific to governments, but I think what she was saying, although it was related to governments can be related to any business or any leadership style. As I mentioned earlier, try to do your best to doing what you say you’re going to do. But, try to keep some balance along with it. Sometimes I have that problem keeping my balance, but do what you say you’re going to do, build those relationships with people outside your department. If you’re in finance, deal with the road department or something like that, the heads of those, and make sure you have those relationships that April was talking about.

As it relates to your team, give credit where it’s due. I don’t think you as a leader, you never have to say I did this, or I did that, or take credit for something. If you give it the credit to your people, actually did the work because you more than likely didn’t do the work. If you give them the credit and give it when they’re not expecting you to give it, like in a public setting, be sure to give that credit when it’s due. If you do the right thing and give the credit to the right people, you’re going to get your credit sooner or later. I think, that’ll help you build that relationship with the people in your department far faster than saying, I did this, I did that and leave that out. I think you’ll be so much better off going forward in your career.

Rob Lemmon:

Excellent tips, Ray, we’ve talked a lot on this podcast about the importance of the team. When you get to the top, you cannot succeed without a good team so motivating them like you’re suggesting and helping them to feel valued and to stay in place, it is going to really help drive the success of the whole team and the success of the leader. Also, like you said, once you get to the top, you need to have to know people outside of your department, your function, you’re going to need to work with all the other departments. I think those are two excellent tips.

With that high note, I think that that’s a good place to leave it for this episode. We’ve had a really good conversation with April and Ray and I think received some very valuable insights and perspectives from two people, who’ve got great experience and have really achieved a lot in their careers. Certainly people that I listen to a lot and value their input. With that, I’ll sign off the podcast. Thank you all for listening. Please do check out our website, cricpa.com. There’s a bunch of other episodes of podcasts up there, as well as articles and other useful marketing materials that you might be interested in and technical content on governmental stuff, but also for a bunch of other industries. Feel free to check out our content on our website and thank you again for listening. Goodbye.

Speaker 1:

If you want more CRI Insights or interested in learning about our firm, please visit our website at cricpa.com. Thanks for listening to this episode of, “It Figures: The CRI Podcast.” You can subscribe to It Figures on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you prefer to listen to your podcasts. If you liked what you heard today, please leave us a review.

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