First principles: What do accountants really do?
There’s a great scene in “The Silence of the Lambs” where Hannibal Lecter guides young FBI agent Clarice Starling in her pursuit of a serial killer by getting her to return to “first principles,” asking, in the manner of Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, “What is this thing in itself? What does he do, this man you seek?”
The meaningful answer Lecter leads her to is not that the man she’s hunting kills people, or even that he seeks out a specific type of victim — but that he covets. That clue sets Clarice on the killer’s track.
It’s a great plot point — and it’s also an interesting and very useful mental exercise, a valuable way of getting some insight into your profession and your firm by digging deep beneath the surface of your everyday activities to find out what, at bottom, you really do.
Take journalism as an example. On one level, we produce magazines and newspapers and Web sites. Beneath that, we interview people and write articles. But beneath that, we gather and redistribute information — and when you get to that point, you realize that a journalist’s skills can be applied in a wide range of areas, from marketing and economic analysis to intelligence work and teaching.
Now, here are a few examples for the accounting profession:
- You perform audits. Beneath that, you make sure that a company’s financial statements are reported according to GAAP. But beneath that, you ensure that someone is doing what they said they did, or following a particular set of rules. You could do the same for the terms of a contract, or a set of cybersecurity policies, or to make sure a blockchain is set up and functioning correctly.
- You prepare tax returns. Beneath that, you make sure your clients comply with the Tax Code, while also making sure they make the most of the opportunities it offers. But beneath that, you match your client’s situation up against a complicated set of rules and regulations and sort through them for the optimal position. What other sorts of complicated regs can you sort through? Zoning ordinances? EPA regulations? OSHA requirements?
- You keep or clean up clients’ books. Beneath that, you check the incoming and outgoing financial transactions and make sure that they all add up as they go along. But beneath that, you’re helping track, report and make sense of a series of complex events in a fluid, real-time environment — and drawing conclusions from them. That’s applicable to literally anything, from customer behavior analysis to air traffic control.
Now think about what your firm does: It conducts audits, prepares tax returns, and keeps clients’ books. Beneath that, you keep them in good standing with governments and lenders, and help them understand their financial position. But beneath that, you insulate them from risks they don’t understand, relieve them of the burden of handling important tasks they’re not qualified for or interested in, and give them the information they need to face the future.
When you get down to that level, you realize that you can do much more for your clients than just audits, tax returns and bookkeeping. What about reviewing their business or personal insurance? Checking on their cybersecurity? Making sure their suppliers and business partners are living up to their contracts? Finding and vetting acquisition targets? Identifying and exploring potential new markets?
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t proudly claim to be an auditor, a tax preparer or a bookkeeper — but you don’t want it to limit you. Dig beneath the title to identify the skills and abilities that will let you and your firm grow and serve your clients better.