Are you an Accountant or Business Person? And why it matters



In some accounting businesses, the extended team is forever busy and spends a lot of time frantically putting out fires. It doesn’t have to be this way. Adopting best practices in business building can lay the foundations for a scalable business where team members play to their strengths… and have fun doing it!

An Accountant or a Business Person? This question is provocative… and should get accountants thinking in new ways about their challenges and opportunities. Let’s look into this further.


First, what is an ‘accountant’?

An accountant is highly trained to maintain and analyze a set of financial accounts. Sometimes they focus on satisfying a regulator and sometimes they help managers make better decisions.


So, what is a ‘business person’?

A broad definition is someone focused on growing the value of a business. ‘Value’ may mean different things to different people, e.g. revenue growth, profit, enterprise value, lifestyle balance, community impact, attractiveness to investors, etc.


Can you be BOTH an accountant AND a business person?

Of course! But it would be hard to do both REALLY well. Could a great quarterback succeed as a wide receiver? Could a ballet dancer excel as a breakdancer?  It’s difficult to excel in multiple fields.


OK, so for accountants, why is this question important?

Many accountants enter the profession expecting to work… well… as accountants. Later, they find themselves having to build and run a business. While they studied accounting for many years, they haven’t learned the fundamentals of business building. For some, trying to be good at both accounting and business building can end in frustration.


Can you give examples?

Yes. Imagine an accountant, let’s call her Ann, who starts a firm and then hires three or four bookkeepers or administrators as the business grows. Ann continues to do client work, but also manages the team, does marketing, sells and improves processes while considering strategic initiatives like mergers, launching new services, implementing software, etc. There’s simply too much to do and nothing gets done really well.  Ann is unlikely to achieve her goals in these circumstances… and gets frustrated.


Ok, so what would a business person do differently?

The first thing is to acknowledge you’re in the ‘people business’. That means you have customers with challenges and opportunities and you assign a person or team of people to help. Actually, it doesn’t matter if the service is accounting, tax, law, wedding planning, surgery, an undertaker, or a fitness coach. Simply put, people are deployed to help customers.

Then what happens?

In a people business, we need team members with very different skill sets. Specifically, we need:

  • Interpersonal skills to build relationships with customers, keep them satisfied, sell them more services and solve problems (ideally before they arise)
  • Managerial skills to guide the team and develop rules and processes and
  • Technical skills so that the actual work can get done for customers

Accountants enter the profession with technical skills and then hire others with technical skills. But, in order to thrive and scale, a ‘people business’ needs management and interpersonal skills, failing which a core function will be missing. Like an orchestra without the string section.


Can this problem be fixed?

Absolutely. Business people view this as just another business challenge to overcome.


How do we go about fixing this?

Each firm is different… but this approach will work for most firms:

  • First, acknowledge the need for change. This is critical… as the problem will not ‘fix itself’
  • Partners should take a long, hard look at activities they are engaged in. For example, admin and low-level client work keep them from positively influencing the business
  • Appraise the skills across the business. What are people good at? Interpersonal, Managerial, or Technical skills? I mean REALLY good at?
  • Now put people in roles which make the best use of their skills. Highly-skilled accountants should do [mostly] complex accounting. Those with sales (interpersonal) skills should [mostly] focus on sales. Those who can design processes and guide others (managers) should [mostly] manage. This will improve the team’s effectiveness, increase capacity and be best for the business.


Is this process of transforming the business easy?

Generally no. And I can ‘hear’ some readers saying, ‘Wait, we can’t afford to hire a whole lot of people to perform all these roles!’ But that is NOT what is being recommended.  If we can get SOME people working, say, 20% more in accordance with their skills, we can dramatically increase capacity, team satisfaction, and retention. (What we don’t want is many well-meaning, busy people frantically working to put out fire after fire). You may need to train, hire, fire or a combination of these to get what you want. It could take time, but the results will be remarkable if the business is committed to change.


Are there other ways to solve the problem? Better marketing and sales, for example?

We should always strive to market and sell better… but the team structure is the foundation of the ‘people business’. Failure to get people playing to their strengths will prevent the success of other activities (like marketing and sales).


Do partners / founders HAVE TO develop interpersonal skills to succeed?

No, that’s a commonly held misconception. The best business leaders surround themselves with capable people who have COMPLEMENTARY skill sets. You can be a successful business owner and be a technician PROVIDED there is access to the critical skills required in a people business.

That’s why accountants should decide what they want to be (accountants or business people) and build the organization which suits their approach. Behaving like an accountant and trying to build a business will seldom yield the desired results.


Mark Ferris

Mark Ferris is an entrepreneur who has founded, built and 'exited' numerous businesses realizing success for shareholders, employees, customers and acquirers. He has a particular interest in software, solutions and service businesses and frequently writes on related topics.

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