What Finance People Can Learn from NY Times Health Bloggers

I’m growing quite fond of my digital NY Times subscription because the paper provides some great fodder for my work blog. Oddly enough, the health writing seems to be providing the majority of this fodder so far. I purchased my subscription for half price late last year when they were running holiday deals and I’ll probably renew. Their marketing worked.

There was a great article the other day entitled “What Doctors Can Learn From Musicians,” which I think is highly applicable for finance and accounting teams. The author, health writer and doctor Danielle Ofri, M.D., also plays the cello on the side. She sees similarities in practicing medicine and performing a musical piece. Here’s what she said after mastering a difficult line of music:

It made me think about an unusual essay in The Annals of Internal Medicine called “Music Lessons: What Musicians Can Teach Doctors.” The author, Dr. Frank Davidoff, an internist and former editor of the Annals, makes the interesting point that although medicine is learned over many years, the actual practice of clinical medicine is a performance, “in the best and deepest sense of the word.”

Doctors spend much of their energy keeping up with the vast medical knowledge, but scant attention is paid to how this knowledge is dispensed in actual practice, or what Dr. Davidoff would call the performing of medicine.

I find parallels to being a member of the finance and accounting departments. Isn’t it similar? It’s important for controllers and CFOs to have this vast reservoir of knowledge, but to practice finance effectively, one needs to synthesize that knowledge into insightful analysis at the board meeting when the CEO says, “Explain to me what’s going on in our business.”

Answering that question from the CEO is a performance. It’s not a life and death performance, so not on par with performing a difficult surgery, but it is enlightening to think of practicing finance in these terms.

Dr. Ofri’s point is that getting better at the performance won’t happen if you’re going to stick with the tired practice of reading journals, attending conferences, and getting lectured occasionally. She asserts that real improvement comes when you open yourself to coaching and find the right person to do the coaching.

As finance leaders, we need to think like a coach. Of course, we need to do it within the strict corporate guidelines laid down by Human Resources and their outdated performance assessment rules. This is simple though. All it really means as that you don’t accept complacency in any form from your team, almost to the extreme. As Dr. Ofri puts it:

In music, plateaus are flatly unaccepted. When complacency creeps into my cello practice, my teacher exhorts me, “If you aren’t improving, you are getting worse!” Could a medical coach bring back the intellectual vibrancy from medical school days, spur that constant growth?

On the flip side, as finance team members, we need to be open to critique and check our ego at our coaches door.

Criticism, no matter how softly couched or solidly constructive, is always hard to take. But without fail, I improve after these critiques, once I’ve scraped my battered ego off the floor.

Whether we are finance people or not, these things are hard and often go against our DNA. Doing the critiquing and receiving the critique can be difficult, but the rewards are great if you’re open to them.

For further reading, check out this article by Dr. Atul Gawande. Dr. Ofri references it in her article. Dr. Gawande put the idea of coaching to a real-world test, on himself. It’s really interesting.

Let’s apply this practically to the finance department with a simple example. Do you have anyone in your group who is more proficient in Excel than the rest of the crew? They’re the coach; have them review someone else’s spreadsheet or have them sit and watch while someone else builds a spreadsheet (the coach just remains silent, observes, and makes notes). After, the coach and team member review and discuss the coaching points in detail.

Could a pivot table have been used instead of a subtotal. Would an INDEX/MATCH function have been more appropriate than VLOOKUP. Are the tabs optimized for navigation with descriptive names and standard colors?

Give it a try. I wish I would have had more of this in my early work days. I’m certainly always open to it now.