Financial Statements

The guy at the front of the room was unassuming and no-nonsense. No beaming smile, no explanation of the big picture, no ‘here’s who I am and here’s why this stuff matters.’ Just a direct launch into the subject matter: Reading and Understanding Financial Statements.

The reading part’s never been a problem. It’s the understanding I needed help with.

A day-long seminar designed for “mid-to-upper-level managers, department heads, non-financial professionals and others who want to gain a greater understanding of the numbers as they apply to their organizations.”

People like us know enough to be dangerous. We’re pretty sure “fiduciary responsibility” means “get the numbers right or there’s the door,” but please don’t ask us about current maturities of long-term debt.

We’ll just nod politely.

About an hour into it, I begin to draw some conclusions. Our no-nonsenser at the front of the room is retired from a career’s worth of accounting. Let’s call him Alton (since that’s his real name.) Bless his heart, he’s not the most compelling presenter.

“Items not expensed are capitalized. Or if it’s expensed over its useful lifetime, this cost is referred to as a depreciation…”

Seemed pretty clear Alton’s gifts lie not in presentation but in numbers-crunching.

Then something happened on the way to the statement of stockholders’ equity. Alton departs from his rote spiel and fact-laden Powerpoint. He starts telling stories to illustrate his points. In a daylong seminar, he shared three.

Enron: The ‘smartest guys in the room’ are cooking the books in cahoots with their accounting firm. Enron and their accounting firm go down.

Alton got pretty animated in telling this story because he had personal friends who had worked for the accounting firm and learned of its demise in an email.


The lesson? The rules of accounting are there for a reason. Follow them.

Story number 2. In the 1960s, long before it was built and marketed, Lee Iacocca first learned what people were willing to pay for the new Ford Mustang. Then Iacocca designed the Mustang and its business plan. Alton’s an Iacocca admirer and it came through in his story.

My take away? With creativity and innovation, accounting can be as much of an art as it is arithmetic.

Third story. Sam Walton takes a canoe trip with Procter & Gamble’s head marketing honcho. The result was a new consumer-centric way of doing business at Walmart.

What’d I learn? There is more to financial statements than meets the eye. There are people behind the hard, cold numbers.

As Alton became energized sharing these stories, so did those of us on the receiving end.

Alton’s a contract front-of-the-room guy. He takes his Reading and Understanding Financial Statements show on the road to hotel meeting rooms throughout the Midwest. If it’s Tuesday, it must be Wichita.

My hunch is Alton’s proud of his accounting knowledge and doesn’t think of himself as a story teller.

But maybe he should.

To improve your skill at telling great stories for the purposes of leadership, learn more about KLC’s Storytelling workshop

Mike Watson

Mike Matson is the Vice President of Innovative and Strategic Communication at the Kansas Leadership Center