Tools do not maketh the Tradie

A new tool like a power-saw does not have magical powers to turn a bad tradesperson into a good one, however, there is an old saying that has been around centuries that says a bad worker will always blame their tools.

It also holds true that modern equipment and power tools will enable a good tradesperson to carry out their work quicker and with less effort than previously was the case with traditional hand-powered tools, that the craftspeople of the past used. Consequently, over time there has been an evolutionary shift away from traditional tools.

The difference between a good and bad tradesperson seems to be the factor that determines if the enabling tool is going to result in a real benefit.

Tradespeople must go through an apprenticeship program, where they are legally bound through indenture to a master craftsman, for a period of time, in order to learn a trade. Usually, on-the-job training is accompanied by some type of formal study. The idea is that hands-on experience gives context to the knowledge and vice versa, allowing the apprentice to learn the craft.

This is where things get interesting.

Learning the craft is much different to being taught the craft, being shown the craft, or doing things by rote. Learning is something the apprentice needs to do themselves.  It follows then, that learning is the thing that differentiates the good tradespeople from the bad.

Only when the tradesperson has accumulated enough knowledge to be able to adapt and apply it to different situations, along with enough practical experience are they considered qualified.  At this point, they have enough EXPERTISE to call themselves a tradesperson.  Interestingly, 6 days a week for 4 years, with a little overtime on top which most apprenticeships run for, is roughly 10,000 hours.

I am not an educator, but I take my hat off to them, because they have a tough and important job.  I have always told my kids that it is the teacher’s job to teach and the students’ job to learn. It has always fascinated me that within the same class the top half of kids say the teacher was ‘good’ whereas the bottom half say the teacher was ‘bad’.  The teacher delivers the same curriculum to the whole class, so how can the experience be so different?

Largely it comes down to attitude of both student and their family along with a false expectation that the ‘bad teacher’ was reason their child ‘didn’t learn anything’. Naturally, the teacher is going to devote more attention to the kids who are trying to learn.

I was not a great student at school and unfortunately, I took that with me to university. I was however good at passing exams, so I got through my undergraduate studies without really raising a sweat ….and got my golf handicap down to 12. Once I graduated, the 12 handicap was not that useful (other than the odd corporate golf day) and I felt that it took me 10, 000 hours to be good at my job.

I learned about learning the hard way.

Eventually, I decided that I had enough practical experience, across a range of industries and company types that I would have a go at doing an MBA. It was certainly not easy to find time and I needed to take a hiatus as life demands and house renovations took priority, but I eventually finished with a Distinction average.  I felt that the benefit of all that on-the-job experience really allowed me to validate the extent of my knowledge, but I did learn a lot of new things too.

Often, I would start a topic and get excited thinking ‘I know about this’ only to be amazed at how ‘deep’ we would ‘dig’ beneath the surface. I would learn that my on-the-job experience was often only the equivalent of 6 inches deep, but the MBA seemed to dig down to 6 feet. Nowadays, I observe the odd critic of ‘MBA’s who think they know everything’ within the broader business community, but I doubt anyone that has done an MBA would think like that. I am certainly grateful and glad I took the opportunity to do one.

How does that relate back to the power tools you are probably wondering?

It makes me cringe when I hear the current crop of tech-enabled finance business partners make comparisons to ‘bean counters’ of the past and say they aren’t ‘your stereotypical bean-counter’.  All they are really saying is ‘in 2021 I do things differently to how they did it in 1978’ Well Duh!  It is about as useful as comparing an iPad to a slide rule.

Time stands still for nobody. The tech-enabled world is evolving at a huge rate, but accounting is not developing any quicker than other industries, like medicine or communications.

Today you can drive an entry model new car off the lot in Sydney, drive to Perth and back again without so much as checking the fluids. 50 years ago, that was unimaginable. Is it because we are better drivers today? If so, why is the road toll so appallingly high?

In golf, the average pro whacks his driver 50% further than Arnold Palmer or Ben Hogan did in their day. Are the current crop of golfers better than these past gods of the game, or is it their equipment?

Without a doubt, technology has shifted the capability baseline of accountants over the years.

But debits are still debits and credits are still credits. Let us not forget that… it is just that today’s accountant uses an iPad, not a 14-column paper pad as a tool.  With automatic system entries, pretty much anyone can reconcile the bank account and produce a P+L, whereas to do this manually requires more skill, accuracy and tenacity.

It takes EXPERTISE to look at the information in a strategic way, then leverage it by combining financial and non-financial information to find the meaning behind the numbers.

As the ‘Master craftsperson’ in the accounting space, a ‘good’ CFO will be able to figure out what is working and what is not, regarding the strategic plan, quickly putting their companies into a position to quickly pivot and seize opportunities or mitigate whilst the business holds on, waits, and survives until the next opportunity comes along.

They must be able to communicate at a very succinct, distilled  (exec summary) level telling users what they need to focus on, (which sometimes comes as a slap in face with wet fish), and then trying to influence people to get them to co-operate and CHANGE. which is a completely different way of thinking to compliance accounting.

Accountants need to be careful not to presume that new digital tools are a substitute for expertise and get swept up in comparisons to the past. If we are doing such a great job, why are so many small businesses still failing?


This article was written by David Dillon, who is the President of the Virtual CFO Association.

The Virtual CFO Association is an elite peer network, advocating and promoting the emerging Virtual CFO sector within the accounting profession. Collectively the association currently has over 500 years of industry experience, with highly qualified and experienced specialists spread across more than 20 industry verticals.