(Greek) CFO vs (European) Accountants

Ever wondered what the difference was between a Chief Financial Officer, and an accountant? The Greek tragedy (farce?) playing out in the 9th act has it on display, every day.

The Europeans, and the IMF, by and large are saying: “Look, Greece, here is what you owe, so you can’t spend on this, that and the other.” The smell of the spreadsheet is unmistakable in everything they say. They are really good accountants.

It’s just what accountants say in a company when expenses are larger the income: cut the travel budget; hiring freeze; lay off 10% of the workforce. And sometimes that’s the right remedy.

But sometimes it’s not. That’s why you need a CFO who does not think like an accountant (and sometimes that’s the CEO). That CFO will hopefully smell it if the market circumstances are in a way that cutting costs will not just cut costs, but injure the company further. In which case no further cuts could possibly restore the company back to health. The company may be doomed, but it is doomed for certain if it downsizes.

One of the really sad parts of the Greek drama is that Yanis Varoufakis is the lone CFO here. He makes exactly the kinds of proposals that you would want a competent CFO to make: an investment program for Greece; a speech of hope from the most powerful politician in Europe; a way of recycling surplus assets and so forth.

In all the coverage of the Greek drama I’ve read over the past year, NOT ONCE have I heard a European, or IMF, representative even acknowledge that there is some logic to what he says. Instead they are all playing accountants and point to numbers on a spreadsheet whose assumptions they don’t even see, and if they did, even they would have to acknowledge as to be ridiculous. Accountants are not known to have the big picture; after all, that’s what CFOs are for.

Never, ever, let the accountants negotiate with a CFO. The accountants will win. And the ship will sink.