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Howard Katzenberg on Strategic Accounting

In the new episode of The Role Forward, host Joe Michalowski welcomes Howard Katzenberg, the Founder and CEO of Glean. They get into the typical stereotypes around accounting, the best ways to make accounting more strategic, and the importance of building relationships and trust with other departments inside the company.

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Howard Katzenberg on Strategic Accounting

Episode Summary

There are lots of stereotypes around accounting teams, and one of them is that they’re control nerds and “no” people. Their stereotypical reputation arises from the fact that they live and die by their routine, spreadsheets, and statements, and they seem to like it that way.

But one of the goals of CFOs is to align finance and accounting with other teams within the company, including sales and marketing. By aligning teams and including accounting in other important matters inside the company, this department can become more strategic and forward-thinking.

In the new episode of The Role Forward, the host Joe Michalowski welcomes Howard Katzenberg, the Founder and CEO of Glean Company. They get into the typical stereotypes around accounting, the best ways to make accounting more strategic, and the importance of building relationships and trust with other departments inside the company.

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Featured Guest

Howard Katzenberg

CEO and Founder, Glean

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Howard is a seasoned FinTech entrepreneur with significant expertise in strategy formation, operational ramp, and both debt and equity fundraising. Before starting Glean, Howard was the CFO at Better Mortgage and OnDeck.

Key Themes from the Episode
  • Developing relationships with business partners ultimately improves the numbers.
  • Meetings outside of the normal work setting are where magic occurs for relationship-building.
  • Success isn't necessarily about systems and workflows. It's about the right mentality.

Episode Highlights from Howard Katzenberg

1:40 — Unlocking the Value and the Power of Untapped Data

“When I look back at all those experiences as a CFO, I always had good visibility into what was driving the revenue. In fact, I took pride in the Tableau or Looker dashboards that were set up. And what I loved about those dashboards was that I could always double-click and see what was going on at the top of the funnel. […] But when it came to managing expenses, I had zero visibility, and I had to wait until the accounting closed to get my first read on how we performed, and the report I’d get was like the export out of our accounting system. But my frustration was that I couldn’t double-click the same way I could on my revenue dashboard.

[…]

When I looked at the solutions we were using on the finance team to manage vendor spend, we had things like Bill.com, which was very tactical. […] But the systems only captured one data point — How much do we owe? What I cared about was what we were buying. What are the unit prices we’re paying? What are the quantities we’re ordering? And systems like Bill.com disregarded that information. So, I founded Glean to unlock the value and the power of that untapped data. You use it to generate insights into spins, savings, and opportunities that otherwise would, likely, not be uncovered by my finance teams. Our customers call us Bill.com with the brain. And that’s what Glean is. It’s an AP automation platform, but it’s much more than that. It’s a platform for collaborating with your peers.”

4:52 — There Are Many Stereotypes Around Accounting

“When you hear accounting, what are some words that people often associate with it? Back office. Counters. Cost center. Control nerds. It’s rare that, at a board meeting or with your CEO, they’re saying, ‘Hey, let’s get accounting’s opinion on this business strategy.’ So, the [stereotypical] reputation makes sense. Accounting’s job is primarily financial reporting. It’s all about what happened in the past. It’s not forward-looking. And that’s why it’s so important to break the mold. And to me, being strategic means being forward-looking and being able to assess what’s going on in the present to make better, quicker decisions that can drive business impact in the future. […] I would always encourage, not just the accounting team but the whole finance [department], to not view ourselves as a cost center. Let’s be a profit center because no other department is capturing as much data as we do.”

19:00 — Make Sure the Data Is Cleansed

“Make sure that the data is cleansed. Make sure it’s structured in a good way. A good place to start, if you have the mindset to say, ‘Let’s be more strategic as accounting,’ is to do an audit of all the data running through a closed process. […] Step one is taking an inventory of all the data. Step two is the harder part — it’s synthesizing the data once you have it. And this is where being strategic really comes in. […] Collecting all that data, synthesizing it, and translating it into dashboards is the hard part. Having a great BI tool and a great BI team that can assess and make sure all the data is structured, cleansed, and put in the right places is critical.”

25:45 — Hiring Accountants vs. Hiring Strategic Accountants

“One of the questions I would ask [during the interview] is, ‘What excites you most about being an accountant?’ If the answer is, ‘I really love the process, the day-to-day routine, and the checklists,’ they might be a great accountant. But they’re not going to be strategic accountants. What you want to hear instead is, ‘I love understanding the global view of the business and how everything fits together.’

Another question I sometimes ask is, ‘What are your career ambitions?’ If they want to be a controller, it tells me something; if they want to be CFO one day, that tells me something else. I would think the person that aspires to be CFO certainly has the potential to be more strategic. Another thing I would do is to give them financial statements. You can give them your own company’s financial statements from a year ago and ask them, ‘What questions do you have about our business performance?’ And if they come back with questions on revenue rec or technical accounting treatment, that’s probably not your strategic accounting. But if they ask you, ‘Hey, why is revenue growth decelerating, or what drove this decrease in acquisition costs?’ that’s probably your strategic accounting.”

34:37 — Finance Is Not About Giving Answers; It’s More About Asking Questions

“As I progressed through my career, I started to realize that finance isn’t about giving answers, it’s more about asking questions like, ‘Are we investing our marketing dollars in an optimal way? How elastic is our pricing strategy? How do we experiment more with pricing? Can we outsource certain functions that are in-sourced today and be more efficient that way?’ […] I think that fits with the theme around strategic finance administration and strategic accounting.”

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