Episode #2 Change Is Possible with Jeffrey Thomson
The role of the CFO team in business has magnified and become much more interdisciplinary and cross-functional. The days of the CFO being that boring accountant tying the numbers together has long evolved where it has become the table stakes for enriching and creating value using talent and people as an ecosystem. Jeffrey Thomson, the President and CEO of the Institute of Management Accountants, focuses on educating, certifying, and connecting future CFOs and members of the CFO team and industry anywhere in the world. Jeffrey has had to undergo challenges in his personal life and career himself. Today, he opens up about his own personal evolution and why he believes change is always possible as long as you take action.
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Change Is Possible with Jeffrey Thomson
Take Action Rather Than Resist
Our guest is Jeffrey Thomson, the President and CEO of IMA, the Institute of Management Accountants. Since assuming his position in 2008, he has led the development of a strategy resulting in the IMA becoming one of the fastest growing accounting associations in the world, with double digit growth in its CMA, the Certified Management Accountant program over the past few years. He has been honored by Accounting Today, being included as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People. He’s also been named the Top 100 Thought Leader in Trustworthy Business Behavior for six years and was honored with the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award. I am so excited to bring this conversation to you as we discuss his story of growing up with the belief system that he was shy and the actions that he took to break through those beliefs to achieve the outcomes that he wanted in his life personally and professionally.
Our guest is Jeff Thomson, the CEO and President of IMA, the Institute of Management Accountants. Thank you, Jeff, for joining us. I’d love for you to start off and tell us a little bit about yourself.
It's a pleasure to be here. I am the President and CEO of the Institute of Management Accountants. We’re a global membership organization. We focus on educating, certifying, connecting future CFOs, members of the CFO team and industry, any size, any structured company anywhere in the world. The role of the CFO team in business has magnified and become much more interdisciplinary and cross-functional, business partnering and influencing business growth, great outcomes for consumer’s profit and purpose. The days of the CFO being that boring accountant tying the numbers together, as you know from your experience, has long evolved where that has become the table stakes for enriching and creating value using talent and people as an ecosystem. At a high level, that's IMA. We have 140,000 members around the world and we're very proud of our world-class certification, the CMA, Certified Management Accountant, of which I am one of the 70,000 or so who have been awarded since inception.
That is what our talk is about, to learn about your story and what you've also been seeing as far as change. A lot of what we think change is might be technology or change management or business processes or even change in our personal lives. However, what happens is we have to go through our own personal evolution through our career, morphing, pivoting and figuring out what was the original belief systems that we had. How do we overcome that or take notice that we even have it when we need to start thinking about different pivots we need to make in our career? I'd love to learn a little bit about your career and where you might have had that moment in your path where there was a pivot or change or recognition of something that you needed to work on to move forward.
One of my pivots started very early in my career. Here I am, I've got one of the best jobs in the whole wide world and you could share that with my board members, many of them you met. I'm a big believer and these are basic tenets I know and they sound very trite, but as human beings, we tend to sometimes make excuses that change is not within our control. There are environmental factors, there's robotics, there's a family member who I can't manage or control. I tend to think that there's more under our control than we can even ever imagine. My early pivots started, I was always a math statistics person, very technical, quantitative. I know we get typecast into thinking that that's all it's about. Being in the math and sciences, you become a bit of an explorer.
There's a little typecasting there. That part was very clear. I was good in math and statistics through high school. That was my major in college and then graduate school. Along that way, I had to say, “What's my career going to be?” I decided to go into the teaching program undergraduate. One of the primary reasons that I wanted to become a teacher is because I'm inherently shy. Although, teaching has an incredible societal purpose and virtues, I have been married to a teacher, quite frankly I said to myself, “I ultimately see myself in a business role.”
In my role as President and CEO of IMA, I talk around the world. I'm going to the Middle East. I've been in China, we have offices there. By definition, it's a public speaking role. I knew way back then that I'm inherently shy. I still get a little bit of tingle and nervousness in front of a large group. It gets natural. I said to myself, “What better way to overcome my inherent shyness than going through a teaching program to be a math teacher?” I did student teaching. Nothing will eliminate your shyness than being in front of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen-year-olds at 7:22 in the morning. I’m going to teach them high school math. Nothing will get you over shyness.
I went through the student teaching to the point where I did make a choice early on to go into industry. I do think that recognition of where I needed to strengthen if I were to look up my future and not say, “I'm naturally shy so I'm going to stay away from anything that involved public speaking.” I do think there is so much more under your control as a human being and seize control where you need to make it happen. You talk a lot in business balance and bliss about taking control and breaking away or seizing opportunity to fill gaps. To this day, even though I'm still inherently shy and still nervous in front of big groups, you wouldn't know it because of that decision early on to put yourself in front of a bunch of fifteen-year-olds. They love math and algebra.
I would love to go a little bit deeper into that because it's such an important revelation that you had about yourself. What I notice a lot of times when you talk about people blame the outside or create reasons for why they can't push past things. When was it that you started branding yourself as shy? Was it someone that gave you the reason that you're shy? Did you decide you're shy? Can you tap into why did you even think that about yourself and started going down that path before you break in?
In grade school and in high school, let me count the ways. A lot of things are more out in the open now than back when I was in high school, in formative years way back in the day. At least we had the courage to use words like bullying and the #MeToo Movement and all that stuff. Back over time, it was almost like these things where the rites of passage. To be a cool high school kid, you were on the football team or you were a cheerleader. Some of these still hold true now. Because after my AT&T career, I did wind up going back and teach high school math. There are these certain peer pressure norms. What is cool was maybe being on the football team, being a cheerleader. What was not so cool was being a high achiever scholastically. My family background, from the day I was born, my older brother has a minimal brain damage. I was always in the position of caregiving. I am a caregiver. I was always shy externally because of some of the norms at the time that made you cool or not so cool, so why call attention to myself? I'm probably a better than average athlete, but not good enough to take notice.
I became a little bit more inward because from the age of eleven or twelve with an older brother who is emotionally disturbed and causing all kinds of disruption, I had to be a source of strength for my mom and my dad. I'm like, “If I'm shy externally, I'm going to be strong internally and for my little ecosystem of family members.” I'm very sensitive even now to the secondary school environment. I alluded to the fact that my wife, who's now retired, which is another set of stories. She was a high school math teacher and guidance counselor. Between my experiences in secondary school, between her experiences, between my career of becoming a high school math teacher, the incredible pressure we put on kids, some intended, some not intended, sometimes creates these stigmas. I'm not sure sometimes when I use the word stigma, I don't feel I was stigmatized or victimized.
We start creating an internal story of ourselves. I love that you shared the story with everybody because from the outside, you have so much success running this huge organization. People don't realize the stories we carry with us every time we get on stage and what we need to do and what we've overcome. One of the things that you talked about was listening to that inner voice that you are strong. That's such an important thing as people go through change that they're listening to that intuitive voice. Not necessarily the outside voices and what people are saying or think or whatever, but that intuitive voice saying, “I am strong enough. I know why I'm doing what I'm doing. There's going to come a time when I'm ready to make this pivot.” Was it that internal voice that once you got to college that you were like, “I'm going to overcome this, I'm going to change the course?” What was it that clicked for you that you wanted to make that change? I understand from being shy, but something else powerful was within you to even take that step because that's a hard change.
I've been a caregiver from an early age, as I mentioned. That caregiver may be an emotion giver. I was always very close to my mom. She was dealing with some challenges with my dad and my older brother who is classified as minimally brain damaged and made a decision to keep him in the house. I'm not even sure caregiver is the right term, but from a very early age, maybe because I wasn't the coolest kid, I didn't have a lot of external interfaces or engagements. I never had a lot of friends. In fact to this day, I say that all of all of my friends now are through my wife because she's very social.
I think that's normal though.
To this day, I'm going to be taking my same older brother out, because now my parents are gone and we have a way to make sure he's taken care of. I'm not even sure I remember my childhood the way you were sometimes with friends and parties and things. I almost feel like I skipped that part of it, but it was that sense of purpose that I've got a challenge and an opportunity here even as an eleven-year-old to step up. A few decades later, stepping up and it is about being strong. When you're a caregiver and even with this great opportunity I have with IMA being the CEO of a pretty large organization, people look to you. They're watching you all the time and it's great to be strong and self-confident. If you don't take care of yourself and let go of things that maybe are no longer fit for purpose or add things that are fit for purpose as the point person, whether it's from my mom, my brother, my team here. If you don't admit your frailties and your vulnerabilities, then you as the primary caregiver or chief inspirer or whatever it is then, then you’ve got to take care of yourself too. It sounds selfish, but it's even more prominent.
Those are the things that are assumed to be selfish but when we’re not good for ourselves, we aren't good for the people around us. What you shared, a lot of people, especially in the accounting and finance profession, may go in originally into this profession maybe because they branded themselves as introverted or shy or good at math. As change comes, like any profession, with technology disrupting so many professions now, these are the moments to understand why we're branding ourselves the way we are. One of the things that you pulled out was, “I'm a caregiver,” and as a caregiver, how is that my strengths to use with clients, with internal staff, the leader and so forth. It's important as we go through change that we're not just focusing on the education, the compliance requirements. It's these interpersonal reflections and skills that we need to have to make that change. When you are working with your team or working with members on change, how do you use those own life experiences in your path of this pivot to help others?
Another basic question but interesting and so many ways to go, I do a fair amount of reading, Stephen Covey and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. One of his habits is very simple, but seek first to understand and be understood and he has one around the end in mind. Sometimes you think about all that's going on with digitalization of audit, digitalization of about every profession and automation and what does it mean. It's important to keep the end in mind and don't change for change’s sake. I’m proud of the fact of what we've collectively done here at IMA to grow it over the last decade. We've doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size but we've doubled, tripled, quadrupled in influence, respect and relevance and making a difference in people's lives and the lives of our members and professionals. Yet when I think about change, we're taking a philosophy that our opportunity to make a difference. We're a purpose-driven organization, so it's purpose with profits because no money, no mission. You have that to fuel mission. On one hand, it can't be changed for change’s sake. On the other hand, sometimes when you've been incredibly successful like we have, we collectively, you can't let down your guard. In this business environment, with the challenges and opportunities of digital, geopolitical risk.
We have a huge business in China. What's the latest in the news now on the trade war? Is that going to influence the quest and the war on talent for getting the right interdisciplinary? What I've learned and I worked at AT&T for many years where we did let down our guard and we did become a little bit too comfortable. When you get comfortable and you applaud yourself too much and you don't have that same sense of urgency because you might be doing well in terms of your product P&L and all that. Are you creating an incredible experience for your members, for your customers? The answer is always no. You might be satisfying some to a certain degree. There are two extremes we try to avoid when it comes to the case for change.
One is you try to avoid panic. If a new competitor launches a product that you hadn't expected or there's a geopolitical risk, people expect more of their leaders than panic. The other extreme though is artificial harmony and complacency, “We're big enough or strong enough, let's watch it and see what happens.” The sweet spot is to try to create that everyday sense of urgency because at the end of the day, from an end in mind perspective, it's not about this great product you delivered. It's about the value you delivered to some consumer of your products and services. Did you make a difference in their lives? Did you make a difference in societal norms and expectations? We try to keep that passion, that relentless and unwavering spirit to achieve. We closed our fiscal year and had an incredible year, but we applauded and got our bonuses and now it's onto the next challenge, which is an enormous challenge.
What I'm hearing from you is one, if you feel yourself concerned or challenged, there is a pause there to step back of why you're even feeling it. Rather than going into that fear space or pushing against something new, stepping back and saying, “Why am I feeling this right now?” Assess it before you take action. The second is to never be comfortable is what I hear as well, “We did great. Now what are we going to do different? What are we going to keep working on? Where are our opportunities? What else can we keep doing to keep improving?” Is there anything else that you want to make sure that people walk away with as one of those big ideas to keep in mind?
The other related aspect to that is you think about innovation. I know innovation can be a buzzword, but innovation is a whole body of knowledge. It's very easy to fall into the commodity trap in the way we conduct business and the way we deliver goods and services. Innovation is critically important to differentiation and ultimately winning in the market. This whole digital robotics and automation is going to take jobs away. We could choose to let that happen, but we could also choose to upscale and take on some real uncomfortable skillsets and here we go. We've talked data scientists and data scientists are becoming a major part of the accounting and finance profession. We have an opportunity to make that happen.
Innovation is a body of knowledge. There are lessons learned, there's good, there's bad, there's ugly, there's incremental, there are brand-new creations. I think an organization now has to be on the leading edge of just about everything, innovation and technology. At the end of the day, it all starts with people. It's people and processes that enable technology and innovation. One could argue with the other way around, but I ultimately think it's people and their motivations and how they're inspired and how they are on this continuous quest to upscale themselves. Probably yesterday's accountant would say, “I never signed up to be a statistician and to be a data scientist.” You better at least learn the language or you were, quite frankly, maybe fit for purpose in a different era that has gone by.
To go back to your original story, innovation can seem this big word, but what you did from taking yourself from being shy to pushing yourself to take education program that was out of your wheelhouse, was out of your comfort zone. That's innovation. That is innovating who you are. It can be lots of paths where you find that these are the new skills or belief systems I need to break about myself in order to move to the next phase, in order to either help the organization, help me at home, whatever it is around people. To not be afraid of the word innovation that it can be all sorts of paths that you take.
Not to typecast accountants and finance people, but we do by nature tend to be pretty analytical and we know the rules and the generally accepted accounting principles and all that. We tend to be not so arts and crafts-y, but very technical and analytical, which could be doing a disservice to innovation. My favorite quote on innovation is from an author and a consultant. Unfortunately, she's since passed, Cynthia Barton Rabe. She said in one of her books, “Don't let what you know limit what you can imagine.” If you think about how many times you've been in a meeting or in a conversation and it could just be a regular meeting with a certain objective or it could be a brainstorming greenfield. You hear an idea to improve a process or to do something different that could create a greater outcome. You're like, “We can't. We don't have the money. We don't have the resources. We won't get cooperation from X, Y, Z.” You don't even give the idea the chance to aid a little bit, “Let's worry about the constraints a little later. Let's just talk about the idea, not get into the how.”
Sometimes we overthink early on and we squash ideas. At the end of the day, innovation starts with an idea. Innovation also can be in contrast with the accounting techniques such as risk management. Innovation is all about experimentation and taking risks, trial and error and failures. Innovation is a little more complicated than it might seem. You could certainly hoodwink your board, your customers and your members, but not for too long because at the end, they know what they're receiving as a product, service or a bundle from you. They know and they're the ultimate arbiter. The customer, the member, they are the ultimate truth serum for all they hear from a PR and annual reports and integrated reports.
This has been great. I like to end with some rapid-fire questions. You get to pick a category. It’s either in the category of your family, friends or coworkers. Second category is money, spirituality or health.
I'll pick the first one, family, friends and coworkers.
Just one thing or action I don't have that I want with my family, friends or coworkers.
In a perfect world, I'd have a complete, harmonious, respectful. I think some could argue that a little bit of tension, a little bit of disagreement is good and it probably is. My wife and I adopted two Hispanic boys and another girl and so they have extended family. We have this huge, nontraditional extended family. If I could wish upon a star, I'd like some of the harmony. That would be answer.
What about the things that you have that you want as far as your family, friends and coworkers?
Ultimately, at the core, foundationally, core values, who they are, what's inside their DNA as people. I have that and I absolutely want that. There's room to harmonize and smooth out the rough patches.
What about what you don't have that you don't want, so you don't want it to come into that area?
I don't want people who don't take control of situations. I don't want people who ultimately have hatred and take everything personally and look outside as opposed to inside. There are a lot of things you learn as a kid growing up with good parents, how to respect, how to treat people with dignity. I know it's not as simple as that when you get into the wild wooly world of corporations and things. I also don't think it's as hard as sometimes we make it seem.
Those are great answers. Thanks so much for sharing. Is there anything that you want to make sure readers know about IMA or follow up with things that you're doing that you'd like them to take note of?
The only thing I'd say is I love your book, Business, Balance, and Bliss. There are a lot of stereotypes and this gets into the diversity and inclusion in there. We tend to paint people with the same brush. For example, work-life balance, we tend to have this one brush. Everybody has their own ecosystem, their own situation. Ultimately, you've got to do the right thing, take care of yourself and influence and inspire people. That is very much situation-specific. We need to stay away from the stereotypes of what is the right balance and you must achieve balance. I work hard and I enjoy what I do. I'm making a difference. My wife is retired. We're finding that bliss. I don't get drawn into stereotypes, whether it's number of hours or those that say, "You absolutely should not stay connected.” Maybe for some. I'm an early riser, so I'm up before the rest of the family. I'm checking my email because I enjoy doing it and I'm like, “Why is that a bad thing from a societal perspective?”
It's noticing what works for you and what gives you that release. All the research says it's not about quantity of time, it's about quality. It's the things you find. It might not be exercise. My husband likes to play iPad games and he's gotten up to many levels, I think they wish he'd stop.
He could be a professional gamer.
Just on that one game though.
In the end, it's all inside you to create the balance that works for you, for your ecosystem of friends, family, loved ones, colleagues, cohorts, etc. That's how I'd close.
Thank you so much for joining and sharing your story and also give me exposure to people. If you haven't heard of the IMA before and how they serve, definitely look them up online. They're on social media as well. They're a great organization and can help you as an industry, accounting, finance, whatever area that you're in to help you in evolving your next phase. Thank you very much.
Amy, thank you.
I hope that you enjoyed my conversation with Jeff. I know that I did. I appreciated him being so open and honest about the experiences that he’s had in his life so that we could all learn from them. That’s where it comes to this point in our show of what I call Mindful Moments. Rather than rushing right back into your day, pausing and taking in some of the things that you heard that you might want to internalize yourself, and maybe take some actions in your next experience or into the future.
For me, one of the things that I’d like to pause on and reflect on is his comments about making excuses that we can’t affect change and it’s not within our control. Because there’s more under our control that we can even imagine, but we often want to blame outside circumstances. Whether that’s digital transformation or business process reorganization or things in our family life that are happening to us with our family, our friends, our coworkers, whatever that might be. We may think that we have no control over those situations, that they are just happening to us. When we step back as an observer, we can take a moment and not judge a situation but think about why those things are happening and also how we are responding. If there is a better way for us to respond, then maybe we would have.
Another thing that helps along this line that Jeff referenced was knowing our sense of personal purpose. That takes us throughout our lives that if we’re focused on personal goals or getting our children to the next level or our relationships to the next level, but not really understanding our why behind what we do and why we do it, then it is easier to blame outside circumstances for situations that we’re in. Rather than taking a step back and saying, “Am I aligned with my personal purpose, my values and how I want to show up in this world?” Take a moment and reflect on that before entering back into your day. Think about where you might have situations that are uncomfortable. What is your part in that situation and how are you affecting those situations? What is the energy that you’re putting out there? Is it positive? Is it neutral? Is it negative? Is it the energy that you want to put out there? Does it align to who you want to be?
About Jeffrey Thomson
Jeffrey C. Thomson, CMA®, CSCA®, CAE, is president and CEO of IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants). Since assuming this position in 2008, Mr. Thomson led the development of a strategy resulting in IMA becoming one of the fastest growing accounting associations in the world, with double digit growth in its CMA (Certified Management Accountant) program over the past five years.
During his previous position as IMA’s vice president of research, Thomson conducted research studies, authored numerous articles and a book, delivered dozens of presentations, and provided testimony to the U.S. Congress in the areas of risk management, internal controls, and corporate governance. He served as COSO board member from 2006 to December, 2011, during a period when COSO experienced growth in influential thought leader pieces and launched the internal controls refresh initiative.
Prior to joining IMA, Mr. Thomson worked at AT&T for more than two decades where he served in various financial, strategic, and operational roles. One of these roles included serving as the strategic CFO for an $18 billion dollar business unit.
Mr. Thomson was honored by Accounting Today by being included in the publication’s annual “Top 100 Most Influential People List” for the last seven years. He was also named by Trust Across America as one of the “Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior” for six straight years, and was honored with the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The Accountant/International Accounting Bulletin recognized Mr. Thomson in its Global Accountancy Power 50 list of leading influencers.
Under Mr. Thomson’s direction, IMA was named “Professional Body of the Year” by The Accountant/International Accounting Bulletin in 2017 and 2018.
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