By Austin, Kent R.
Government Finance Review , Vol. 29, No. 1
A famous management handbook, first published in 1946 and reprinted continuously since then, opens with this memorable sentence: "You know more than you think you do."
This simple yet profound statement is found in Dr. Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care; it is intended to comfort first-time parents who feel overwhelmed in their new role. The same concept holds true for finance officers --they know more than they think they do. Learning, or acquiring knowledge, and gaining experience are continuous processes, resulting in an enormous aggregation of memories, thoughts, feelings, likes, and dislikes.
Whether in government finance or any other line of work, individuals are hired to be problem solvers. Consequently, what an individual brings to a job is far richer and deeper than simply specific technical knowledge in a given field. An individual possesses a lifetime of information and emotions that come from an untold number of sources; the sum total of your life's experience comprises every book, magazine, comic book, and newspaper you have ever read; every family member, friend, coworker, and acquaintance you have ever met; every movie, TV show, and Internet video you have ever watched; every vacation, business trip, and daily commute you have ever taken; and every class, seminar, training session, and workshop you have ever attended.
So why limit on-the-job problem solving to the technical knowledge and skills required by the job description? Each of us knows so much more than we think we do, and harnessing this huge base of knowledge in the service of achieving a unit's mission can be extremely powerful. To begin making sense of everything and developing a mission focus, think of three traits traditionally considered undesirable--indifference, intolerance, and self-interest. Turning these negative traits inside out provides a way of renewing one's approach to life and work--a personal and professional mission "reboot."
Traditionally, indifference refers to a lack of interest or a disdain for the importance of specific ideas, places, or people. Around 1530, Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Roman Catholic order of priests known as the Jesuits, developed a radically different interpretation. To him, the purpose of man's existence is to love and serve God. A Jesuit would thus seek to be "indifferent" to all else--he would consider everything else as secondary to the central goal. This "Ignatian indifference" gave the Jesuits tremendous clarity and focus that drove them to accomplish incredible things in the service of their goal.
While theological concepts from the 16th century seem far removed from local government challenges of the 21st century, the Jesuit emphasis on mission is instructive for today's finance officers. It is easy to become consumed with an increasing number of tasks, which seem to accumulate with each year. We become busier and busier, never feeling caught up and never spending enough time on planning.
One could liken this phenomenon to the attachment of barnacles to a ship's hull. Over time, the accumulated barnacles increasingly act as a drag on the ship's ability to move through the water and maintain direction. Although everything looks fine above the water line, more course corrections and engine power are required to maintain the proper heading and rate of speed. And predictably, it is almost impossible to remedy these impairments while trying to sail on as before. Periodically, then, the ship must be taken to dry dock so that the barnacles can be removed, new marine paint can be applied, and the engines can be overhauled.
Similarly, finance officers need to pause and reflect on the essential mission of their organization. This does not require lofty vision or mission statements, elaborate goals and objectives, or detailed action plans. With the mission in mind, the obstacles--the "barnacles"--impeding quality service delivery can be identified and remedied. …