Management Accountants' Roles on Cross-Functional Teams

By Siegel, Gary | Strategic Finance, March 2000 | Go to article overview
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Management Accountants' Roles on Cross-Functional Teams


Siegel, Gary, Strategic Finance


Cross-functional teams help integrate organizations and enhance decision making by bringing together people with different perspectives who perform different functions in the organization. The IMA Practice Analysis, Counting More, Counting Less, revealed that nearly three-fourths of management accountants work in companies where they and their colleagues are members of cross-functional teams. Company size doesn't matter: For every 100 management accountants who are on a team in companies with large finance departments (more than 50 professionals), there are 75 on teams in smaller finance departments (one to nine professionals).

The business position that accountants play on the team is straightforward. They can be involved in anything, from simply doing the budgeting or accounting for the team to researching alternatives to being a business advisor. Their roles on the teams are rich and varied. This month's column focuses on the roles that management accountants play.

Leadership Role. Management accountants are increasingly taking on the team leadership role. When not leading, they often become key players on the team. Why?

Part of the reason, according to a management accountant at a Caterpillar production facility is "because the finance people have more of a grasp of the total operation." Management accountants do more than simply "work with all departments." To build or monitor a department's control system, management accountants need a thorough understanding of what that department is supposed to do and how it should do it. Compared to people in other disciplines, management accountants have more business information available to them and a better understanding of how departments should be working together.

One management accountant provided an historical perspective. "We used to be on teams where, for example, an engineer would talk with a product manufacturing guy or a purchasing guy about a future project. There might also be a quality-type person or logistics person. And the accountant was in the middle of all this. Because of our discipline and the debit/credit mentality, we often became the secretary for those kinds of teams. We would be the one who said: 'This has got to be done by this point.' We became very good at project management and over time became more integral to the teams. We became team leaders because we were good at project management."

"I think that in many cases, the accountants would like somebody else to lead the team," said a management accountant at Caterpillar headquarters, "but that doesn't seem to be the way it works out. It is usually the accounting person that ends up leading the team." When others are in control, progress could be slow. "But as soon as the accounting person takes over, things move along." The accountant will set the timetable, specify the information needs, determine resource requirements, and assign tasks and deadlines. "The accounting person will pull it all together, guide the team, and make sure we are heading in the right direction."

The Enterprise Perspective Role. With their unique ability to see across all the business functions, management accountants are perceived as knowing what the correct course of action is for the company. The other team members expect management accountants to speak from an enterprise perspective and to explain why an alternative may or may not make sense for the company.

The Business Advisor Role. Team members rely on management accountants for help with an array of business questions. A Boeing accountant describes his role as "analysis, data gathering, analysis, and business advice." At US West, "They look to us not just to crunch numbers, but to create options, develop scenarios, participate in decisions, and create ways to measure and monitor success. They expect us to be flexible in our thinking." A Hewlett-Packard accountant sums it up by saying that "the role of finance is a full business partner.

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