I came to a surprising realization late in my career:
Most people do not understand financial statements.
- Why is this lack of understanding such a common problem?
- Why don’t we talk about it more?
- Are we too embarrassed, afraid we’ll diminish the esteem in which we are held by our peers?
Well, I don’t really know what the reasons are, but we do so at our own peril.
I think Steve LeFever sheds some insight on this complicated issue in his article titled “What are You Pretending Not to Know?” Many of us do pretend to understand what our accountant is talking about when the subject is our financial statements – but the reality is, we often do not even know what the questions should be! ~Jack Lance
What Are You Pretending Not to Know?
Watch cable news, scan a few TV commercials, or flip through any newspaper these days and it would seem that there are no mysteries any more. Let’s face it, we know way too much about too many people’s habits, problems, and proclivities. We’ve got more factoids, tidbits, inklings, stats, blogs, tweets and so-called expert opinions (legal and otherwise) than we can use in a lifetime – except when it comes to the inner workings of our own family business. It’s often our single biggest investment; the entity into which we’ve poured our efforts and yet at the core, paradoxically, it can be as mysterious as the continent of Africa.
Here are some of the more interesting unsolved mysteries we’ve encountered from conversations with business owners:
- “Why am I so confused over what my profit was for the last three years and what my actual inventory is at year-end?”
- “Why does my balance sheet show a negative net worth and what can I do about it?”
- “Why does my new banker insist that I pay off my credit line now?”
- “When are mom and dad finally going to retire and which of my siblings will inherit the business? Is there a written buy-sell plan in place somewhere?”
- “Why do I feel like my Dad’s CPA gives me the run-around when I try to get answers?”
We’ve found there’s a consistent process in the unearthing of and resolution to these mysteries:
Death, illness, and infirmity bring transition issues to a head. No prior planning usually brings unpleasant surprises.
New banker in town
Credit lines need to be paid off, timely and accurate financials submitted, and questions need to be answered.
Joining an industry peer group
Especially when you have to share your financial data and, as they say in the biz, “Get naked in front of your group.” You start seeing your business, muffin tops and all, and think about a plan to get in shape.
Declining markets/increased competition… Nothing like that new chain coming to town to get you on your toes!
New Advisor, CPA or coach
Good sign is when you hear them ask, “that’s interesting – can you tell me why you handle X that way?” way before you start hearing any advice.
If it doesn’t come from outside influences or events, sometimes it comes from within. A great book, a peer who has successfully faced the same issue, or someone who kept their head in the sand until it was too late.
The simple question, “What am I going to do today to make things different tomorrow,” is where it all starts.
Where Do You Go From Here
You can’t do it alone. Get help. Join a peer group, find someone who’s been there, done that, and/or assemble a great team of advisors.
Bring in an outside party if appropriate
We can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen an apparent unresolvable family business dispute resolved when a skilled intermediary is brought in.
Be determined, don’t take no for an answer, but be patient. If your financial statements are a mess, it will take some time and patience to get them accurate. Keep the faith that it will happen, just not overnight.
Realize it’s usually the question you are most afraid to ask that must be answered. Take a minute now to write down the answer to this question:
What am I pretending not to know?