If there ever was a profession that would be considered dusty, old-fashioned, conservative and stuck-up, accountancy would be it. I don’t know about you, but when I think of an accountant, I think of a middle-aged man with a receding hairline, crunching numbers on one of those calculators that spit out a roll after roll of paper. He wears a suit to work every day in the most dashing colour of plain grey and packs a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. Old-fashioned, conservative, super professional.
Me on the other hand, I am really not. And to truly understand why, one needs to understand the Finnish mentality when it comes to communicating with other human beings. Us Finns you see, are people of few words. And each and every word we speak, comes out with meaning. Small talk doesn’t have a place in Finnish culture. If we want to know what the weather is like, we’ll look out of the window. If we ask you how you are, we truly want to know. We’re a bit like Germans that way; it’s all about efficiency, and if we can say something using two words, why would we say three? The word ‘please’ does not translate. There are semi-equivalent conjunction, but we do not say “could you pass the scissors please” but more “could you pass the scissors”.
With this being so different from the British way of talking, when I write something that I feel is “professional” and “to the point”, through various quite enlightening events, I have come to realise that to Brits, those same words come across as curt and near enough rude. So I have learned, along the year somewhere, to lighten my words. To push the professional wall aside and cheer my text up with friendly chatter. So, you’d think that in a small company where people are extremely friendly and comfortable with each other? Well, you’d be wrong. Because I found myself to be the least professional of the lot. Me, the FTSE100 baby. The corporate lazeabout in the conservative field. Less professional than the engineers.
I’ve found myself translating this friendliness towards vendors, starting emails with “Hi Helen” rather than “Dear Ms Piggy”. I’ve found myself skirting around subjects, undermining my thoughts rather than coming out straight with it. “Could you have a look at this as I’m not sure if I’m missing something” rather than “Could you adjust as this is incorrect”. I don’t even know why I feel that I need to be overtly submissive towards people that I don’t even know, and whom I will most likely never meet. For them, I will be yet another name in their address book, yet I treat them as if they’re long-lost pals.
I struggle with drawing lines professionally. Not in that I get overly drunk at the Christmas Party and feel up the MD; been there done that and I learned my lesson. Nowadays my private life is private, and work life is different. Work colleagues are not for socialising. What I mean is putting my foot down. Suppliers who skirt our PO requirement, colleagues who ignore the set processes, affiliates who ignore our rules. I let them slide because I have this internalised fear of coming across to harsh and rude. Rather than set the limits and stick to them, I’m almost like everyone’s favourite grandma who brings out the biscuit tin whilst muttering “I know I shouldn’t do this but just this once…” But it never is just that once. You give people an inch and they take a mile.
It’s especially hard trying to set limits when you do not get the backing of your superiors. When a third of the executive management is with you on the set limits, another third just bobs along with whatever and the last lot flaunt their disregard of the rules. Sure, you can demand PO’s unless it’s me who orders the stuff. Sure, make sure that everybody finds their own invoices, unless it’s me who asks. No, set the process but when I get involved, the process needs to be circumvented.
I came face-to-face with the results of my lax attitude the last week when I had to send the EXACT SAME standard blurb to one of my coworkers three times on three different issues. Each time they didn’t follow the process, tried to go around it and when I stuck to my grounds, got miffed. I had suppliers email me direct (which is against our vendor processes), using my “friendship” with them as leverage to get their way (aka to circumvent the processes we have). And when I stuck my ground, I could almost feel the cogs turn and the thought being that I must be in a bad mood because I’m not overtly friendly, nor am I letting them get away with murder.
It’s hard to admit your own shortcomings, and admitting that this mess you’re in is your own creation. But it’s something I had to do. I was constantly complaining that nothing was happening the way it was supposed to do, but could I realistically expect others to follow the processes I had set if I wasn’t following them myself? And more importantly, why was I presenting myself as someone who has relationships with these people when I…. Don’t? Why was I continuing to be more friendly than I am in real life in fear of offending someone I WILL NEVER MEET?
So I began to change. It started with sticking to my guns once. Let something else slide once, stick to my guns twice. My counsellor put it very well in that creating new behaviours is like walking in the snow. The first time you follow a certain path, it is difficult. Your feet sink deep within the snow and every step you take is laborious. But with every trip you take, every time you walk on that path it gets easier. And soon that path is so well-travelled that all the snow in your way has been trampled down and a clear path has been created. Your steps are easy and feel natural. Because you’ve done the ground work.
Do you struggle with professional boundaries?