Planning for the worst can make things turn out better

Pessimism is an important character trait for the effective finance director, says Helen Simmons of the Diocese of London

Helen Simmons
Helen Simmons

I've said before that one of the key characteristics that can hold accountants back from being good chief executives is pessimism - although it doesn't prevent it, as shown by David King, the excellent former chief executive of Samaritans.

Although we have never studied pessimism, it gets into our veins somehow. Perhaps there is a drug concealed in our Institute of Chartered Accountants membership cards.

But I'm not going to argue that we should be less pessimistic. It's a necessary trait that helps to make us excellent risk mitigators and it balances the excess optimism in our chief executives and other colleagues. Imagine if we actually let them set the budget on their own.

You cannot imagine my unease when last month I met an optimistic accountant for perhaps the first time in my life. He was helping a small charity to manage its land development. He was charming, a good communicator, skilled and hard working. But his optimism about the project had not helped the trustees to recognise they were on the verge of financial disaster.

His cash flow included some grant income that was unlikely to be received, he assumed the project would complete on time when the site manager had said it was not going to happen, he assumed that terms already contracted with other parties would be easily renegotiated with phone conversations, and there was no general contingency of any kind.

For the non-financial trustees, the accountant or treasurer is seen as a professional to be trusted and relied on. It's a big responsibility and not to be taken lightly, as many of you know.

We can never have all the answers at our fingertips, but by building in prudence and contingency buffers throughout our project plans, in proportion to the scarcity of resources in reserve, we earn our reputation as safe hands and wise counsel.

The charity in question might survive, but not without a crisis. And the trustees will be wise to take more care in future, if they have one.

Let's not see pessimism as an ugly characteristic. In fact, it makes accountants a fairly happy bunch, because much of the time things turn out better than we expected. Hope for the best - but please, let's continue to plan for the worst.

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