What I learned from War Dogs that can translate to accounting
I recently read the book “Arms and the Dudes” and I saw the movie War Dogs as well.
What intrigued me about this story was how two young people could succeed in an industry run by huge old companies. The industry was defense contracting. I viewed it as something similar to 2 twenty year-olds establishing an accounting firm that competed with the big 4.
I recommend reading the book because there was a lot of detail about the levels of corruption in our government in the book that was not shown in the movie.
The two men in this book were gun runners. They were gun runners because they were involved in transporting guns.
Their main task was to ship guns and ammo to the Afghan Army after the Iraq war. America was trying to help build the Afghan army, so it decided to stock them up with guns and ammo.
The only problem was that the American government wanted to do this cheaply. They did not want to deal with crooked people. There was no easy way to do this cheaply without dealing with corrupt people, so the American government built a buffer. The solution was to do this through contractors.
During this period in American history, the Bush administration was awarding many no-bid contracts to contractors like Halliburton. Halliburton was associated with Dick Cheney and other Washington insiders. The public wanted that rectified.
Thus Washington passed a series of laws that required the government to consider small businesses when awarding contracts. That’s how the two dudes in this book pop up. They had family members who were gun runners and they both had entrepreneurial can do spirits. They saw the ability to succeed in the massive build up to the war, and they took advantage of it.
This is where the lessons come in that I think can be applied to public accounting
Lesson 1: Time in chair is valuable
Older individuals (in corporations or in the government) trust people that have spent a lot of time in one chair at one company. People are always suspicious of young successful people. Old people that took a long time to succeed always dislike and are suspicious of young successful people. Just because someone is young doesn’t mean they aren’t more driven than you and can succeed in business and in their careers faster than you did.
The two dudes in this book and movie were constantly battling that perception. They always had to fight against the stereotype that they were young and didn’t know anything. At the end of the day, they delivered functioning guns and munitions to the Afghan army. By doing this, they were central in America’s war efforts in Afghanistan. They deserved some credit but never received it.
This same lesson is also true in accounting. Young people have to work against partners thinking you don’t know anything. Even if you’ve had a over 20 clients throughout your career and have experienced a lot of things, partners still discount you. You don’t start garnering respect until you are around 40. Additionally clients don’t think you know anything until you are older. A lot of the time in accounting people don’t listen to you until you have more grey in your hair. I think this is ludicrous.
Lesson 2: Always make other people look good
The one thing these guys didn’t do well was make others look good along the way. They didn’t hire a lobbyist when they needed to. This was one of their central problems. They also ran into many legal issues but never had someone in Washington that could make their lives easier. A lobbyist could have greased the right wheels and help grow the dudes’ business.
Lesson 3: Don’t be cheap
They also underpaid or didn’t pay a lot of the people they worked with along the way. No one stood up for them in the end because everyone had a bad taste in their mouth from working from them. The people they underpaid, paid late or didn’t pay at all were central in making sure these dudes failed.
You see this a lot in the big 4 accounting firms. Partners and the big 4 in general love underpaying associates and administrative employees. Administrative employees can make the big 4 much more successful if the partners were willing to pay for good assistants. Instead this is where the big four firms skimp the most. The partners are millionaires working with assistants that earn barely anything. If partners paid for great assistants, the big 4 firms would operate more efficiently. More time could be spent on servicing clients versus going back and forth with assistants. Since partners and firms don’t hire good assistants, associates, senior associates and managers are often left doing a lot of the admin for the partners. Admin at the top accounting firms should be done by well-paid assistants or completely outsourced, but the firms are too stubborn and cheap to pay for it.
Lesson 4: Treat everyone well
Make sure you treat everyone well. When something goes south, people won’t be swift to throw you under if they remember you in a positive light. For example if you treat a client well, and something goes wrong on the account because of you; they won’t throw you under to your partner.
Additionally if you screw something up on a partner’s account and he or she figures it out, they won’t punish you if you’ve always treated them well and made them look good.
That’s another thing that happened in War Dogs. The main character was consistently an asshole and trying to screw people over. In the short term it served him well, but in the long term it landed him in legal trouble and behind bars. Being an asshole is easy. Being nice is not, but it is better and yields lasting results.
Lesson 5: Don’t do unethical things unless you are prepared to go all the way
In this book, the main character was definitely a sociopath and evil, but his partner was not. Yet he did ask his partner to do unethical things. One of the unethical things he had him do was forge documents and financial statements. He always thought that I just have to forge these last set of documents and then that will be it. He also always saw the main character screw people over and never thought it would be him.
Surprise the unethical deeds did not stop, and he got screwed over.
This lesson always applies to public accounting. Don’t think just because other people do unethical things, that you can do it and get away with it. Also don’t do unethical things and think that will be the last time you have to do it.
In the case of EY, senior partners at the firm were aware of unethical behavior, and they did nothing about it.
Don’t get involved in unethical situations and if you see something shady say something. Even if you have to go to the SEC.
You don’t want your name to hit the headlines because you thought unethical behavior would stop by itself. All the people in the unethical accounting situations mentioned above thought nobody was looking. They also thought that none of the bad behavior was ever going to pop. Now their names have been dragged through the mud on the front page.
Don’t let that be you. Read Arms and the Dudes and watch War Dogs and ask yourself how you’d fare in similar situations. Would you bend the rules to earn an extra buck or would you do the right thing. You’ll never know unless you start asking yourself the question now.