Being true to yourself lies at the heart of building your brand, even in the nerdy world of accounting, according to self-styled “countess of communication” Geni Whitehouse.
AccountingWEB members may remember Geni Whitehouse as one of the US-based lecturers who turns her talks into comedy routines. The secret behind her delivery is that it lets her be herself, and her redneck-tinged Southern humour helps her get across serious points about accounting and marketing.
Whitehouse deliberately undermines stereotypes about the profession’s supposed objectivity by encouraging accountants to be themselves and have fun. The primary exhibit in her maverick marketing showcase is her own career, which has taken in technology companies, TEDx lectures and northern California wineries over the past decade or two.
“I love humour,” she says. “Everything has something funny about it. If I think it’s funny, then I can do it.”
In spite, or perhaps because of this constraint, Whitehouse has regularly been voted in the “most influential accountant” lists compiled by US publications. This article explains how she got there.
Proudly identifying herself as a nerd, Whitehouse loved maths as a child. From the age of 12 she “invested my life in wanting to be a CPA”.
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She achieved her ambition and worked her way up the ranks with Deloitte. She then moved to a smaller firm, where she was admitted to partnership in the mid-1980s.
“At that point I realised I didn’t want to be a partner,” she says. “I tried to be the best accountant I could be, but all I was doing was telling companies at the end of the year that they’d messed up.”
She realised that by dressing for success in a grey suit and playing the role of a public accountant, “I spent 90% of my effort trying to be professional and ignored the voice inside that said there’s more to this than I was doing.
“I asked myself, ‘Is this the best use of me, who I am and what I’ve got to offer the world?’ I realised I could be much more effective if I was just myself,” she says.
She frightened herself with these questions, but the moment she embraced her imperfections, a weight dropped off her shoulder and she found she was able to do useful work. Enter the Basset hounds.
Soul of a Basset hound
While working for Deloitte, she felt she had to project the image of a sleek and graceful Afghan hound, when inside she felt more like one of her beloved Basset hounds. “I started listening to that inner Basset hound. It was not necessarily graceful, but it was the sloppy-eared heart and soul of myself,” she told an audience of CPAs in Las Vegas last month.
“When I talk to myself that’s my Basset hound voice. If you like Basset hounds and you want someone to do your books - that works. I attract a lot of clients that way. I can talk about Basset hound things and work that relates to people in new ways.”
The core message here is to build a business around what you like to do. Where Basset hounds worked for her, a ballroom competitor could apply their skills to technology, for example. “Why not talk about how ballroom dancing is like technology? It’s just like following the steps - if you don’t do that, you look stupid,” she says.
Following her instincts, Whitehouse put in shifts in various accounting software companies, including Sage North America, and ended up moving to California. Now resident in Napa Valley, she devotes part of each week to consulting with local wineries.
In contrast to telling companies where they’ve gone wrong with their accounts, she feels she can make a difference by helping wine growers be successful.
“This is where the money is - telling them how to fix things,” she says. “Because I’m free to focus on that specific industry, I know everything that goes on in those companies. It gives you the power to go deep and really help your clients.”
One of tools that she uses with clients builds on her “be true to yourself” principle. It is a “$COPE” matrix ($-financial, capability, operations, people, end in mind) that culminates the key question, “Why are you in this business?”
Having constructed a comprehensive personal brand around communicating technical concepts with hounds, redneck humour and human-focused language, Whitehouse reinforces her “even a nerd can be heard” message with copious blogging, training and public appearances.
The number of online outlets for personal observations and advice is almost infinite, so whatever your proclivities it should be possible to find one that connects you to the kind of people you want to influence. Whitehouse claimed her “evenanerd” identity on every platform going, but chose LinkedIn as her main blogging outlet, where she is now listed as one of the “influencers” whose posts are promoted to the wider LinkedIn population.
She’s not so keen on Instagram. “What do we have pictures of in accounting?” she says. “Here’s a 1040K I’ve completed. Yay! That’s one social media platform I’m not going be on.”
To inspire other bloggers, she encourages them to make a list of their loves and hates, and to use that as a source of material - that way you’ll create posts around the things that fire your passions - both positive and negative.
Aside from social media, the other tool she deploys for marketing is training. At her Napa Valley firm she explained in a video interview at the US Accountex last year, the only marketing they do is training classes.
“If you understand concepts, you can teach a class. But don’t teach a boring class. Use good examples, put your personality into it and make it fun and interesting. That will set you apart from other accountants who aren’t offering training and is a really easy way to get your story out,” she says.
During these courses she uses a fictional vineyard called the Le Cou Rouge Winery to demonstrate the importance of good financial discipline. The name translates from French as “red neck” and reflects her quirky approach.
“When I talk about my redneck background, they’re too busy laughing to be frightened about the concepts I’m covering,” she says.
“That’s when it’s fun - when you can do something for them. As accountants, that’s when we earn our value. It’s not from ticking things off on a tax form. Let ‘em automate that stuff - let’s be more of a human.”
Hear more of Geni Whitehouse’s views on being a human accountant in this short audio interview from the event:
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About John Stokdyk
John Stokdyk is the global editor of AccountingWEB UK and AccountingWEB.com.