Is Leadership the Engineer’s Kryptonite?

Excerpts from the Speech given at Association of Professional Engineers Trinidad and Tobago 57th Annual Awards and Honour Function.

I have worked with engineers for most of my working career in the old and gas sector. These women and men are absolutely brilliant. Yet I have witnessed many A class Engineers struggle to become A class managers. Therefore I can only ask “Is leadership the Engineer’s Kryptonite?”
I reached out via Linked In to some of my engineering colleagues around the world and posed two questions:

  1. What are the challenges that engineers face when they get into management/ Leadership positions?
  2. What are the three pieces of advice that you will give an engineer who is moving into a leadership[/ management position?

I will reframe the feedback and the remedies using my Organisational Development language.  The three challenges the engineer faces are

  1. Leadership style
  2. Thingification of the organisation
  3. Understanding the field

Leadership style
Engineers are promoted to management as a reward for a performing a technical job well ( thus far this is the way that organisations have figured this out). As a result the engineer steps into leadership, behaving the way that he always has, doing the things that have worked well for him, in the past.

She acts as a hero – A great engineer knows everything about her job. She has many years’ experience and knows exactly what to do. Just as Superman does not allow the firemen to extinguish the flames of the burning building, this manager tells team members what to do, without allowing team members to problem solve. She is impatient with failure, since she preferences success over failure’s value as a learning tool. She misses the field work and compensates by micro managing teams and getting involved with the minutiae of daily activities. Some of these heroes do not share knowledge and as a result, team members are often frustrated. While they admire and respect the  manager’s intelligence and experience, they are concerned that they won’t develop the talents that will in turn make them great engineers.
He is a shadow leader – This manager stands with his back to the sun, casting a long shadow over the team. These managers want mini-mes, they want team members to act and think like them and to do things the way that they do them. They forget that they have the benefit of experience and that they were allowed to hone their own personal style.
He displays Paternalism This attitude is reflected in the manager’s thinking that he “knows best” or “it’s my way or the highway”. This leads to the stifling of the opinions and the eventual dumbing down of the team members.  How would you know if you are paternalistic? If you find yourself saying “ after all I have done for them” or referring to team members as “ungrateful” or “selfish” then you may be paternalistic.

Some remedies for these afflictions are:
Be a Host not a Hero – if ever you went to or hosted a great party you know what to do. A great hosts selects the guest list, ensures that the food choices cater for religious restrictions and allergies, introduces people to each other, then leaves guests to enjoy the party even while keeping a watchful eye. The manager who acts as a host supports the growth and development of team members, helps them to network and keeps a birds eye view on what is happening with the team.

Let the sunlight fall on team members instead of casting shadows. Allow team members to develop their own style and support them to do so. Allow them to be recognised for doing great things. They won’t steal your thunder, because every win for a team member is a win for you as leader.

Build adult to adult relationships with team members. They are not kids. These are people who balance budgets, take care of households and care for aging parents. They deserve to have their intelligence and creativity honoured and to be treated with dignity in our interactions with them.

Thingification of an organisation – Engineers deal with things. Therefore leading teams provides a contradictory experience. Gone is the high probability of the consequences of actions and decisions taken, since an organisation is not a thing. An organisation comprises of humans who are interrelating and interacting through communication with each other along the parameters of process, function or department of the organisations’ structure. This creates situations of high unpredictability since different people react differently to different situations.
Engineers are great at fixing things and slowly he comes to realise that he can’t fix people, and there is no formula that serves all people.

A manager needs to work on his relationships with the individuals in his team. He needs to understand what makes each team member tick and motivate each of them from this place. The manager can view himself as a mentor and adopt this attitude when dealing with his people. Leaders can take the opportunity to self reflect and do the personal work that may be getting in the way of their own professional development. Wherever we go we take all of whom we are so the messiness of our personal situations if not resolved eventually seep unto the jobs.

Understand the field. Systems theorists share that we are all connected to multi systems. For example, an engineering manager is part of his engineering team, and also part of the management team, which is nested in your organisation. The organisation is part of an industry sector which belongs to all businesses operating in Trinidad. All businesses are part of Trinidad and Tobago, nested within the Caribbean and the wider world. This means that a manager now bumps up against other systems that he did not have to engage with when he was an engineer. When I worked in oil and gas I had many interesting interactions with engineers. When a piece of equipment needed replacing, engineers did wonderful research to identify what was the most technologically advanced piece of equipment. As an accountant my interest was in three things. Is it within budget?  What is the return on investment? What is the payback period? My selection process was based on highest return on investment, the shortest payback period and the cost within budget. Engineer managers need to have similar dialogues with other non technical managers in their respective fields. As part of a management team he is expected to understand that the business needs are beyond the newest technology.  He needs to appreciate that there are external and internal stakeholders who may not be part of the daily operations but whose decisions impact on what occurs on a daily basis. Those of us who operate in multinationals know that an event that occurs in China may impact on local business decisions.
The Manager is advised to to expand his professional networks, both within and external to the organisation, to include non technical professionals. Expand the reading base beyond Popular Mechanics to include management and leadership information. And while in transition from technical expert to manager get a mentor or a coach.

All is not lost for the engineering manager because he / she can decide that he/she wants to be a better leader and this is a powerful first step. Some questions to assist with the transition will be:
How do you define leadership?
What is your reason for leading a team?
What is your stance as a manager/leader?

Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win. She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations. She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.

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Tips for Effective Leaders

As leaders we will have many successes and failures. I had several failures that matched my many achievements. In last week’s blog I shared ten tips that will assist leaders to be effective. In this blog I will share more of what I learned.
To be effective, leaders need to:

  • Leaders need to count to 10
  • Leaders need to be able to fail and to support failure
  • Leaders need to be consistent
  • Leaders need to be responsible
  • Leaders need to be honest
  • Leaders need to be trustworthy
  • Leaders need to be fair
  • Leaders need to be open to suggestions
  • Leaders need to ask open ended questions
  • Leaders not to take themselves seriously
  • Leaders need to have fun with their teams

Over the next weeks I will be sharing more details on each of these tips.  If you have any questions on any of these tips, feel free to let me know.

Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win. She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations. She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.

Ten Tips for Leaders

All leaders will develop their own definition of leadership. Mine is simply harnessing the creativity and intelligence of the people that I work with. This definition governs my actions, my behaviours and my leadership style.  I needed to change old behaviours and adopt new  attitudes to lead as I believed.  From this I developed a list of what worked for me and did not work.  Today I share with you the first 10 tips for effective leadership.

To be effective, leaders need to:

  1. Actively work on personal development
  2. Assume that team members act from a place of good intentions
  3. Be humble
  4. Be able to hear a different opinion and not feel threatened
  5. Communicate effectively
  6. Check the motive behind personal thoughts and actions
  7. Give team members the benefit of the doubt
  8. Have a sense of humour
  9. Say sorry or “I was wrong” and not have a meltdown.
  10. Understand personal  level of emotional intelligence

Which of these ten tips resonate with you?  Which of these do not?

P.S. If you want any further explanation on any of the tips, drop me a line and I will give some more details. I will share the rest of the changes that I needed to make next week.

This blog is an adaptation of Lead Your Team to Win (Attong, 2014)

Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win.  She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations. She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational  Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, and an Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.

3 ways Leaders help teams do great work

Steve Jobs, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be satisfied, is to do what you believe is great work”

This quote from Steve Jobs resonates deeply with me. There was a time that I felt that the work that I did was not great. It was accurate, and well received, but I didn’t feel that it made a difference – to the company nor to the people with whom I worked. I didn’t feel heard or seen and I didn’t think that anyone was particularly interested in my ideas ( At times, I was told that no one was interested.)
These experiences set me off on a lifelong journey – to find meaningful work. Work that will pay the bills, work that will leave me with a deep sense of achievement, and work that will make a difference to the people around me. Thus began an exciting, tumultuous journey during which I discovered my happy and sweet spot.
Many leaders have similar stories that explain the careers they enjoy. They can trace the decisions and choices, the roads that they took and the paths that they denied to get to the career/ role that fulfils them on a daily basis.
Leaders, let’s extend this sense of satisfaction to our teams.  As we stand in front of our teams, this week, I ask that we take a look at the faces before us, listen to the comments and observe the relationships, and ask ourselves – Are team members doing great work?
As we harness the creativity and intelligence of our teams in pursuit of our leadership, we can assist team members to do great work, or find the work that they believe is great work.
While it’s a matter of personal choice and how you view your leadership, I ask you to consider with whom do you prefer work? Do you want to work with team members who believe that they are doing great work or those who are working in misery, wishing that they were doing something else or that they were working differently?
I guarantee that it’s much easier to achieve team objectives when the people we work with believe that they are doing great work.  I can share with you three tips that I have successfully used to help team members to find satisfaction in the work they do and to believe that they are doing great work.

  1. Help team members set personal vision – Just as a journey starts with a destination, the personal vision, becomes a compass point that provides guidance.  It simplifies decision making as we are on the path as only one question becomes important – “Will this action help me achieve vision?” Team members can realign personal and professional choices to vision, to discover what great work means to them.
  2. Share your experiences – We learn what is possible from hearing the experiences of others. We can mimic their actions, or we can build on the foundation set or we can be inspired to be bold, to take a risk or to do something different. Leaders note that tone ,timing and intention are important considerations when sharing. This will keep us from boasting or bombarding team members with stories at inappropriate or unwelcome times or pretending that our journey was a simple or easy affair, or that we knew everything at every step of the way. As we share our story we can honestly tell of our failures and successes, what prompted decisions  and the benefits, the fallouts, and the repercussions of the choices we made.
  3. Listen to them – As team members are figuring out the way forward, or establishing their personal vision, they need to talk, to explore, to understand where they are at. They will need a non-judgemental neutral ear that listens from a place of deep compassion and curiosity. The leaders stance during these interactions is critical for the team member to dare to set a personal vision. The leader’s encouraging ear gives the team member the freedom to explore and the confidence to think beyond his current expectations.

Sometimes to find great work the team member’s job may need to change, or they may need to join another team or another organisation. One of the best gifts that a leader can give his team is the belief that great work exists and that they have the means to find it.

How can you help team members do great work?  What will it take for your team members to believe that they are doing great work?

Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win.  She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations. She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational  Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.

4 Tips for Servant Leaders

 Maxine I totally agree, I think most of us suffer from the hero leadership syndrome so to speak. In my more humble moments, I think about my lord and saviour whose example of leadership, i.e. servant leadership served him well. He knew when to listen, when to talk, when to give, and how to receive. He practiced the virtue of waiting, and had the courage to admit mistakes and take responsibility. He did all this through serving others (host). By hosting (serving) there can be no loss because everyone wins and the problem/challenge is managed for the best outcome for all. – Delia Joseph GM – PMSL

The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf.  In his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader, he shares “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions”

While Delia’s feedback indicates that she views leadership from a religious perspective, her thoughts are very much aligned to Greenleaf’s idea of the servant leadership. (They both view servant-leadership as a life philosophy, as well as, a leadership style.)

Servant leaders share power. They encourage, support and enable team members to unfold their full potential and abilities and invite team members to participate in planning work and making decisions. Characteristics such as trust, empathy, collaboration and the ethical use of power are necessary for this type of leadership to succeed. These leaders bravely debunk the idea of the leader at the top of the food chain and willingly share responsibility and accountability to create more effective teams. Leaders who practice servant-leadership know that this is not an easy path, since it does not preference personal egoistic needs, and often goes against most of what we have learned and seen in leaders – leading from the front, making all decisions, taking full responsibility, delegating, managing, co-ordinating.

For those of us who want to adopt this noble practice I offer four tips, to keep you on track:

  1. Establish Boundaries – In all relationships there are non-negotiable values or principles that we hold dear. Determine what these are for you personally and lead with these in mind. Share these with team members and seek to understand what are their non-negotiable values. Just as the host limits the access of guests to areas of her space – perhaps her bedroom – so too the servant leader determines his boundaries.
  2. Self Care – Serving others can be draining. After attending to the needs of  others, the server must extend self care to himself, to give himself the opportunity to restore, rejuvenate and to rest. Servant leaders need to retreat, to have a sounding board in someone that they trust, and to take time outs for themselves by themselves.
  3. Saying “No” -Saying “No” is essential for maintaining boundaries and practicing self care. Without “No” boundaries become negotiable and self care is optional to the whims, desires, wants and needs of others. The leader articulates “No” without feeling guilt or shame knowing that she is not being egoistic. The leader says “No” believing that she is standing in her personal power, true to her principles and serving the needs of the team .
  4. What would Jesus Do? For those of us who approach servant leadership from a religious perspective, let us ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?” Jesus was a complex man, who from an early age questioned and challenged the status quo. While he was humble and served his people he was great at setting boundaries, saying “No”, speaking his truth, standing up for what he believed in and having courage. He showed a whole other side to the kid version of gentle Jesus, meek and mild.

What type of leadership do you practice? What tips do you use to keep yourself on track?

Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win.  She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations.  She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational  Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.

Shadows vs Mirrors – Leadership Paradox

When I was a kid, I loved playing with my shadow. With my back to the sun, I casted my shadow over everything, fascinated by the way it grew and diminished according to the placement of the sun.
As a teenager, I walked in others’ shadows to learn the ropes, to understand the best paths to walk and to easily fit in. By adulthood, I accepted that to grow I had to forge my own path, take what I learnt in the safety of the shadows and convert it to my truth as I exposed myself to the sun.
Larry Senn, in his 1970 doctoral thesis popularised the idea of “shadow of a leader.” His research showed that organisations often become shadows of their leaders.
People want to emulate leaders even without being bullied or coerced (to do so). Staff mimic the language, the style and the behaviour of the leaders as they try to understand the culture, to fit in, to negotiate and manoeuvre their way through the organisation, and to be promoted.
Whether intentional or not, leaders set the culture of the organisation by their expressions of personal likes or dislikes, their personal traits and characteristics and their behaviour.
They stand with their backs to the sun casting long shadows over the organisation. No doubt that Senn was onto something but should we as leaders some 47 years later, be casting shadows in our organisations?
We want our teams to have the same core values and to be aligned to organisational vision, but does this translate to staff being “a chip off the old block?”
Yes we want the stability that homogeneity brings, but how does that serve us in times of change?
We are all human, therefore by design we have flaws. Consequently, as leaders there are times when we are flawed in our thoughts, words and deeds. What if the shadows we cast include our flaws? What if as leaders we project shadows that conjure shadow puppets (changing fingers and hands to wonderful sights) – that are miles from the truth?

When I determined how I wanted to lead and decided the reasons why I wanted to lead I was no longer interested in having mini-mes on my team. While team members and I needed to be on the same page with respect to core values, vision and how we wanted to work, it was important that each team member bring who (s)he was to the workplace. In this way, we created a team of diverse opinions and skills, we challenged each other, we provided different opinions and thoughts and in this way we each grew.
I often held up a mirror to myself to see what I needed to change. I also held that mirror up for team members so that they could see themselves and autocorrect as they needed to. At times, I had to hold the mirror up for the team and determine what qualities were missing in the team, then decide to adopt and encourage others to adopt the relevant behaviour.

Leaders can consider being a mirror in and for the organisations in which we work. We can model the organisational culture that we want, even when it bucks the prevalent culture. We can reflect another way of working that invites meaningful conflict which may be suppressed when all staff sing off the same hymn sheet. We can promote the growth and development of individuals so that they display their full intelligence. We can create environments for risk taking that invite creativity. We can harness the variety and diversity that team members bring to spur our organisations forward.

To look in the mirror, we have to step out of the shadows, become aware, take responsibility and determine with team members what actions need to be taken to achieve our agreed destination.

Whose shadow are you walking in? What shadows are you casting on your team?

Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win.  She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations.  She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational  Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.

Family or Team – Leadership Paradox

“We are family” sings Sisters Sledge, “Everybody get up and sing.”
While it’s ok to shake and shimmy to this song at the office party, I hope that no company adopts this tune as its theme song.
“We are family.” While I can appreciate that these three words generate warm fuzzy feelings and engender sentiments of belonging and safety, I truly believe that they are inappropriate to describe an organisational setting or culture.
When organisations pull the family card, I wonder “If you are family, then who is the father, who is the mother and who are the children?’
The family narrative plays out in several ways.
Very often there is the paternalistic father figure, who dispenses advice and shares his wisdom whether solicited or not. He knows best, the team unquestioningly follows his lead and does as he says. He gives treats for good behaviour and metes out “fair and just” punishment when orders are not followed.
On several occasions, I have had to explain to team members that I am not a big sister nor am I a mother. There seemed to be an unspoken assumption that because my gender is female, that I should be more understanding, more compliant, more forgiving than my male counterparts. I was expected to have a sixth sense and to display an inordinate amount of caring. If not, then I automatically became a witch. Being female has never made me more intuitive, or clued in or sensitive to what is going on with people. I have had to stop, ask questions and listen empathetically to understand situations. This did not come with my femininity and “No” it’s not a gift. It’s a skill that I have honed.
When leaders adopt paternalistic or maternalistic roles they are setting up co-dependent relationships with team members. Members become dependent, they do not have to think for themselves and as with all dependency relationships they secretly harbour ill feelings towards the parental figures. The parent figures also become burdened, wondering why the teams don’t show initiative or are not proactive. This gives them (leaders) even more reason to keep on parenting.
I want to work with adults, with brilliant, creative adults who take personal responsibility for their actions and can be held accountable. I want to create adult-to-adult relationships in which, each party is responsible for tending to the relationship. I want to work with people who will take a risk and are willing to make mistakes. I do not want to bribe or coerce team members to work. I want to work with people who want to work, because they think that something in the work does something for them. I want to lead a team of adults.

I have had many team members throughout my career, I have never had an office husband or an office wife, no one was a little sister or a father figure to me. I treat team members as adults and simply ask that they do the same to me. Each day I leave my family and go to work with teams.

How do you describe your team and the members-  work family or adults? How is that working for for you? How is it working for the people that you lead?

Maxine Attong is the author of Lead Your Team To Win and Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual.  She is an Executive Coach, an Organisational Development Consultant, and a Certified Accountant.  Maxine works with leaders and teams to create more effective organisations.

 

 

Hero vs. Host: Leadership Paradox 1

Margaret Wheatley (2011) writes “For too long, too many of us have been entranced by heroes. Perhaps it’s our desire to be saved, to not have to do the hard work, to rely on someone else to figure things out…And we keep believing it. Somewhere there’s someone who will make it all better. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s visionary, inspiring, brilliant, trustworthy, and we’ll all happily follow him or her. Somewhere…”
Historically leaders have been showcased as heroes, while the teams that they lead are often portrayed as being in awe and waiting with bated breath for their leadership. These depictions have led us to accept the leader as a sagacious and omnipotent (wo)man of mythic proportions. Leaders in turn have been conditioned to believe that they know best and that they know it all. They will take a bullet for the team and solve every problem that is posed. Even when the leader soundly believes in the whys of his leadership, he still thinks that only he knows what to do and expects team members to do as told.
Leaders are seduced by the vision of themselves as heroes. Who does now want to save the day? Who does not want to receive the adulation of team members and congratulations from the persons to whom they report?
Team members in turn, revel in the image of the caped leader who can make it all happen,  day after day. Unknowingly, the team leader and team members set up a co-dependent relationship, in which team members look to the leader for answers. While this appears harmless, it often leads to team members shirking responsibility and having little accountability, especially when things go wrong.
I must admit that it is thrilling to receive the kudos that come with hero worship, and even more thrilling to think of myself as the smartest person in the room; the one with all the answers. But, how are we contributing to the development off staff?
When I developed my definition of leadership I considered two questions. “How does the leader tap into the intelligence of our team members by solving all problems? How do staff take the risks associated with expressing creativity, if we tell them what to do?
For leaders who have an “S” on their chest. the offer is to evoke our alter ego as a Host leader. Think of when you host a party and invite people over, what do you do? You think of the guests and organise the food according to the allergies and preferences. You introduce guests who have similar interests then get out of the way, even as you keep an eye out for the guests who may have one drink too many.  As hosts, we create the environments that ensure that guests have what they need to operate and function. When you host a great party, you can feel it, it’s almost tangible and people leave with pep in their step.  Can you imagine how our team members will respond if as leaders we co-create (wth them)  these type of environments?
It is possible that as leaders we may not know if  or when we are acting as a hero. To help us be aware,  Wheatley advises, “You’re acting as a hero when you believe that if you just work harder, you’ll fix things; that if you just get smarter or learn a new technique, you’ll be able to solve problems for others. You’re acting as a hero if you take on more and more projects and causes and have less time for relationships. You’re playing the hero if you believe that you can save the situation, the person, the world.”

In what aspects of your life do you play hero?
What would it be like if you became a host?

Maxine Attong coaches leaders who want to effectively Lead teams to win. She is the author of Lead Your Team to Win and Change or Die. Maxine is also an OD Consultant , Speaker and Certified Accountant.

The Paradox of Leadership

As I think about my leadership and what it means to me, I am clear that my definition of leadership – the harnessing of the intelligence and creativity with whom I work – offers many a paradox to what I learned. My thoughts on leadership seemed contradictory or opposed to the approaches I read about, heard and saw both as a student and as a team member. And still I believed that what I stumbled upon was true.

I have been taught that leaders lead from the front. All the heroic generals of historical wars are portrayed as fighting on the front lines of the battle. Leaders always save the day – it was Moses who single handedly led his people through the Red Sea to freedom from the Egyptians, And it was the leaders who always have the vision. Steve Jobs is attributed as the creator of Apple and the world has not been the same since.

In many ways my definition stood at odds with these long held and well touted iconic presentations of leadership.
When I think of a harness I envisage a team being led from behind. The leader is not at the front, she is at the back of the team, guiding and influencing direction.

When there is a problem or work issue, I invite team members into the discussion so that we can use our collective creativity to solve problems.  The leader is not the only one whom can solve problems, once team members believe that their ideas are welcome they will happily contribute ideas.

I depend on the collective intelligence of the team to co-create the vision of how they want to work and to state the goals that they are willing to put their energies towards achieving.   When team members are involved in vision creation and goal development,  they have already considered how this will impact on what they want to personally achieve. As a result, they readily perform tasks related to these.

These ideas were contradictory to what I knew and how I led in previous leadership positions. To enact them I had to reject all that I learned and to change quite a few things about myself and my self- beliefs.
I believe that leadership is important and I know the reason why I lead.  As a leader my sole role is to create an environment that allows team members to bring their creativity and intelligence and when these are evident, I need to harness these two elements as we move towards the pursuit of our goals.

What paradoxes do you face with your leadership?

Maxine Attong coaches leaders to be more effective and to lead winning teams.  She is the author of Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win.  Maxine is also an Organisational Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitator and a Certified Accountant.