Oral Dowell, CPA, CGMA, is an introvert. It’s not his nature to speak up in small groups. He covets quiet time alone. When moving into his new house about 15 years ago, he had the building plans flipped, putting the garage away from the road so that people wouldn’t know if he was home in case they wanted to drop by unannounced.
It dawned on him early in his career, though, that these traits weren’t going to get him very far. So the quiet man from the Caribbean island of Barbados embarked on a personal journey to transform himself into a more outgoing person.
His metamorphosis is likely to resonate with many finance professionals. Accounting often comes up in lists of top careers for introverts, but those lists tend to belie what today’s finance professional is being asked to do: effectively and confidently communicate critical information across the chain of command.
“Accounting and finance professionals have gradually assumed increased visibility, expanded roles, and greater influence within their firms over the past several years, making soft skills an essential competency today,” Max Messmer, chairman of staffing firm Accountemps, said in a news release.
CFOs say poor interpersonal skills are the top reason for an employee’s failure to advance in the company, according to an Accountemps survey. But while CFOs increasingly recognise the need for soft skills training, they’re still not likely to offer it to employees. In 2013, just 19% of CFOs said they would likely offer interpersonal or communication training.
Dowell believes his career in finance, and his position as CEO of a business consulting firm in Barbados, never would have been possible had he remained the person who never spoke up in meetings or shied away from the microphone.
“I made a decision that I have to either go forward or stand still,” he said. “And standing still was not an option for me.”
Dowell’s journey shows how one can improve communication and presentation skills in the absence of training. It just takes practice and an iron will to succeed.
His story starts in Barbados in 1984. He was working as a financial analyst at Caribbean Data Services Ltd., a subsidiary of American Airlines. It wasn’t going very well. Dowell felt underused and was ready for a change. Days after he announced he was resigning, his boss, a controller who was in the position only temporarily, offered his job to Dowell. Dowell accepted.
Six months of training followed, including visits with his departing boss to US cities that housed American Airlines’ ticket offices. The Barbados site was where all of the airline’s used paper tickets were sent for data entry, record-keeping, and archiving. The ticket offices in the US were where those tickets came from and where Dowell was exposed to the operational side of the business.
“Each trip he took me on, I would not participate in the meetings’ discussions,” Dowell said. “He would do all the talking.”
Four months into the training, the boss, Larry Rednour, had had enough and gave Dowell an ultimatum: Break your silence or risk losing the job.
“I said, ‘You’ve either got to step up, or you’re going to get left on the curb,’ ” Rednour recalled during an interview. “I knew he was capable, but I don’t think he connected the dots as the clock ticked down and I was going to be leaving that it was going to be his responsibility to make contributions.”
Dowell finally mustered the courage to break out of his shell. “I psychologically had to bring everything that was against my natural instincts out to be able to transform myself,” he said.
The change began as a trickle — questions here and there in meetings. The best way to get the confidence to be a leader was to know everything he possibly could about the business. He had to learn about operations, payroll, and quality control. “I had to get my hands dirty and see how all of those operational segments fed into financial reporting,” Dowell said.
He cited one meeting in particular, at an American Airlines data-processing and payroll centre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the mid-1980s. Anyone who had anything to do with American Airlines’ ticketing, data entry, payroll, and related administration that affected the company’s financial performance was there, most with a vice president and a second in command. The meeting included Dowell, flying solo as the controller from Caribbean Data Services. Rednour, who had returned to work in the US and was no longer Dowell’s boss, also attended.
When the meeting started, Dowell began discussing the issues and challenges he saw. He was challenged in the meeting by the VPs, who would disagree with Dowell’s statements and then turn to their second in command to look for confirmation that their viewpoint was correct.
But the backup never came; it was Dowell who was correct on each issue.
Rednour, recalling the meeting nearly 30 years later, was amazed. “Being able to observe Oral in command of the department and representing the department in a big meeting — yeah, it was a bit surprising,” Rednour said. “It was great to see.”
Dowell thinks of leading a meeting as a lights-camera-action moment.
“Pull the curtains; it’s showtime,” he said. “And when I come off stage, I then go back to who I truly am characteristically.”
Over the years, Dowell honed communication skills by putting himself in uncomfortable situations. As the controller at Caribbean Data Services, he would give periodic staff updates on the financial side of the business, speaking to more than 1,200 shift workers.
He also said that training books, such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, were instrumental in helping him think beyond the numbers and more about interacting with people.
Dowell decided about 14 years ago to go on his own, starting Dowell’s Advisory Services Inc. and offering accounting services and consulting to businesses in Barbados and other Caribbean islands.
He enjoys having his own company because he doesn’t have to be around large groups very often. But he is still a regular speaker at finance events — even if he still gets a little nervous before each one.
Coming out of the shell
Oral Dowell’s transformation from full-time introvert to occasional extrovert didn’t happen immediately, and it came with practice. “I am an introvert operating on an extrovert stage,” he said. “You have to go out there and perform.” Here are a few tips he offers for finance professionals to emerge from their shell:
- First, define what you want: Before deciding you need to change, you must first decide why it is you’re trying to change. “What are the results you want, not in your head, but in the pit of your stomach,” he said. “You cannot vacillate.”
- Decide that you are more than you think you are: You were hired for your expertise, but that expertise does neither you nor your organisation any good if it is not shared. Dowell said finance professionals must make up their minds, not in a boastful way, that they can overcome any introversion that is holding them back. “You must believe in yourself,” he said.
- Know the organisation, know the material: Dowell never would have had the confidence to speak up in meetings if not for his full knowledge of the operation. “You have to understand your subject matter and research it thoroughly,” he said. “You can’t take any shortcuts. And once you do that research, it builds that confidence within yourself.”
- Prepare for public presentations: “In terms of an actual presentation, one thing I do — and would suggest that anybody do — is sharpen your mind,” he said. “You have to sharpen your mind from the point of view of practising before the session. If something goes wrong with the slides or electricity goes out, you have to show that you could still command the audience’s attention with your knowledge. So you have to be able to have it in your head and be able to deliver it with confidence.”
- Calm your nerves: If you come off as nervous, your audience will know it. Dowell suggested reminding yourself that you are the expert and know the material very well.
- Involve the audience: “My technique is to disarm me by disarming them. I would drop in a question at the start. Say it’s a seminar on personal financial planning. I ask them, ‘Why are you here?’ It catches them off-guard, and they pause to think about their responses. You can see them physically relax. Then I say, ‘The people who don’t look at me, those are the people that I will call upon.’ It disarms them, and it helps me.”
The devil in the delivery
Marjorie North, an instructor in public speaking and executive communication skills at Harvard University, offers four key principles for more effective speaking in front of a group:
- Be adaptable: It’s not about you giving a speech, it’s about you communicating a message, whether it’s to 100 people or 1,000 people. Notice feedback and adapt your message to it. For example, if you see people falling asleep or paying more attention to their handheld devices, you might want to inject humour into the presentation with a joke or ask your audience a question. If you see confused looks, back up and explain a topic more thoroughly.
- Know your audience: In advance, ask as many questions and do as much research as you can. If you fully understand your audience, it’s far easier to tailor your message. For example, if you are speaking to a group of finance professionals, that might not be enough detail. Early-career professionals want to hear about different issues than established professionals would.
- Organise your materials: Know that your content is easy to follow. Using an outline makes a presentation clean and more easily understood. Practise what you’re going to say, but don’t try to memorise it. If you get up on stage, get nervous, and suddenly forget, that can be disastrous.
- Strive for maximum impact: North said the human brain will start to wander after 20 minutes, so it can be challenging when you’re scheduled to speak at a conference for an hour and 15 minutes. Keep words on slides to a minimum, which eliminates the chance that you will read your slides. Instead, go for pictures and tell stories related to those pictures. Aim to get across no more than five key takeaways. “You want to make sure they remember the points that you want them to remember.”