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Accountants: Creative Business Leaders?

Accountants need to unlock their creativity and apply creative leadership to drive innovation, improve organisational performance and enhance profits.

Mention accountants and creativity in the same breath and most of the time, you’ll get puzzled looks. Yet no business innovation is possible without the participation of accountants.

Accountants Are Everywhere

Accountants are SMEs’ best friends. No sizeable business can exist without accountants. Based on my own personal interactions, I have found that accountants form the highest percentage of professionals in the upper echelons of the business hierarchy.

But accountants have to up their game to advance. According to Bath School of Management research, management accountants are best placed to move up the organisational ladder.  But they need to polish their creativity and problem-solving skills, communication, and business competencies.

This is supported by an IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs, where creativity topped the list of the most important leadership qualities needed to thrive and prosper in the coming years.

Inculcating Creative Leadership

What makes accountants creative business leaders?

Tony Fernandes, the founder chairman of AirAsia, voted as the best low-cost airline in the world for seven consecutive years, needs no introduction. An accountant by profession, Fernandes introduced many mind-blowing innovations to AirAsia that lowered operational cost and decreased turn-around time for his fleet. He is a true example of a creative accountant in the positive sense and an internationally acknowledged business leader.

An accountant by profession, Fernandes introduced many mind-blowing innovations to AirAsia that lowered operational cost and decreased turnaround time for his fleet. He is a true example of a creative accountant in the positive sense and an internationally acknowledged business leader. A lesser-known example from Canada can also help to illustrate the creativity and innovativeness of accountants.

In the early 2000s, Toronto-based gold mining company Goldcorp (GG) was in trouble. It was forced to terminate its mining operations due to strikes, lingering debts, and an exceedingly high cost of production. CEO Rob McEwen, an accountant by training, did something exceedingly bold and unprecedented in the mining industry. He published Goldcorp’s geological data on the Web for the world to see and challenged experts to do virtual prospecting. This ”Goldcorp Challenge” offered a total prize money of USD575,000 for the winning entries. More than 1,000 virtual prospectors from 50 countries took on the challenge, identifying 110 targets on Goldcorp’s site, more than 80{19eb38c1b83d5d29fbbb5fcafd2ea2075c90f1df4554789572ffea0ad4fd1559} of which yielded substantial quantities of gold worth well over USD3 billion. This transformed his under-performing USD100 million company into a USD9 billion entity in terms of market cap. Goldcorp subsequently emerged as the most profitable mining company in the world.

The Edge: Creative Leadership

What does this tell us? That the defining characteristic of a successful business venture is creative leadership.

Without creative leadership, all other investments in marketing, R&D, facilities, incentives are futile. Even revamping organisational structures and processes is not the solution. Organisations rise and fall with leadership.

A creative leader does not need to be the person who comes up with the idea behind an innovation. What is important is that he or she be receptive to ideas, and open to selecting those with business potential. An accountant with a head for figures and an open mind is well suited for this role.

A leader must have the ability to sell the vision to the company’s staff, business partners and other relevant stakeholders. There needs be enthusiasm, tenacity and commitment for the team to turn that vision into a reality. As leadership guru Warren Bennis said, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

Driving Cohesion, Borrowing Brains

A creative leader recognises the importance of embracing differences in people and creates a synergy amongst those differences to lead them to optimal performance outcomes.

Most companies continue to assume that innovation comes from that individual genius, or, from specialised teams of experts who work hidden from view and then return with breakthrough innovations.  On the contrary, research has shown that most innovations are created through networks – groups of people working in concert towards a common goal.

Accountants are familiar with tight deadlines. They have the experience of building cross-functional networks with other people in the organisation to work to meet these deadlines. They have also gained an understanding of what it’s like to work in the trenches during their early days of training, where they toiled at the junior level to attain their professional qualification. Thus accountants have cultivated an ability to connect with those at different levels of the organisation.

The Goldcorp experience showed that it is not good enough to just use all the brains you have. In fact, it is even more important to use all the brains you can borrow.

Creative leaders know that innovation must come from multiple sources, both internally and externally. Accountants who aspire to be creative leaders need to know how to leverage on the global brain.

In short, accountants enjoy distinctive advantages and could become great creative business leaders, with the right training. Some of the additional skills that will help them along the way are:

  • Creative thinking skills
  • How to conduct creative meetings
  • Generating and selecting ideas within 30 minutes
  • Leveraging on the global brain



Dr. YKK (Yew Kam Keong, PhD.) is an acknowledged international expert on creativity and innovation. He is a great story-teller, a business innovation speaker and a best-selling author. His best-selling book is now in its 5th edition, and has been published in six languages. Dr. YKK can be reached at [email protected].


Note: This article was published in the May / June 2015 issue of  “ACCOUNTANTS  TODAY”, a professional journal for accountants.     

This article was contributed by Dr. YKK, ERA Board Member

How To Get Your People Inspired About Innovation In Your Organization


Innovation begins with creativity. The first step in encouraging innovation is to inspire your people to be creative. Creativity begins at the top.

According to a survey by training and consulting firm Genesis Training Solutions of the US, 92 percent of professionals say that creativity will be critical to sales success in the 21st century. Further studies by Sales & Amp and Marketing Management showed a vast 95 percent of the workers want to be more creative on the job. Why are most workers not creative then? The reasons are that they do not know how to apply their creativity and that they work in very structured environments where creativity is not encouraged. The studies concluded that if your organization wants great performance, then you have to find ways to feed the creativity of your workers.

A bad system beats a good person

Professors Alan G. Robinson and Sam Stern who have done extensive studies on corporate creativity have made a very important observation – “A bad system will beat a good person every time”. Therefore the way to get your people excited about creativity is to set up a system that encourages and nurtures creativity.

Mike Vance , the Dean of the Disney University is in full agreement in having an organizational system for creativity. This is what he believes:

The highest creativity occurs in well-organized environments. Poor organization leads to wasted time and confusion. Confused people are not creative people.”

How to be a World-class CEO

The process starts with the leaders and the CEOs themselves. It has to be a top-down approach. Great organizations are characterized by open-minded leaders who create a conducive climate for creativity within their organizations. A noted advertising expert, John Emmerling has this to say about being a world-class CEO:

If you eventually become a world-class CEO, you will be a tiger on the subject of ideas. You will set up your organization to foster creativity, search your organization for the best ideas, the best people. You will glorify those ideas and generously reward the people who thought them up. You will quickly forgive the idea-maker who flops. Your organization will become well known as an extraordinary creative place. And the most creative people will flock to work there.”

Creative Thinking –the basic alphabet of your own intelligence

Tony Buzan, one of the foremost creativity experts in the world who created the training program “Radiant Thinking” and the “Mind-mapping” technique for problem –solving emphasizes that creativity is a skill that can be learnt by everyone. The most important people who should learn this skill are the business leaders and CEOs themselves. He quotes statistics to support his views:

“ Sadly , most business leaders are mentally illiterate. They have been taught many things, but never to think. By their own admission, 90 percent of business leaders have never studied creative thinking – they haven’t studied the basic alphabet of their own intelligence.”

Did You Ask the Right Question?

When Toyota Corporation of Japan asked the staff to submit : “Ideas to Improve Productivity“, the response was rather poor. However, when the problem was re-stated as:

How to Make Your Work Easier“, there was a dramatic increase in response though both of them has the same end objective. In the first case, the workers’ perception was that the management and owners were the beneficiaries of the project to improve productivity. In the second case, the beneficiaries were clearly the workers themselves.

The Ford Motor Company was in a sorry state in 1980 when Donald E. Petersen took over as president. Sales were down and Ford was losing market share at a rapid rate. One of the major factors leading to the decline was the design policy consisting of a set of strict and complicated design rules (covering several volumes of guidelines) that severely hampered innovation. Petersen replaced the rigid set of rules with a 12-word target for the Design Center

“ Design something that you would be proud to park in your driveway.”

This 12 -word directive established a winning formula that empowered and motivated the team. The directive unleashed the team’s creativity that enabled them to design the highly successful range of Thunderbird and Taurus cars.

Encourage Free Association

Casual conversations among employees are potent weapons for innovation and making technological breakthroughs.

Two engineers who had just finished their design of the engine for HP’s new laser printer were having coffee when they were joined by their other colleagues. They talked about the type of printer they would like to have if they could have anything they wanted. The consensus was to have a color printer with a resolution of at least 200 dots per inch. The two development engineers could not get this idea out of their mind.

They made a connection with the way coffee percolators worked and tried heating up the ink. The result was a controlled ink explosion and they invented the highly successful inkjet printer. This would not have happened if not for the casual conversation at the coffee machine.

Such incidents of breakthroughs are by no means isolated. In fact, it seems to be the most effective mechanism for innovations and is popularly practiced in the Silicon Valley.

Idea Campaign

The Idea Campaign concept is a very effective way of capturing new ideas and getting workers to get excited about creativity. They are an exciting, fun and a more structured version of the traditional employee suggestion program. The major difference is that, if used properly, there is a direct bottom line result. The campaign is the best way of getting a large number of ideas from the workforce within a specified period, say from one week to 30 days.

The goal is to get at least one idea from everyone in the organization in an atmosphere of fun and celebration.. All ideas submitted are rewarded. They could be in the form of certificates, T-shirts, caps, pens, badges, etc. At the end of the celebration, there should be grand function such as a company dinner where outstanding performers are recognized and rewarded. There should also be some frivolous awards like the funniest idea, the craziest idea, the most elaborate idea, the most playful idea and so on.

The motor-cycle company, Harley-Davidson ran a 30 day Idea Campaign and saved US$3,000,000!


The above are just some of the many ways to get your people excited about creativity. Perhaps you could implement at least one of them. The most important thing is to get excited about creativity yourself!


Note: Permission is given to circulate this article in full without any changes

Dr.YKK Portrait

About the author

Dr.Yew Kam Keong , popularly known as Dr.YKK, helps companies to fast-track their innovation with minimum risk and using the least expenditure ,time, effort and resources. His Dolphin Wave Innovation structured methodology is possibly the most powerful and most effective innovation system in the world as it taps into the global brain. It has been proven to bring tangible and frequently measurable benefits to his clients in improved profits and performance.

You can contact Dr.YKK at:

[email protected] , Skype : dryewkk   Ph: 011 14378495

©2014 Dr. Yew Kam Keong (Dr.YKK) Mindbloom Consulting