Ron Rael
Ron Rael

Teflon-Coated Toughness or Fortune Teller

Do you know what mindset a contract controller needs?

July 7, 2011
by Ron Rael, CPA

Without knowing who you are, I can guarantee that you already have the technical and other skills that you need to be successful. However, there are two attitudes that separate those who are successful in this contractor position from those who are not. These attitudes also apply to the person who chooses to serve as a part-time CFO or Controller.

The first attitude will improve as you take on more projects. Quickly developing this attitude, which I coin as “Teflon-coated mental toughness,” will serve you in many ways.

A duck is considered waterproof, as are most birds. The duck can stay in frigid waters and not feel the cold or damp. This waterproofing describes the first attitude that will help your success as a Hired Gun. This is not to say that you lack this. You also do not lack the three sights that make-up the Fortune Teller Attitude.

The Fortune Teller Attitude is the awareness that you have a tremendous amount of knowledge that you can use at any time. Use your hindsight, foresight and insight in ways that benefit your client.

View The Pluses and Minuses of the Contractor Controller Position (PDF).

The Attitude of Teflon-Coated Toughness

To be a successful advisor and worker, the contract and part–time Controller needs to develop a mental toughness.

This toughness is required because you will find yourself stuck in the middle on many issues.

Your client’s leaders will look to you for advice and counsel but will also treat you as an outsider or worse, a management spy.

It is hard for most people to feel comfortable in this insider/outsider role. Many contract and
part–time Controllers are asked to work themselves out of a job, which is a painful experience.

I coined the term for this mindset using the metaphor of Teflon, which is a material that holds up to heavy use and high temperatures. Yet, Teflon keeps a smoothness that prevents sticking. By putting Teflon with the word toughness, it describes an attitude of being supportive, concerned, and caring, yet being able to stay emotionally unattached.

Reasons for This Attitude

These are the many reasons you need Teflon-coated mental toughness. Some are expected, while a few are strange but true.

  • You are a contractor serving as an employee, which puzzles some employees.
  • Employees do not understand your role or why you were not hired as an employee.
  • The person who hired you may not have explained why you were hired.
  • The person you work for may have built up tremendous expectations about what you can do.
  • Employees have a natural wariness when dealing with consultants.
  • Members of the accounting team often think that you are there to take their jobs away.
  • Besides results, the client is looking to you for specific advice on how to improve things.
  • The client and their employees know that each time they talk with you it is costing the company money; so they try to have very little interaction with you.
  • You may fill the seat of an employee who is popular and is missed.
  • No one quite understands your authority or why you are asking them to do things for you.
  • You are asked to supervise and direct employees, yet you are not their official supervisor.
  • You may be required to give accounting employees a performance evaluation, yet you have only worked with them for a short period of time and will be gone soon.
  • You are not always available when they need you, which can be unsettling to some employees.
  • You stay focused and on task and do not participate in normal office activities, yet you are in the office every day.
  • Finally, you are a high-powered CPA, yet you are not the auditor. So why the heck are you there?

How to Develop a Tough, Non-Stick Attitude

Tips for developing a tough, non-stick attitude include:

  • See yourself as an outside advisor. For example, most of the time, what your client expects from you is clarity. It could be clear thinking on what is not working or new ideas on how to improve what is currently being done.
  • Keep a mental distance from those within. Look back at the laundry list of reasons that you need to develop a Teflon-coated mental toughness. Most of them are related to how the people you work with will relate to and perceive you. You also must remind yourself on a regular basis to keep a mental distance from those you work with.

Here are a few suggestions that helped me and other contractors:

  • Prepare a weekly report for your client on the achievements you have made for them.
  • Develop a written “suggestions for improvement” report and present this to your client on a regular basis.
  • Excuse yourself from most staff, office or company meetings that have nothing to do with your role.
  • Avoid the normal office chitchat that happens in hallways and after meetings.
  • Do not go to lunch with employees on a regular basis unless it is for a business reason.
  • Refrain from attending office parties.
  • Do not get involved with the office grapevine.
  • If you are on a long-term assignment (over three years), decline from receiving longevity or milestone recognition.
  • If you are on a long-term assignment do not participate in employee of the month recognition.

The Attitude of the Fortune Teller

This is the willingness to openly and confidently use your hindsight, foresight and insight.

Pretend that you have concerns about your future so you visit a fortune teller. She hands you a cup of tea — after you pay her fee — and you talk about your issues and concerns. After finishing your tea, she takes your cup and pours the tea leaves onto a plate. She proceeds to read your future by studying the tea leaves.

This expert you have engaged is using her gift of three special sights to help you sort out what you need to do.

The fortune teller has years of experience and wisdom behind her. If she is any good she has heard about nearly every problem that a person could experience. The fortune teller uses the hindsight of her and others’ experiences in advising you.

The normal person is said to have 20/20 hindsight. The Hired Gun must have 40/20: meaning you can quickly look at the past and identify trends and opportunities. You are experienced. You have been through all sorts of situations. You have listened to the stories of others in CPE sessions or in casual conversations. Believe it or not, your brain has stored all this data, which is accessible whenever you need it. The trick in the Fortune Teller Attitude is to trust yourself. You already know where you are headed. If you do not change your path (or deal with your problem), you know exactly where you will end up.

The first element of the Fortune Teller Attitude is to use your hindsight as an asset.

Example: Before the recession that began in late 2007, many companies thought they had a sound Business Model, because they were profitable. But, once nearly every market shrunk like a balloon with a hole, they went out of business, because they had an irrelevant or outdated business structure or their strategies where flawed.

The question to consider, using your hindsight, is this: Will this pattern of denial continue or will CEOs learn from this painful experience?

You assume that this fortune teller has the gift of foresight. Yet, foresight is simply understanding the phenomenon of cause and effect. For every action there is a reaction. By paying attention, watching, observing and testing you too can become an expert on cause and effect. The fortune teller knows this and relies on paying attention, watching, observing and testing to amaze you with her foresight.

Foresight is not only the ability to think ahead and predict the future; it is also the courage to act on what you predict might take place. People in accounting prefer not to make mistakes, so we fail to act if we do not have sufficient information. The Fortune Teller Attitude requires courage because your trigger point for acting is much lower than your comfort level.

The third element of the Fortune Teller Attitude is insight. All too often accountants tend to take things at face value or rely only on numbers. You give a financial statement to a client without saying anything. You hand a batch of reports to the executive committee without comment. You prepare a special analysis report for someone who requested it and never take the time to reveal the insights that you gleaned from your work.

As a person with a deep background of financial accomplishments, you have tremendous insight that very few other people in your organization or business have. It is our gift and yet for some reason we are timid in sharing this insight. The people in business who get the highest financial rewards are those who are willing to share their insights and the courage to stand behind them.


Because you are filling the position of Controller, one that may have been or could be occupied by a regular employee, you must first recognize that you are an independent agent brought in to solve a problem. Yet with all the responsibilities that the typical Controller has, it is easy for the Hired Gun to fall into an employee mindset.

This article has been excerpted from Becoming a Contract Controller: Tips for a Thriving Career. You can purchase the publication on CPA2Biz.com.

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Ron Rael, CPA, is a leadership coach and an award-winning speaker and facilitator who uses advanced learning techniques to deliver measurable, bottom-line results.