When consultant Steve Player died last week at the age of 64, the business function that he had tormented, ridiculed, and war-hammered for more than two decades stood quivering in the shadows.
Still breathing, the beast of a business process known as budgetary control had withstood its most notorious assailant’s heaviest blows—in itself a resounding tribute to those industry high priests who had given the process life in the first half of the 20th century.
However, many agree that it’s only a matter of time before budgetary control succumbs to its many injuries and a proper warrant is issued certifying the death of a business function that may have served all of industry better had it lived only half as long.
It’s just such an acknowledgment that makes Steve Player and others of his ilk appear to be as worthy of our acclaim as those who helped to institutionalize this business function in the first place. Perhaps it’s no surprise that both groups have been made up mainly of management consultants, a clan that I know only too well. Or so I thought, until I met Steve.
“Steve, the likes of whom we’ll never see again” read an email from a friend a day or two ago. This is a sentiment that has been repeated these past few days virtually word-for-word by others on LinkedIn and other platforms.
Back in 2007, I had been working at Penton Media in New York City for only a few days when the caller ID field of my newly issued desk phone filled with green neon letters that read “The Player Group.”
Steve quickly introduced himself and congratulated me on having been named editor of Business Finance, a monthly print magazine that regularly featured CFO interviews conducted by none other than Steve himself.
From what I recall, I asked Steve one or two questions about his next CFO interview before he asked me about my former employer, Consulting magazine, where I had spent the previous 7 years as editor-in-chief.
I responded by telling Steve that I could likely spot the shake, rattle, and roll of a rainmaking consultant a mile away, which loosely translated I think meant: “Hey mister, don’t try any of that fancy consultant voodoo here.”
Before our call ended, Steve asked me whether I had yet gotten a copy of Reinventing the CFO (Harvard Business Review Press, 2006). I explained that on the day that I arrived at Penton, I had found a copy on my desk. He seemed pleased and encouraged me to take a read.
Over the next year, we would speak at least monthly as he filed his CFO interviews, a task that was often coordinated with several calls involving The Player Group’s team, but one that would almost always include a call from Steve.
It was during one of our calls that I told Steve that I had been researching some history related to budgetary control that I thought he might find interesting. At the time, I was attempting to chart the speed and reach with which budgeting control had originally been adopted by industry. I had become convinced that James O. McKinsey, the founder of the firm that bears his name, more than any one person had been responsible for kicking things off. Steve was fascinated, and our rambling discussion became the first of many that we would have about the evolution of business processes.
Once, when I was writing an article involving the history of Arthur Andersen, Steve unexpectedly knocked on my office door one afternoon and presented me with two thick volumes featuring essays written by Arthur Andersen’s former chairman and chief executive, Harvey Kapnick. Apparently, Steve had carried the books with him on a flight from Texas.
Perhaps a dozen Steve Player CFO interviews later, “The Player Group” once more filled my caller ID field. This time, it was Steve himself seeking to confirm my attendance at an upcoming conference in San Francisco, where if all went as planned, Steve assured me, I could have a “sit-down” with Jeremy Hope, the author of Reinventing the CFO and cofounder of the Beyond Budgeting Roundtable, a not-for-profit collaborative.
Steve, who served as BBRT’s program director for North America, had already sent me a number Jeremy’s other books, with titles such as Beyond Budgeting (with Robin Fraser) and Transforming the Bottom Line (with Tony Hope). At the time, I found Steve’s use of the term “sit-down” rather odd, but—looking back—I know that this was intended to signal the high regard that Steve had for Jeremy, who would die only a few years later.
At the San Francisco conference, I shared with both Jeremy and his North American nobleman Steve some survey results of BF’s readership that showed that two out of three finance executives expected their 2009 budgets to be obsolete within the first 6 months of the year, while 28 percent of them reported that their budgets had been obsolete before 2009 had even begun.
What’s more, I shared a mock-up of our next cover with Steve and Jeremy—something that an editor should probably never do—as I wanted to convince them both that I was committed to writing and editing a cover story on the collapse of budgetary controls. My cover story that quoted Jeremy widely would be published about a month later.
Unfortunately, budgetary controls were not the only victim of the economic downturn at that time, as the demises of many print publications were also put in motion by the collapse. Convinced that there were few opportunities left at Penton, I exited the world of print publishing and began my own journey of reinvention—which proved to be far longer and far more costly than I had ever imagined.
That there are few things more useless than a print editor without a magazine is a bit of logic that most professionals would find hard to refute—with the exception of Steve Player. For some reason, Steve kept calling.
“We’ve got to keep the wolf away from the door” was his oft-repeated refrain.
I remember thinking at the time how much it meant that he used the word “we.” Honestly, if you ever want to feel safe in your home, just imagine Steve Player stationed on your front stoop with a double-edged axe resting on one shoulder.
However, Steve was more than just words. He looked for opportunities to have me participate at his conferences and encouraged me to get out and go to other industry events.
It was during this period that I began to observe more closely the connection that Steve had made with his audiences. Instead of watching Steve talk, I began watching the attendees in the audience and how they responded to the blunt reprimands that he gave them in reference to what he referred to in his repertoire as “dumb stuff.”
The finance professionals knew that he was right. They knew that large portions of their days and nights were focused on budget targets that just didn’t matter, and here was this guy bearing witness in public to the everyday madness of their professional lives.
“Finance has got to stop doing dumb stuff!” was the favorite phrase that got heads nodding and blood circulating. A number of Steve’s presentations that I attended felt more like church revival meetings than gatherings of finance and accounting professionals.
Of course, Steve might have been the first to agree that there’s not a lot of difference between expunging a worn-out business process and exorcising the devil.
Along the way, Steve let me know that if I could scrape the airfare together to attend the next conference, I could crash at his hotel room for the night. I tried not to take him up on that, but I feel that it’s important to mention this because, after all, “Who makes such an offer?”
After months had turned into years, I found myself attending one such conference with Steve when it occurred to me that many finance leaders were in need of a narrative reboot. In short, they needed to begin explaining themselves and their career experiences in a more engaging way to which larger numbers of executives could relate.
At the same time, I realized that mobile technologies could play a big role in the reboot. I was not yet familiar with the podcasting world, but I felt that if my information resource could feature the actual voices of business leaders, we could shed more light on each leader’s emotional intelligence.
I would launch the CFO Thought Leader podcast in 2014, and in the years that followed, Steve and I routinely found new ways to collaborate.
For every quasi-milestone that the podcast achieved, Steve was ever ready to serve up kudos and ideas for making the show better.
When the pandemic arrived in North America, I approached Steve with the idea of cohosting a monthly podcast wherein he could explore in greater depth some of the FP&A ideas and commentary being shared by CFOs on CFO Thought Leader.
Steve suggested the name “Planning Aces,” and we launched under that name a few months later. Together we cohosted 16 episodes, in which Steve was without question the star no matter how many CFOs we featured.
After our last recording session on October 28th, I had made a mental note to kick off our next episode by reminding Steve that 2022 is the 100th anniversary of James O. McKinsey’s On Budgeting, the first book ever published on budgetary control.
McKinsey was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago when he decided to take a stab at becoming the first academic to approach the subject of budgetary control as a whole, rather than zero in on particular aspects of budgeting procedures.
I knew that a reference to McKinsey would “stir the pot” and lead Steve to open the door to a chapter of history that he probably knew and understood better than most of us. History was always at Steve’s command.
Business historian and lecturer Christopher McKenna of the Said Business School has long argued that McKinsey was not an innovator because of his skills or cost accounting practices but because he was able to institutionalize practices.
Similarly, I’d argue Steve Player was not an innovator because of his skills in cost accounting, extensive as they were (Steve wrote seven books), but because he was able to convince institutions to give up the “dumb stuff” and rip out McKinsey’s 100-year-old broken processes.
It’s startling and perhaps sad to admit that when I left Consulting magazine—where I had written hundreds, perhaps thousands of articles and profiles on different consultants—I left without having made friends with one consultant.
There was a time when I may have attributed this to my so-called journalistic objectivity, but I no longer believe that to be true. I do know that when I landed in the world of finance, unbeknownst to me a consultant had befriended me in my very first week. – Jack Sweeney