Royce Morse: Welcome to "Meet the Experts," an IOFM podcast series designed to introduce you to many of the more than 200 panelists that answer your "Ask the Expert" questions. "Ask the Expert" is a popular feature allowing our members to ask fellow AP and AR practitioners any work-related questions and get answers back within five business days. I'm Royce Morse, Institute of Finance and Management's Managing Editor.
Today we're talking with Michael Rochelle, Senior Manager of Accounts Payable at the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute in Washington, D.C. Michael has worked in accounting for nearly 20 years, most of that time within AP. Today, we'll be talking about leadership, changes in perspective and how to breathe new life into the department. Welcome, Michael.
Michael Rochelle: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. It's a real full-circle moment for me, so thank you for having me.
Royce Morse: I'm looking forward to our conversation. First, can you tell us a little bit about your current organization and your role there?
Michael Rochelle: Okay. As you stated in my wonderful introduction, I am the senior manager of accounts payments at PCORI, which is the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, and we primarily do healthcare research funding. We're a non-profit that's located in Downtown D.C.
At this particular point of the year, we're a little bit busy because we have an annual meeting that'll be coming up, where we actually get to have a lot of people come through to provide healthcare information about their specific areas of knowledge, so there's a lot of things that go into that as we prepare for that.
Royce Morse: I see. And what's AP's role there?
Michael Rochelle: Well, AP has actually expanded. It's the first time that I've worked in an organization where AP wasn't where you were just processing invoices. What we actually do is we receive invoices, we compare invoices to the agreements, we apply the logic of whether it's a fixed price or a reimburseable contract. So, we do that. We do some of the standard AP things. Of course, the major thing is getting items paid. We also end up paying for if we have people that we invite to our meetings, like the one that I mentioned that's coming up, so we do expense reimbursement. So, it's standard AP on the surface, but with also some additional verification information that's done as well.
Royce Morse: Interesting. Tell us a little bit about how you ended up in AP and what you did before you got there.
Michael Rochelle: Okay, wow, so you're taking me back a number of years. Way back—I guess this probably would've been about '99 maybe; I know you probably weren't born at that particular point [laughter]—I joined an organization. I don't know if you've heard of it, but it was Circuit City stores.
Royce Morse: Sure.
Michael Rochelle: Okay, so I worked there. It wasn't their corporate office. It was more like one of their administrative offices that they had in Richmond. I started out there working in customer service, so I was basically helping people over the phone to connect their VCRs to their TVs—and their toasters if they decided that they wanted to do that.
Royce Morse: Their toasters?
Michael Rochelle: Yes. You would be surprised the types of questions that we got and the things that we attempted to do. We quickly would look at the manual and try to help people with that.
But Circuit City, even at that particular point, was going through some changes, so the department I originally worked for closed. I then moved to North Carolina with another department and still was doing customer service/technical support there as well. And then that particular location closed as well. And so I said, "You know what?" After living in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, for maybe two years, I said, "I'm going back to Richmond. I'm going back to the corporate office. Let's figure this out."
It's really interesting. I saw that there was an accounts payables position that was open, and I decided to give it a shot. I have no idea why I thought it was something that I could do, being that I had only done customer service, and there were all these words that I didn't know anything about at that point. There was words like "Have you used Excel?" No. "Have you used Word?" No. "Have you used any of the software?" No.
But I was very fortunate that when I went and I met with the managers there that they thought that I was trainable and so they gave me an opportunity. That is how my accounts payables journey started. And 20 years later, I am still here…and somehow only 23 years old.
Royce Morse: Well, that's amazing. I wanna know your secret. It's also amazing that your new employer had as much faith in your personality and your ability to learn rather than your experience, because so often when companies are looking to hire people, they want to tick all the boxes. As you said, "Do you have experience in this software? Do you know what that means? Have you done this?" And you hadn't done any of it. It's amazing to me that they had that much faith in you—well placed, as it turned out—to learn all of these things and then excel at them and become a leader in your own right.
Michael Rochelle: Yeah, I really feel like I need to thank them. And I also kinda think that that's the thing about management and leadership is not just seeing what's in front of you, but also being able to see potential. When I left that interview, what was I? Probably maybe 19, 20, 21 at that particular point. So I didn't even really know anything about interviewing properly. This was before the internet was such a huge thing where you could go and find a whole bunch of information really quickly on how to brush up on interview skills like you could do today. That wasn't a thing that I even thought about. I think back then we had to pay $99.99/minute if you jumped on the internet back then. [laughter] Your phone bill would be really high.
I remember this thing that when I left they asked me, "Okay, is there anything we should know about you?" And the thing that stands out at that point was that my answer was "No." And they asked me if I had any questions for them, and my answer was "No." This is before I learned that that's not what you do.
But during the conversation with them, they were able to identify other things that they thought was gonna be useful. And it turned out to work out great.
Royce Morse: That's amazing. It's a fantastic story. Tell me how that experience and how you got started in accounts payable, how that's informed your own style of management.
Michael Rochelle: Okay, well, basically, kinda like we were just talking about, I went into an environment where I had no idea what it was I was doing in terms of accounting. I hadn't had accounting experience at the time. A lot of the software I hadn't used at the time. So I by no means was a master at anything, so I had to kind of learn along the way, as I was going, and that's something that I still even do today, even though you'd say, "Okay, you're a senior manager." But I want to say, I don't have everything figured out. I don't think that a lot of us have it all figured out, and you just have to figure out ways to be resourceful to be able to find the information or find a mentor that could help you with some of the gaps that you might have.
And if you have a good manager or a good leader, there are opportunities for them to impart some information to you as well and to help guide you. I've had some issues—I shouldn't say issues. I've had some instances where supervisors or managers would say, "Okay, you don't have an accounting degree, but you're teachable," and we would sit there and we would practice T Account.
So I'm taking pieces of the things that I've learned from the people who helped me and gave me opportunities and trying to ensure that I do that for others as well.
Royce Morse: That's wonderful. I guess the good news—and maybe what helped you get hired—was they didn't feel like they had to untrain you on anything, that you hadn't learned bad habits or weren't set in your ways, and that you were completely a blank slate, ready to learn and do things the way that they wanted you to do.
Michael Rochelle: I agree. Yeah, and so I guess this kind of goes back to school and things of that nature. It's not one of the things that I would say I'd naturally think, "Oh, yeah, anything you show me, I can get." After working at Circuit City was what made me decide that I wanted to go to school and pursue a degree, but I also knew that there were things that I would not necessarily be so great at, or it's just not my nature thing.
So, in some instances, someone would say, "Oh, Michael, well, you've been in accounts payables forever. Isn't the next step to get your CPA or to go back and get a degree in accounting?" And like this really smart man at my local 7-Eleven yelled at me as I was leaving, he said, "You must know your limitations." And I know that I like the customer service aspect of it. I like the ability to learn things. I like the fact that each day is a little bit different in terms of what's gonna hit your desk and what's gonna hit your plate.
And I also know that, even in doing some of the accounting undergrad courses that I've done, it's just not my natural desire to read announcements and try to figure out, "How do you classify assets today?" So I think that I have a solid foundation within accounting within a lane that I'm really comfortable in and that I enjoy, and that actually has value.
Royce Morse: Very true. I think it's interesting. The guy said you know your limitations, but I don't see it as a limitation. What I'm hearing from you is just that you have kind of a unique blend, and I'm guessing that people in AP leadership roles have to have this blend of both understanding the numbers and the process itself, which is a very kind of left-brain, analytical focus, and be able to blend that with people skills, the right-brain functions.
And some people have trouble with that, but, apparently, you make that transition well. You understand the process, but you also understand the people and how to get them motivated, how to get them trained, how to get them functional in their roles.
Michael Rochelle: Agreed. I guess I could emphasize this particular point. When I mentioned to you earlier about me going to school, my first degree—even though I'm currently working on an MBA—is actually in English. And for years it was really problematic when applying for other roles within accounts payables or in accounting, like, "You have a degree in English. What are you gonna do with that? Why? What is that gonna do?"
And so it's really interesting. I think that we can all kind of create our own paths. The things that you're naturally good at, regardless of the role that you have, there are ways that you can bring in some of the things that you're naturally good at. So, yes, I have the human side down. The great thing about the writing is that even though it was a very hard thing to explain maybe ten years ago, now that we have to write policies, we have to write procedures, I find that when working with other people who might have a background in accounting—maybe they might not like the writing part so much. They like the numbers part. And so then they come to me and ask me, "How does this look? What about this comma? What about the tone?"
So it's really interesting about how things that at one point seemed like they could be liabilities—ooh, an accounting term—then become assets when you're one of the few people who do that or have that focus or have a different way of being able to look at things.
Royce Morse: I see what you did there. My degree's in English, too, as a matter of fact. I think communication is a really important part of any leadership role, and that's what you learn with an English degree.
Tell me how you approach management. Do you have a philosophy about managing?
Michael Rochelle: I do have a philosophy. What I'm gonna first say is that I think my philosophy about management is it's nimble. I like to say that I don't have it all figured out. I think that managers know—or you learn from the people who report to you—that there is not one particular way or one particular style that's going to work all the time. There's not one particular answer that's going to be the right answer and the only right answer.
It's more so about being transparent, so letting my people know, because hopefully, at some point, maybe they might wanna be managers or supervisors or maybe even transfer over to the GL side and do something else. But I want them to be able to be prepared to know that, "Hey, none of the people before you had it all figured out, so we can work together to come up with an outcomes that works best for the person and also for the organization as well.
So I don't just learn in a vacuum by reading books or by attending school. I try to also impart that and utilize that. And I also do certain things, like if I find something, I don't just keep it to myself. If I'm listening to a podcast, I don't go back to the staff and be like, "Did you listen to that podcast?" I don't give 'em tests, but I will share information, like, "Okay, this is a podcast that I listen to, so if you wanna learn a little bit about accounting or learn it from a different aspect, here's something that you can do."
So I'm really kind of transparent and very empathetic. That's actually my number one strength in terms of—what is the, the Clifton StrengthsFinder? Yes. I'm in flux. I wanna say I do not have it all figured out, and I think that that's okay. I wish that more people would be okay with saying that. It's not a detriment. You just have to be able to learn those things that you aren't, and that's gonna be a lifelong journey. I expect that when I'm 88 and you ask me this question, I still will be like, "Yeah, I'm still learning. I don't have it figured out." We might not even be using computers then. We might be doing everything on our watch or something. Yeah, learning is a lifelong thing for me.
Royce Morse: Agreed. And I think it keeps life interesting, too. I think that for a lot of managers—and I've seen this myself, in my own career—they feel as though admitting that they don't know everything is a weakness or a vulnerability and they don't wanna show their staff that. But I think being able to do that is an engagement technique. In other words, people feel more confident in themselves and they can relate to you better as an employee because you also are in a process of learning, and I think that gives them confidence to ask questions and to not know everything themselves.
Michael Rochelle: And I also use something that my executive director did that was really great, and so this is why I'm very open about not having everything figured out. We can figure it out together, but not having everything figured out.
We have some changes that are going on within our organization itself. When they share the information with us about the change, it could be this really high-level information that we might see on a PowerPoint, and as you read it you don't necessarily know how it changes your day-to-day work at a particular point, but you see it. You know that this is part of the mission, this is part of the journey, but you don't know. You process invoices today, and then you mention you're probably gonna be processing invoices, so it doesn't necessarily mean that it's gonna have a trickle-down as soon as you read the slide.
I felt like in some of the conversations that were being had that many of the managers or supervisors felt like we needed to always show that we understood what's happening. We get it. Yes, I know what my next step is. And so someone asked our executive director a question about, "Oh, well, how long is this going to be?" And she said, "You know, we're working on it. I don't know."
And for me, that was incredibly freeing because it just showed that, okay, you know what? This is okay. It's okay to not have the final answer. If it's gonna be a long journey and it's going to take three months to get there, you might not have the answer on day one. You're not at the destination just yet. So it took a lot of weight off of us in terms of us just pretending like, "Yeah, we saw the PowerPoint slide, and because we got a manager or supervisor title, we knew exactly what it meant." Like, no, we didn't.
Royce Morse: Right.
Michael Rochelle: So I think that we—especially those of us that are—I guess we'd consider ourselves middle managers. In addition to ensuring that we're doing our jobs well, I think we should also be trying to set the path for the people who will be coming behind us, and I don't want them to ever feel like, "You know what? I can't do this because I don't know everything." Nobody does. Except for Royce, of course.
Royce Morse: Oh, stop. [laughter] No.
Michael Rochelle: You can figure it out, though. You don't have to have it figured out today. I have this new logic and theory, which I was actually just sharing with one of my people because at some times of the year—if we're in the middle of audit, we're doing month-end, we've got performance reviews that are going on—it can feel overwhelming. Within the work world and within my personal life, I'm trying to learn to focus on one thing at a time. One thing. If we wanna improve something, okay, don't layer it and say that you've gotta do these ten things all at once. I get myself in trouble thinking I'm gonna be this massive reader and then I go to the library or on Kindle and order ten books all at once, and then it's too much for me to deal with and then I don't read anything at all. It's like, focus on one thing.
Royce Morse: I think that's great life advice, especially in this day and age where you've got so many conflicting priorities and projects and things going on. It's really hard to keep track of them all, and when you're trying to do too much at one time, it just becomes overwhelming.
Michael Rochelle: I agree with you. It is a big life thing. Once you get my age, Royce, you have different conversations with your doctor, and so my doctor would say, "You know what? You need to change your diet a little bit." And so then I'll say, "You know what? I'm gonna run six miles every day, and I'm going to eat only lettuce and water from now on." And they're like, "No. Let's be realistic. Focus on one thing that you will be able to potentially do and stick with. Don't overwhelm yourself with a whole lot of changes all at once." That part's really helpful.
Royce Morse: There's something you hear at IOFM, that we talk about a lot, which is process improvement. You don't try to turn all the knobs at the same time. You try to do one thing, fix a process that's broken, see if that works, and then move on to the next thing.
But if you try to change everything at once, you're asking for trouble. It's not gonna work. It's gonna create more problems than it solves.
Michael Rochelle: Agreed. If you do change too many things at once, then you don't know what it was that actually moved the needle. You don't know what thing that you changed had a good impact and which thing you changed had a not-so-great impact, because everything shifted all together.
And you know what? That takes me back to IOFM and why I appreciate the organization so much. At my current organization, where I am now, I remember the AP manager who was there when I started. I started as an AP specialist. I believe that was the title at that particular point. She scooped me away and took me to one of the IOFM conferences. I think it was in maybe Arlington or Alexandria. It was somewhere in Virginia, years ago.
And then I learned about—because, one, I didn't know anything about that, about accounts payables, that there were organizations that focused and specialized, and so it was great that I had a manager that could link me to resources that would ultimately be helpful. But even better than that, when I got there, I think that I learned that you could be certified as an AP specialist and so I said, "Okay, well, you know what? Let me see if I can take this AP specialist." And she said, "Why would you? You've worked in it for 13 years," at that point. "Why would you do the AP specialist? Just try the AP manager one. And I was like, "The AP manager one? What?" And she said to go for it. And then I did.
And I think that some of these things that I'm taking from my leaders and people who I've reported to, I'm trying to impart into other people as well, to kinda take some chances.
I've had someone who works with me who also is now a member of IOFM as well. It's like, wow, I get to pass that on, and I really appreciate that there's organizations out there that can help us to do things or help us to learn things as we go. It's been really helpful for me.
Royce Morse: Well, we appreciate you and we appreciate our IOFM members. They're just a wonderful group of people that are very involved and helpful.
Michael Rochelle: Absolutely. The experts and just being able to jump on and to do searches to find out how other organizations are doing stuff and just to make connections with other people that you can bounce things off of has been really great and really helpful. I use it as kind of like a coaching/mentoring thing for me as well.
Royce Morse: That's fantastic. I'm really happy to hear that. One last question for you. What would you say is the most surprising thing that you have learned since you've been in accounts payable?
Michael Rochelle: Ooh! The most surprising thing that I've learned since being in accounts payables? That's a great question. Well, I'll say this: I have learned that there isn't just one way. At each organization that I've worked at—granted, they might've been in different fields—AP hasn't been standard. It's not like you could just take, okay, AP at company one and just say it's gonna be exactly like this at company two. Or that if you worked at an organization—like let's say you get a new manager or a new director—that that means that your work as an AP person is going to stay exactly the same. There are different things that impact, like technology changes.
That's the thing that I think that I would say that I've learned. I've learned that it's not just one thing. The changes that we're seeing now—going from doing manual checks to doing ACHs or whatever, you might pay via card or something to that effect at some point, as some people are doing now. So I think that that's probably the biggest thing that I've learned is that it's not just one standard thing, that there's always something else, something coming down the pike that we could be focused on. It's not just one thing. I think that people would think that, "Oh, this just means you process invoices and you just key invoices." No, that's not the job. Or it's not always the job.
Royce Morse: That's the part that most people see, but there's so much more to it than that, and I think you make a fantastic point, which is accounts payable is a field in flux, with technology, with processes, and the automation part of it is enabling AP people to take on roles that are more important, less clerical, that involve the bottom line, that help the bottom line of the organization.
As AP automation advances and becomes more and more widely accepted and used, I think we're going to see a lot of AP people get the opportunity to do more in their organization and kind of elevate the profile of the AP profession at large so that people start to understand that it's not just about paying the bills.
Michael Rochelle: Agreed, because a lot of the things that we're doing now—like you could be going from one system, like when I first started we weren't using Concur and then we were. And so then you have to try to figure out, "How do I get this process to work with this system? And then how do I get this system to work with this process?"
And so we've done that a couple of times and so it's definitely not standard. There are lots of opportunities to grow and to expand. I think that we might be looking for some new software, and, of course, that means that you have to step outside a little bit and try to think about your processes and try to find a system that will work for your needs. Maybe our needs might change and things like that.
So working in AP is definitely, to me, something to be proud of. We're tied to—if somebody's using a laptop, if they go to their office and the electricity is on and the coffee is there, guess what? Somebody did that. Somebody processed that. If you get your expense report that's on time and right and you're happy with that, somebody did that.
I like IOFM because I think that it gives us an opportunity to kind of being excited about accounts payables. It's not one of those—it doesn't have to be considered a stairstep job. It does not have to be considered something that has to be done in a back room that's locked away or in a basement or something. It doesn't mean that you're a person who can't communicate with other people because you work in accounting. It's really changing. We're really more dynamic now. There's customer service that's associated with it. And I like the fact that it's changing. It's changing and we should really be proud of that.
And so like me? Like the guy from the 7-Eleven said, "You know your limitations." I'm not gonna be a CPA, at least not by the end of this year, but I can still be very proud of the fact that I work in AP.
And, oh yeah, I forgot to mention that, for some reason, at Circuit City, at my first job, I looked at the AP team leader roles and the supervisor roles and I said I wanted to be that one day. And 20 years later, I'm there and that matters.
Royce Morse: Your dream came true. And I would add to your mantra: "Know your limitations, but don't be bound by them."
Michael Rochelle: Yes. Try things. That's why I say you don't know everything, but you can try things. And the thing about the limitations was actually just a joke. That's not what someone said. I made that up 'cause I'm a storyteller. That's what I do with my writing and stuff. Yeah, I made that up as something that's like, yeah, you can know like, I can try this, but I can also say that I've done several accounting courses and knew that, "You know what? Let me take a pause on that for a moment. I can work on my leadership skills or my managerial skills or my customer service skills," and there's a lot of other ways to add value within accounting, besides that one track.
Royce Morse: Very true. Well, thank you so much for your time, Michael. It's been a pleasure talking to you and I look forward to finding out more about your journey in the future.
Michael Rochelle: Absolutely. Remember, we have to talk again when I'm 88.
Royce Morse: Okay. I'll put it on my calendar.
Michael Rochelle: I appreciate it, Royce.
Royce Morse: Thank you for listening to "Meet the Experts," an IOFM podcast series. Remember, if you have a question for our guest or any of our experts, be sure to log into iofm.com/ask-the-experts.