Nick & his great story

The other week I was attended a conference. One of the key note speakers was the famous Australian sportsman Nick Farr-Jones. People living in Australia will know Nick as a sporting legend – he was the captain of the Australian Rugby Team when they won the Rugby World Cup in 1991. Since most of the readership of this blog comes from the USA here is an example to put it in some kind of context. Nick is our equivalent of say your Troy Aikman – the Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer.

Since leaving Rugby almost 20 years ago Nick has, alongside his professional work as a lawyer & dinvestment banker, contributes to many charities both in Australia & beyond. He is an all-round good guy.

Like you, I go along to many workshops, seminars & conference in the areas of business, accounting & technology. The above event I attended to hear Nick speak was different. Nick was speaking at a Men’s Conference at the church that I attend. Although I’ve never heard Nick speak before live, I was impressed by his humility, sincerity & openness. He relayed a story to the audience that day that was both insightful & instructive. In fact, it is one of those stories that you hear every now and then that help you think and see the world in a different way.

Don’t worry – I’m not about to preach at you 🙂 Although I’m a committed Christian and would love the opportunity to discuss such matters with you – this blog is not the right place to do that. The story that Nick shared that day, wasn’t about God but it was about the power & energy that comes from focus.

The story involves a mountain & a man named Edmund. Nick had the privilege to have a question answered by this great man first hand.

Tune into the next post to read the story.

Keep smiling & bye for now,

James E


You’re not an expert until you’re 31!

A few years ago I read a book by Malcolm Gladwell (pictured & the famous author of The Tipping Point & Blink!) titled Outliers.

The book is unusual, thought provoking and definitely worth reading.

One of the themes the book examines that struck me the most, was what Gladwell calls the 10,000 hour rule.
Rather than reinvent the wheel here is an excellent summary I found on the web.

The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.

Even Mozart, the greatest musical prodigy of all time, couldn’t hit his stride until he had his ten thousand hours in. Practice isn’t the thing that you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.

The other interesting thing about those ten thousand hours, of course, is that ten thousand is an enormous amount of time. It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you’re a young adult. You have to have parents who encourage, guide and support you. You can’t be poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won’t be time left in the day to practice enough. In fact, most people can reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program, or if they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in those hours.

Is the ten-thousand-hour rule a general rule of success? If we scratch below the surface of every great achiever, do we always find the equivalent of the Michigan Computer Center or the hockey all-star team – some sort of special opportunity for success?

Let’s see the idea with two examples: the Beatles, one of the most famous rock band ever and Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest men. What truly distinguish their histories are not their extraordinary opportunities. The Beatles, for the most random of reasons, got invited to go to Hamburg. Without Hamburg, the Beatles might well have taken a different path. “I was very lucky,” Bill Gates said at the beginning of an interview. That doesn’t mean he isn’t brilliant or an extraordinary entrepreneur. It just means that he understands what incredible good fortune it was to be at Lakeside in 1968.

These outliers were the beneficiaries of some kind of unusual opportunity. Lucky breaks don’t seem like the exception with software billionaires, rock bands and star athletes. They seem to be like the rule.

So there you have it. Assuming you’re working at something around 20 hours a week for 10 years (which is roughly 10,000 hours) you will more than likely be an “expert”.  So for the professional accountant, lawyer or adviser you really don’t know what you’re doing until your early 30’s.

Controversial or what?! 🙂

See you next post (I hope)

James E

Is this any way to treat someone? (2 of 2)

Following on from my last post here are just some of the things that happened in the meeting with said accounting firm.

I started the presentation. Just to remind you this was a presentation about their market so I would have thought they would have been somewhat interested. However, of the group of about 12 people, only 3 were paying attention. The other 9 were doing a combination of checking their Blackberrys, reading the notes for the next meeting & one guy even took a call!

My presentation style is very interactive and as such it depends on people listening to what is being said and of course making some effort on their part when asked to. At one point I asked one of the partners to tell me & the group what the term “proactive” means in the context of accountants working and communicating with their clients. Believe it or not, after a slight pause, he replied “I don’t know.” I (of course) don’t mind if people don’t know the answer to a question but what really disappointed me about this particular exchange is that he didn’t even try. When I asked him the question he was reading some notes for a meeting later that day; after he replied to my question, he went back to reading his notes.

A little later in the presentation I asked another partner about his thoughts regarding a section on accounting client expectations I had just finished outlining. He looked up from his sandwich and said “Sorry, I can’t answer that question … I wasn’t listening” Ironically a big part of the proceeding segment of the presentation was on the importance of listening!

The icing on the cake was the arrival of a 13th partner just over an hour late to the meeting. His excuse was that he thought the meeting was scheduled on daylight savings time since we had moved back to Eastern Standard time the day before. Hmmm … I don’t want to comment on what I was thinking at the time 🙂

I’m really sorry if the above sounds like a rant. I was just saddened that this one meeting almost typified so many things that people out there believe about accountants – dull, unengaged, conservative and unimaginative. In my experience over many years I’m glad to say that the opposite is true of the majority of accounting firms I have worked with and that I know 🙂

Until next time,

James E

Is this any way to treat someone? (1 of 2)

I had a most interesting experience last week. I was treated like a lost dog.

If you’ve been a reader of this blog for any amount of time you would know that last year I wrote a book “What do Accounting Clients Really Want?” published by Thomson Reuters. Since the book has come out I’ve presented to many accounting firms the salient points of the book as a way of getting the word out and promoting the book.

What I usually do is send the managing partner of an accounting firm a copy of the book along with an offer to present to the partners & selected staff followed by a q & a session completely free of charge. Nice and simple.

Well, I presented to a top 25 accounting firm last week that was one of the most telling speaking experiences of my entire career.

Here is how it all unfolded.

I was to present at a lunch time meeting of the partners of the firm set down for 1.00pm. It usually takes me about 20 minutes to set up my laptop and check that all the connections and my slideshow is working properly. So I asked this firm if I could have access to the meeting room at 12.30pm – this would give me a full 30 minutes to set up and not eat into the partners precious time in the meeting itself.

I arrived at the firm just before 12.30pm, spoke to the receptionist and was given access to the room along with the one the firm’s IT team to help connect my laptop to their in- house data projector. Great! Fantastic! Everything was going fine.

About 10 minutes into my setup I was asked to leave the room because it had been double-booked by one of the partners for an internal meeting. Hmm – not real good. I was confident everything would work fine so I left the room and waited outside as requested. Funny … I booked the set up time over a week before the meeting and was told it would be fine. This was dog moment No.1.

For most of the time I waited I was standing in a short hallway that led to the meeting room I waited there for about 15 minutes. About 8 people walked past me and not one person asked if I needed help or even who I was. This was dog moment No.2.

Just before 1pm I knocked on the door and asked if I could come in and finish setting up my equipment. I was told in rather short language to do it and got busy to make sure the presentation was working which only (thankfully) took about 3 minutes.

I then turned from the screen and laptop and faced the long boardroom table as people were speaking amongst themselves, checking their mobiles and reading papers. I stood there for 5 minutes. Everyone could see me and not one person introduced themselves let alone ask who I was. 5 minutes. Count to 300. That is a long, long time for someone to stand in front of a group of say 12 people and not one person acknowledge my presence. These are not just 12 random people from the street – they are 12 educated, experienced professionals who aim at helping individuals and businesses grow and prosper. This was dog moment no.3.

It may sound a little self serving but I could have been anyone – what if I was a client or key strategic supplier to the firm? Man alive – it is not a good look.

Ironically, the chap who invited me to speak was half an hour late to the meeting he arranged! Although to be fair he did apologise afterwards for his lateness.

Read the next post to find out what happened in the meeting!

See you next time.

James E.

Does anyone like to wait?

I was in an accounting firm recently (think a top 10 Australian firm) to visit a professional referred to me by a friend. My friend’s friend was kind enough to help me with some input on a project I’m working on on behalf of a client.

It was just before 11am as I exited the elevator and walked to the reception desk. After announcing myself to the receptionist, I was asked to take a seat in the lounge chairs which occupied the space in front of the elevators. So I did.

The chairs were comfortable, the surrounding artwork was interesting and the coffee table presented some eclectic reading choices. There was a woman, probably in her mid-fifties, seated opposite me reading a newspaper. She looked like a client. Although dressed neatly she didn’t give the air of a supplier/vendor to the firm in any way. She had nothing but a handbag. I noticed her sitting there when I got out of the elevator.

Like most people I don’t like waiting. Please don’t judge me too harshly but I’m the type of person who views punctuality as a virtue and lateness as a sin. Unless there is some dire emergency or major reason I’m always on time for business engagements. If, by chance, I’m running late, I always call the person I’m scheduled to meet and apologise and tell them that I’m running 5 or 10 minutes late – its just the way I’m wired.

Now the chap I was meeting was doing me a favour so I really didn’t mind that although our meeting was scheduled for 11am he had not come to the foyer until about 11.15am. It was ok.

What wasn’t ok was that this woman, quietly seated, had obviously been waiting longer than me for her person to arrive. He had just arrived before my chap came. Given his apologies and the way he related to the woman it was obvious to me that she was either a prospective client or a new one; otherwise he wouldn’t have said, “Nice to meet you.”

My question is this. The woman was there before I was and her chap arrived just before mine. She was waiting at the very least 15 minutes. In reality she had most likely waited longer. Is this any way to treat a client, let alone a new one you would like to impress and have a long term relationship with?

Do you like waiting? Don’t answer that right away. Count to 900 and then tell me (Hint: 15 minutes = 900 seconds 🙂 )

Talk with you next time,


Care and help makes a difference

Although my day job is as a specialist headhunter in the accounting profession, I have some fingers in other pies. For example, some clients see me as a “honest broker” – rightly or wrongly. That is someone who can offer an objective sounding board and (perhaps) a slightly different perspective.

One of my commercial clients is planning to exit his business and has hired me as sounding board and has brought his accountant – a chap which he has used for several years – to join him as an adviser. I’ve met this accountant chap many times over the years. To protect the innocent let’s call him Ben as in Ben Stiller.

Ben is not the most brilliant or technically gifted accountant in the world. However, he has a wonderful attitude of being really helpful to his clients. Ben goes out of his way to serve, ask questions and generally be available to his clients. None of what he does is ground breaking stuff – but he does the small things well and is consistent.

Some time ago the same client referred to above had a tax issue. I introduced him to a top-notch tax specialist at a big firm. To cut a long story short, the lack of service, care and attention from the big firm drove my client friend back to his local accountant – Ben. Not because of his technical ability or size of his firm – he went back to Ben for two simple reasons. Ben showed care and was helpful. A one man band beat one of the world’s biggest accounting brands. He simply made a difference to his client by showing some care and helping!

My question to you – are you showing your clients care and are you helpful? I’d love to know what you think.

Bye for now,

James E

A good adviser

Now we turn our attention to a good adviser.

One of the CFOs I interviewed last year in my book, “What do Accounting Clients Really Want?” gave the most wonderful & impressive answer to one of my questions. The response is about her experience with a good adviser.

The question I asked was …Tell me about a time when you received the best service from an accounting firm. What made it the best? How did it make you feel?

It was in my last CFO role. I didn’t like the firm but I really liked the tax adviser. This individual just stood out. He was extremely good at what he did. He’d taken on some of the big firms who had provided (in his view) poor advice for some clients and had actually won. However, what made him so spectacular for us was the level of dedication to our business. It was as if we were his only client, even though we knew we weren’t. He was committed to us. He communicated in a way that we understood.
As soon as we had a need, he was there to meet it. The level of service he provided was outstanding. Although he was in a firm that was providing us a service, he always seemed to position himself as if he was part of our business and showed that he cared. I saw that for the other clients he serviced as well. There’s a big distinction about how you make your client feel if you come in and you have a care factor showing, “I’m part of this business”, as opposed to, “I’m a service provider and I know it all – here is my advice”.
As a CFO for this business I felt supported and important. We paid him a small fortune and he was so well worth it. We definitely got our value-add!

How cool is that!

See you next post.

James E

A bad adviser

As mentioned in the last post I wanted to share with you two real life examples of an indifferent adviser and empathetic adviser. They come from my own experience.

This post is about an adviser who was (and maybe still is) indifferent.

A while ago I was in a meeting with a top ten accounting firm. The purpose of the meeting was for me to introduce a friend of mine who needed some specialist advice regarding an upcoming transaction.

My friend & I were on one side of the table; two partners on the other side. Lets call them B1 and B2.

B1 was engaging and attentive to my friend and the concerns of his business. He was a good listener and asked the right questions. But let’s not focus on him since this post is about indifference not empathy.

B2, to his credit, seemed to be very interested for the first ten minutes of the meeting and then for some reason “turned off” for the remainder. In the following forty or so minutes he looked at his Blackberry about 10 times and sent at least 3 emails or txts during the meeting. He asked a few questions but gave the impression that he was too important for such a “small” client.

B2 is an absolute expert in his field and commands  high fees for his services. However, in spite of his technical prowess he didn’t get the assignment. I was so disappointed by B2’s attitude and behavior in the meeting that I spoke to his boss about it. The boss agreed and had a discreet chat with B2. I hope for B2’s sake he changes how he views and treats people.   I think my friend said it best soon after we left the meeting… “what a w_ _ _ _ _ !”

What more can I say?

Please tune in to the next post and read about an adviser that shows empathy. A real study in contrasts!

Keep well,

James E

What kind of adviser are you?

I was chatting with a friend last week about what makes a great professional adviser. My friend, let’s call him Phil (as in Phil Dunphy – the geeky father character in the TV series Modern Family) is a senior executive in a multinational fashion retailing group. Phil’s expertise is in organisational development & learning and he has worked in fields as diverse as investment banking to food processing. Phil knows his stuff – trust me.  By the way, just in case “Phil” is reading this … mate don’t worry – you’re much smarter and more handsome than the actor 🙂

Phil has been around long enough to know what makes a great professional adviser. He has had experience in working with all manner of professionals – accountants, lawyers, management consultants and organisational psychologists just to name a few.

In chatting with Phil about professional advisers he reminded me of a quality that is often overlooked in many disciplines including accounting. The quality is empathy. Before we go any further lets be clear on what empathy is.

According to the online Oxford Dictionary … empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Another definition I found which I like very much is  empathy is the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings.  I think you’re getting the idea. But lets dig a little deeper.

A great way to fully understand the meaning of something is to look at its opposite. So what is the opposite of empathy? After searching high and low and thinking about it the best opposite I could come up with to empathy is indifference.

Indifference is defined as someone showing a lack of interest, concern, or sympathy.

Now for the big question … are you an accountant/adviser that shows empathy or are you one that displays indifference? I would like to think that you are someone who not only has the ability to understand and share the feelings of another but also imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings.

To help you understand what camp you fall into, over the next two posts I will share with you the profile of an empathetic adviser viz an indifferent adviser. Both are based on real people working in the accounting profession. After comparing the two, I’d love you to tell me which adviser type you think clients really want!

Until next time.

James E.



Learning by failing

Let’s get philosophical for a moment. Accountants, like most intelligent and capable professionals from time to time, make mistakes and fail. There is nothing wrong with failure.

The other day I was reading a great post from the Harvard Business Review blog titled “Why I Hire People Who Fail” written by Jeff Stibel, the CEO of Dun & Bradstreet in the US. The full article can be found

A few weeks ago, I wrote about avoiding social media failures. I briefly mentioned our company’s “Failure Wall” and was surprised by the number of comments and questions I received about it. What’s the purpose? How does it work? And what other kinds of things do you do in that crazy office of yours?

The failure wall was part of our efforts to create a company culture where employees can take risks without fear of reprisal. As NPR’s Here and Nowreported earlier this year, we started by collecting inspirational quotes about failure. Among my favorites:

  • “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill
  • “I have not failed, I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison
  • “Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life.” – Sophia Loren

One random Thursday night, I returned to our corporate headquarters afterhours with a bottle of wine and a box of acrylic paints. My assistant and I used stencils to paint about three dozen such quotes onto a large white wall in our break room. As first time stencilers, this project itself seemed destined to end up a byline on the (slightly gloppy) failure wall until we gratefully accepted some much-needed painting assistance from my wife.

After we finished painting around 1:00AM, we fastened a dozen Sharpies to the wall alongside these simple instructions: (1) describe a time when you failed, (2) state what you learned, and (3) sign your name. To set the tone, I listed three of my own most memorable (and humbling) failures.

In the beginning, the wall was met with surprise, curiosity and a bit of trepidation. We didn’t ask anyone to contribute and we didn’t tell people why it was there, but the wall quickly filled up. Some of the entries are life lessons: “After 7 years of practicing, I quit playing violin in high school to fit in. Lesson learned — who cares what other people think.” Some are financial mishaps: “I thought buying Yahoo at $485 a share was a good idea.” Many are self-deprecating: “My successful failure is working in online marketing when I came to LA to work in showbiz.” Some are more than a little amusing: “I thought it was spelled ‘fale.'”

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: success by failure is not an oxymoron. When you make a mistake, you’re forced to look back and find out exactly where you went wrong, and formulate a new plan for your next attempt. By contrast, when you succeed, you don’t always know exactly what you did right that made you successful (often, it’s luck).

We don’t just encourage risk taking at our offices: we demand failure. If you’re not failing every now and then, you’re probably not advancing. Mistakes are the predecessors to both innovation and success, so it is important to celebrate mistakes as a central component of any culture. This kind of culture can only be created by example — it won’t work if it’s forced or contrived. A lively culture is nebulous, indefinable, ever-changing. Try to package it in a formal mission statement and you just may suffocate it.


See you  next post,

James E