If you’re in a disagreement – try this!

If you have read through this blog a few times you’ll know that I’ve been a big fan of the work of David Maister.

Here is a piece David originally posted in June 2006 which was titled “Maister’s Exaggeration Ploy” It is definitely worth a read!

I have noticed something very strange about engaging in discussions (and even disagreements) with people.

The more you disagree with them, taking the other side in an argument, the more vehemently they push their original point of view. However, if you don’t disagree, but restate their point in an exaggerated form, they often back down, or at least tone down their original statement.

This works so well, I’m thinking of copyrighting the idea and calling it “Maister’s Exaggeration Ploy.”

(I know, I know, there’s little new in this world and someone else probably thought of it before me, but I don’t think I stole this from anyone. And if I did, I can’t remember from whom.)

To see how my principle works, imagine a family member, say, a brother, who is upset at how he has been treated by a cousin. Your brother says: “I’m really upset with Jimmy. He had no right to speak to me that way!”

Because you want you brother to calm down and get over it, you might say: “Don’t let it bother you. Perhaps he really didn’t mean to be unkind.”

As valid as your point may be, you can bet your remarks will only serve to annoy your brother. After all, you appear to be defending cousin Jimmy by downplaying his intentions. This will set your brother off on another tirade, and also, probably, cause him to get annoyed with you, too.

But what if you had said: “You’re right! Jimmy’s a louse. He always has been! I think we should have nothing to do with him, ever again! Let’s leave him off the invitation list for all family gatherings from now on!”

Nothing with people is a certainty, but I would bet that your brother’s next remarks will be something like: “Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad. I’m upset, but there’s no point over-reacting.” You have calmed him down by agreeing with him and exaggerating his own point!

The same principle of exaggeration applies in the workplace. If your boss (or client) berates you because you were late in delivering something, don’t fight back, saying it was his or her fault (especially if it was!)

Instead, say: “I realize what a problem this has created for you. I’m really sorry that I caused you such turmoil. Can you help me figure out a way to prevent this in the future?” The boss (or client) will, with high probability, calm down and you’ll survive! Or at least the odds will be more in your favor!

Try my approach out. Let me know if it works for you!

See you next post.

James E

How to be happy & successful accountant (3 of 3)

Here is the last installment in our being a happy & successful professional. Below you’ll find the last 4 of Stephen C Ellis’s pearls of wisdom.

6. Be enthusiastic. Because we deal in rules, it’s real easy to fall into cataloging all the reasons something won’t work or why somebody shouldn’t do something. In fact, we lawyers take pride in being the first one to find fault with an idea. Makes us look smart. In my days as managing partner I would roll out a strategic initiative, and I could see my partner’s eyes starting to spin. Who would get the prize for being the first one to spot the flaw?

Clients want to do things – they don’t call you so they can not do things. They want to stay in the borders of the law, but they want to be told how to do what they want to do. And they want to know that you’re happy to be part of what they’re doing. There is no better way to end a client meeting than saying “This is going to be great” and to mean it. It’s fun to be charged up – to add energy to every conversation.

7. Trust yourself. You are a very bright person or you wouldn’t be here today. I think among the most important conclusions I came to as a young lawyer was that if I didn’t understand something, it was because the thing in fact didn’t make sense, not because I was stupid. Most of the times I’ve found myself in hot water it’s because I let a conversation continue past the point where I understood what was being said. And virtually every time I would say “stop, I’m not following this,” someone would come up to me after the meeting and say “Boy I’m glad you said that. I had no idea what we were talking about.”

8. Get involved. Organize the reunion or the bicycle race. Chair the church committee. Help people who have not enjoyed your good fortune. You have spent three years learning how to organize your thoughts, analyze a situation, and articulate action plans. Use those skills everywhere in your life. Stuff will get done, people will appreciate your initiative, and you will derive great satisfaction from making things better.

9. Be yourself. Here are my final two unappreciated but clearly true truths: The toughest lawyer is not the one who is the most obnoxious. Clients will say they want a tough son of a gun to make somebody life’s miserable, a real bulldog, etc. Don’t be that person. It’s been my 100% uniform experience that the bulldog only adds time, expense, stress and confusion to an otherwise inevitable result. Even clients can’t stand them after a couple of months. You want to be tough? Have the best preparation on the facts, the law and the strategy. Judges care only about those things, not a whit for bluster. Bullies are jerks, they wreck the profession for everyone, and you can beat them every time.

And finally and hands down most importantly, and please pass this on to your friends and your children, because it’s really important — Be nice and have fun. Just doing that makes life better for everybody, mostly you.

Good on you Stephen – great advice for any lawyer, accountant, engineer & professional consultant out there!

See you next time.

All my best,

James E

How to be happy & successful accountant (2 of 3)

Following on from Wednesday’s post here are a few more pearls of wisdom from Stephen C Ellis.

3. Look out for yourself. Nobody cares about you like you do except maybe your parents, and you won’t be working for them. My late and very wise father used to tell me to not worry about what people were thinking about me, because they weren’t. They were thinking about themselves.

4. Mentors are important, but they are only a resource. Accept that you are in charge of your success. Your employer may have a mentoring program, but nobody is mentored into a success. So if you think you need experience in an area, make it your business to go get it. Ask somebody; don’t wait for it to come along. Don’t wait for somebody to notice that you’re missing an important skill. Ask for a promotion – people aren’t watching what you do as carefully as you think or hope.

5. Determination matters. It matters more than intellect. The streets are littered with directionless geniuses with unexecuted good ideas. . Woody Allen had it pretty dead on when be said that 90% of success is simply showing up. You won’t suddenly have a great career. Nobody ever does. The secret is simple- great careers are the result of day after day deciding to do good work and being someone who others count on.

Tune in next time for the last installment of how to be a happy & successful professional.

Bye for now,

James E

How to be happy & successful accountant (1 of 3)

One of my all time favourite writers and thought leaders when it comes to the professions of accounting and law is David Maister. (visit http://davidmaister.com/ for more information).

A couple of years ago David Maister blogged about a speech given by a senior lawyer at a university’s school of law commencement for new students. Stephen C. Ellis is the managing partner at the law firm of Tucker, Ellis & West, what follows are extracts from his address to new students.

Although, Stephen’s address is aimed lawyers, the wisdom he shares can be applied to any professional – lawyer, accountant, management consultant, engineer, architect etc…

Over the past few years I’ve come to some conclusions on finding guideposts that will give us lawyers the best chance of being successful, in the sense of truly enjoying our lives and careers as lawyers. They are simple, some might say “trite”. But 36 years of listening to happy and desperately unhappy lawyers and watching colleagues succeed as lawyers and people, and some fail, I know that these may be cliché’s, but I also know they are true.

I’m going to talk about a handful of these “truisms”, only a couple of which I’ve made up, on being a successful lawyer in the sense of being fulfilled. Just so you know how close I am to wrapping up, there are nine of these, and they’re pretty short.

1.  Be someone others count on. Most folks talk a good game; very few come through. Clients come to you because they have a situation they cannot solve on their own. Most are not looking for an analysis of the law. Most want you to solve a problem. So solve it, don’t add to their problem by being hard to find, by missing deadlines, or by simply describing their problem back to them. It’s like going to the dentist when you have a toothache. You want it fixed and you want it fixed now. That’s what a client wants every time they talk to you. Walk in with a problem, walk out with a solution.

What they want is someone they can count on to make their lives simpler, to accomplish what they want accomplished. If you can simply do that, you’ll be sought out as an extraordinarily effective lawyer. And there is a real difference in your sense of self between being simply a resource; somebody who knows the law, and the person that people count on to solve their problems.

2. Be an interesting person, for your own good and so that clients think of you as more than a lawyer. A decent definition of hell is a dinner party companion who is a first year lawyer on the day after his or her first trial. Law stuff is interesting mostly to lawyers. In fact, it’s real interesting to lawyers, so that’s what we talk about all the time, just like you talk about law school all the time.

Force yourself to do be able to talk about more than law – read books, go to movies, be part of politics, go to lectures. You’ll meet people, you’ll be able to talk about things that other people find interesting, and you won’t burn out on your job.

The horror stories you hear about associates working 2500 hours a year? You will be surprised when you see how much of that is self imposed. These young lawyers get caught up in the chase and find that what they’re doing more interesting than anything else- so they become that boring self absorbed dining companion. The world’s full of great people with jobs and hobbies that are just as demanding and just as fascinating as yours, (assuming you make yourself get a hobby). Learn about them. You’ll be happier and much more fun to be with.

Tune into the next two posts (Wednesday & Friday) for the other seven pearls of wisdom from young Stephen!

All my best,

James E

Think about relationships more than you do now

In the last post you’ll remember reading about Reece – our highly skilled accounting professional who lacked a network and needed to learn how to sell.

As a self-employed headhunter, the way I feed my family is through the network of contacts and relationships I have built and maintained over many years. In the case of Reece she has worked for the same accounting firm for most of her professional career and has only really built a network internal to the firm. If Reece aspires to be a Partner she will need to start building relationships that (sooner or later) will help her attract new businesses or more business from existing clients. So how does Reece get networking? Given the readership of this blog I will assume a few things so we can get to the heart of the matter.

1. Choose your area.You can’t be all things to all people. If your professional interest lies in say, the biotechnology field, then focus on relationships in that arena and around it.

2. Serve that area. Once you have selected the area start serving. By this I mean get involved in all the associations/forums/groups you can that make up your chosen area. Getting involved means not simply joining but doing things for and with others, e.g. give free advice, volunteer help, sit on steering groups/committees, make speeches and the like. Get to be known as someone who helps others – no strings attached.

3. Build a reputation as a “go to” person. Closely linked to the above point is the building of a profile as the person who becomes the hub for activity. Like a hub of a bicycle wheel that connects the spokes be the person that can link others together. Through a simple introduction over a coffee much kudos and creditability can be and is created. You will find that the hub becomes involved in all sorts of interesting situations and conversations that will lead to new opportunities.

4. Be genuine. If you are getting involved and helping others for the sole purpose of getting business and making sales you will fail. People can see a phony a mile away. So don’t be one!

The above points are not just useful for our young friend Reece to think about; they are a good reminder to the seasoned professional services campaigner!

Until next time,

James E.

Passion is not enough

A while back I met a potential candidate on behalf of a client of mine. Lets call her Reece as in Reece Witherspoon.

Reece was a lovely lady in her early 30′s. Bright, warm and friendly. After the first five minutes of our coffee meeting I felt I had known her for years.

Reece is a senior accountant with a highly technical background and a wonderful skill-set in problem solving and working on complex projects with big end of town clients. In addition, she has a passion and enthusiasm for her work that is contagious. I think it would be safe to say that there would probably be around a couple of hundred professionals with her particular skill-mix in Australia. I’m not joking … she is that good! This coupled with her engaging personality makes for a formidable combination.

At first glance she seems to have all the makings of a first rate professional. But there is something  missing – her ability to network and sell.

To date Reece has focused on honing her technical & professional skills to the detriment of her capability to build effective relationships both within and outside her accounting firm. In fact during our coffee Reece clearly stated that it was only in the last year or so that she had come to realise how vitally important “networking” is.

As I think I’ve said in past posts I hate the word networking.  The word has unfortunately come to represent the attitude and behavior of  “what can I get out of other people.” I don’t want to sound twee about it, but true networking is about meaningful relationships. In Reece’s case she has not spent the time to identify, establish and cultivate relationships in the wider community. For it is these relationships with others that will help her on her way to building new business contacts and deepen her bonds with existing clients.

Reece is not yet a Partner in her firm. If she wants to not only be a Partner, but an effective, one she needs to learn how to build relationships and sell her services. Her passion for the profession is (sadly) not enough.

So how can Reece do this? Tune into the next post!

All my best,

James E

Coffee with Matt Damon

Late last week I had a coffee meeting with a new friend of mine. To protect his identity (& the innocent ) lets call him Matt, as in
Matt Damon.

Now Matt is not an accountant, but rather an engineer. Here is just a small section from his bio.

Over a career of over 20 years in systems engineering, Matt has worked in the areas of defence, building automation, industrial control, rail automation and intelligent transport systems.  He has participated at many levels in sophisticated and complex projects involving large scale software development, safety systems, distributed real time technologies as well as mobile and remote area communications.  Matt is a strong business leader having fulfilled business development and senior management roles over the last 10 years plus.    An energetic and focused individual, Matt has extensive management and engineering skills.  He has successfully secured many millions of dollars of business for companies he has worked for, dramatically improved company processes and demonstrated finesse in leading and motivating both engineering and sales staff.  His presentation skills, deep industry experience, people management skills and commercial acumen are well proven.

My experience to date with engineers has largely been that they have brains the size of small planets and as such tend to be too technical & analytical to be interested in the commercial aspects of their organisations and clients.

However, Matt was refreshingly different. He is a super smart, articulate professional interested in his clients and what his organisation is doing to better serve their market, who just happened to be an engineer.

In all my meetings with accountants, (junior & senior) and reading through many hundreds of CVs and capability statements I can count on one hand the number of accounting professionals that can be described similar to Matt the engineer.

As a keen observer of the accounting profession and a consultant trying to help firms and their staff, I would love to hear accountant’s described as energetic, focused, commercial and generating big business for their firms and adding real value to their clients and stakeholders.

That being said, I clearly have not met all accountants in Australia or around the world. Perhaps you are one of the above-described professionals. If so, please let me know!

All my best,

James E.

Can accountants be creative and innovative?

I was surfing the web the other day and came across a most interesting piece on making a company more creative. The article wasn’t specifically talking about accounting firms, but there are are some great tips on how any business can help promote and foster creative thinking. The article, “12 Tips to Make Your Company More Creative” was written by Ronald Brown and can be found at http://mashable.com/2011/11/08/company-creativity/

Although it seems to be on the decline, creative capacity is more important than ever. Many large companies deem creativity a major competitive advantage.

So, where do you start? What will be your strategy to bolster not only your own creativity, but also that of your business?

First, you’ll need creative employees — then, an environment that fosters and promotes that creativity. Let’s divide these categories further.

Employee Creativity

  • Hire for innate creativity. Even if a candidate’s domain skills come first (e.g. engineering, finance, marketing), stay on the lookout for creative skills – it’s easy and relatively inexpensive. Bringing people on-board with high “creativity quotients” will pay off enormously in the long-run.
  • Assess current employees. Once you identify creative types within your organization, deploy them for special projects or team leadership positions.
  • Train for creative thinking skills. It’s a structured and rich process, and everybody, regardless of inherent abilities, can improve their creativity with practice.

Personal Relationships

  • Teach marketing principles. Since business success is so much about marketing, and marketing is so much about creativity, it would be hard to imagine a more fertile ground for sharpening creative thinking skills. Advertising and design (product and graphic) tasks are also effective in getting creative juices flowing.
  • Allow for reflection time. Employees need places where they can get away from mainstream energy and potential conflicts. Creative professionals recognize solitary time as part of the “incubation” process, necessary for clarifying and polishing ideas.
  • Encourage play. Impromptu team recreation builds trust and reinforces collaboration. Make it accessible on a daily basis.
  • Mix it up. Multi-cultural and mixed gender teams tend to have higher creative output.
  • Visit customers. Ideas are most valuable when they are put in context of customer needs and circumstances. Learn from customers, allow them to suggest ideas, and be sure to share concepts, drawings and prototypes with them.
  • Encourage industry networking. Interaction with peers builds tacit knowledge.

Management Involvement

  • Define a powerful vision. Vision is the single best agent for galvanizing teams. While high performance teams need the freedom to direct their own time and efforts, management directs the process through a vision that team members can get excited about.

Physical Surroundings

  • Create big open spaces. There’s a reason design firms and ad agency offices are visually free flowing, interesting, and non-constraining: environmental clutter is distracting and stressful.
  • Create friendly spaces. Individual workspaces should put people at ease. Some prefer music. Some work well with clutter, like piles of books or papers, while others like things tidy and minimal. The goal is to meet everyone’s needs the best way possible. Bottom line, you want employees to feel good being at work.

See you next time,

James E

The subtle art of negotiation (2 of 2)

Last post I referred to Brad’s use of a “wonderful device” in his negotiations with clients. So what is this device? Put simply it is distance. By distance I mean another person which Brad needs to refer back to and check with before committing himself and his firm to anything.

By helping other partners provide services to a large client, Brad has created at least one other person within that account whom he can use as someone he needs to check with and consult before making any decisions when it comes to project scope or fees. Professional accountants (at the partner level in particular) often fall into the trap of saying yes on the spot or being caught by over-committing when a client puts pressure on them in a meeting. What Brad has done is to create distance by having another partner doing work in the same organisation to whom he can “defer” decisions. This is is how it works.

Let’s say, Brad has been asked by his client to make the fee in his proposal sharper and include some extra items at the lower price. Brad can then say something along the lines, “Mr/Mrs Client, thank you for asking the question. However, I need to discuss your request with my other colleague who is the lead partner for this account. I’ll come back to you with an informed response”

By having this other person to defer to, Brad has created sufficient distance and given himself more time to develop a informed, creative & innovative approach and not respond in the heat of the moment and give away too much.

I you’re a partner keep the above in mind when engaged in your next negotiation. It might just save you some time & money!

Until next time,

James E


The subtle art of negotiation (1 of 2)

Recently I caught up with an old university friend of mine who is now a senior partner at one of the big 4 accounting firms working in the areas of mergers & acquisitions. We had a great catch up over coffee & raisin toast. To protect the innocent lets call my friend Brad as in Brad Pitt. I’m sure he’d like that!

Brad made mention of very useful tactic when it came to working with large clients. Big accounting firms tend to have multiple relationships with their corporate clients with certain partners wanting to protect their “turf” and not wanting other partners to get in on the act. Its sad to say but unfortunately its true.

However, my mate Brad has come up a clever & innovative approach. He seeks out the other partners working within a particular organisation and helps them win more business with the client in their respective areas. By so doing he builds the relationships he has with other partners in the firm and fosters the reputation of being a team player. All good stuff! However, the real genius in Brad’s approach is the subtle creation of a wonderful device that is critical in any negotiation with existing clients or when chasing new business.

What is this so-called “wonderful device”?  Tune into the next post to find out.

Keep well,