The human touch

In today’s busy business world we are often encouraged to be assertive, front foot forward and always, always looking for opportunities to promote ourselves. In the right context there is nothing wrong with these traits. However, I’m a big believer in the power and wonder of showing oneself to be more human.

In the great majority of my dealings with business owners, MDs, CEOs & CFOs I’ve noticed they tend to buy accounting services from people that they connect with, like and want to trust. Items like the firm’s brand and the individual’s technical expertise are taken very much as hygiene factors, that is to say, their importance and significance is only really noticed when they (the factors) are not present.

Look at your own behaviours when purchasing products or services. For instance, I live in a suburb in Sydney that has over 25 hairdressers/barbers competing for people’s haircare needs. My wife goes to a certain hairdresser, not because of their skilled staff, nice decor or cappuccinos – most of them have all that.  No, she goes to a particular one because she likes the lady who cuts and styles her hair.  They talk, learn about each other and have a laugh. I don’t think they have a lot in common in terms of their age and their interests, but they seem to have gotten to know each other and have developed a level of trust and understanding over a long period of time. I dare say that if Mary (the hairdresser) left that particular salon – my wife would follow her to her new one. My wife’s relationship is with Mary not her employer. My wife’s decision is not particularly influenced my Mary’s amazing skills or her stunning banter and repartee – my wife just likes Mary and trusts her with her hair.

Now I’m not saying to all you accounting professionals out there that when you leave your current firm your clients will blindly follow you. Notwithstanding the non-compete clauses in your partnership and employee agreements, clients will of course make their own decisions what to do. The take away lesson here is that by exercising the human touch clients tend to be more loyal and sticky with their advisers who treat them as people – believe it or not!

See you next post,

James

First impressions … so, so important

Several weeks ago I met a chap in a park walking his dog who, after a chat while we were both cleaning up after our dogs, introduced himself as a marketing specialist. Given the environment in which we met neither of us had a business card with us. Since then we have run into each other at least another 3 times. Still no luck – no business card on either side.

Lets call our dog-walking friend Tommy as in Tommy Lee-Jones. I liked Tommy he was friendly, appeared to be enthusiastic and passionate about his discipline and was articulate in the value that he delivered for his clients. He looked (not his dress of course but his manner), sounded and behaved like a real professional.

Just the other day I ran into Tommy again and hazzar! he had a business card on him. He said he was in a rush, gave me the card and sped off.  As Tommy semi-jogged his way with his dog to the other side of the park I look down at the card he gave me. Up to this point I believed Tommy was a seasoned professional, well versed in his discipline and ready to add value to his clients. When I looked at his card my heart just sank.  Here is what I saw …

  • The card was printed on some sort of heavy paper (about 120gsm) the type you get printed at those business card vending machines you see at airports.
  • The design/layout was quite up to the standard of what my 13 year old son can do on MS Publisher.
  • Tommy didn’t have his own domain. So his email address read “tommy@bigpond.com” For those of you outside Australia bigpond is our largest isp.
  • No website

I could go on but I think you get the idea. Now a lot of you reading this work with big accounting firms, law firms and consultancies – you’re probably ok but there is always room for improvement. Why not ask a friend or contact outside of your market for a frank opinion of your logo, business card & website? You might just get a surprise.

By the way … Tommy’s area of special expertise and client service offering? Marketing. Oh brother!

All my best,

James E.

Better to be a fox?

Following on from the last post. Here is an alternate perspective on the question is it better to be a hedgehog or a fox?

For the professional accounting adviser – is it better to be a a fox?

Here is an alternate point of view from the prestigious Economist magazine. It says it may be better to be a fox. See:(http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2009/02/better_a_fox_than_a_hedgehog)

CAN we blame the “experts” for not predicting the financial crisis? I don’t know of any scientific method that could have perfectly called and timed it. Some things were very troubling—global imbalances and the housing bubble—but did it have to get this bad? There were probably a myriad of ways it might have played out, some even worse, some better (remember the IMF  hoping for a happy and gradual unwinding). How can you predict a tepid, inconsistent government reaction (economists suffered a touch of hubris there) and market panic? Human behaviour is tough to predict and when humans try to anticipate what other humans will do—you can get a big mess.

Philip Tetlock, a professor of organisational behaviour at the Haas Business School at the University of California-Berkeley, talks to Money about why humans make poor forecasters and, if you must listen to one, what qualities to look for. He reckons there exists two types of experts:

The most important factor was not how much education or experience the experts had but how they thought. You know the famous line that [philosopher] Isaiah Berlin borrowed from a Greek poet, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”? The better forecasters were like Berlin’s foxes: self-critical, eclectic thinkers who were willing to update their beliefs when faced with contrary evidence, were doubtful of grand schemes and were rather modest about their predictive ability. The less successful forecasters were like hedgehogs: They tended to have one big, beautiful idea that they loved to stretch, sometimes to the breaking point. They tended to be articulate and very persuasive as to why their idea explained everything. The media often love hedgehogs.

According to Mr Tetlock you should listen to humble, self-critical experts who shy away from bold pronouncements. The better ones often use words such as “however” and “perhaps”, instead of “moreover” and “all the more so”. That’s a tough sell to CNBC. He claims these thoughtful types have higher success rates. But I would classify the people who called the crisis as hedgehogs rather than foxes. A foxy economist would probably not incur the moniker Dr Doom. Our now celebrated prophets see no end in sight and think things will get much worse; should we still listen to them?

No. In our research, the hedgehogs who get out front don’t tend to stay out front very long. They often overshoot. For example, among the few who correctly called the fall of the Soviet Union were what I call ethno-nationalist fundamentalists, who believed that multi-ethnic nations were likely to be torn apart. They were spectacularly right with Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. But they also expected Nigeria, India and Canada to disintegrate. That’s how it is with hedgehogs: You get spectacular hits but lots of false alarms.

Mr Tetlock seems to suggest we should listen (and we might want to listen to someone if only to falsely encouraged that we live in a world where chaos does not reign) to the very people who meekly warned of problems, but never said how bad things might get. Most of the time, they will steer you in the right direction. But they’re not infallible; only a hedgehog would’ve seen this coming.

What do you think?

See you next post,

James E

Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

The web is an amazing thing – the largest most dynamic library human kind has ever known. I was listening to a podcast the other day and came across to a reference I had never heard before – something about a hedgehog and a fox. After a little research I uncovered the piece below thanks to a website called Internet Marketing Secrets (for more info see http://www.internetmarketingsecrets.com/news/126/126/hedgehog-fox.html)

The hedgehog and the fox, is an ancient axiom made known by Archilochus a Greek author & poet (645 BC) It simply states, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

It became popular through an essay by Isaiah Berlin, where he divided the world into two types of thinkers… hedgehogs and foxes, based upon the ancient parable.

The fox is sneaky, and always trying to scheme up new ways. Their world is complex, always on the move, and they never tend to focus on a single unifying theory. The hedgehog is simple. They organize the world into a single unifying concept. The fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defense.

According to Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision… and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory… The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.”

In short, hedgehogs set goals, and they have systems by which they accomplish things. Foxes, tend to go off in all directions, without a methodology, goals, or systems to success.

When applied to a business, it means “Know Your Self” and your core competencies. Have a well defined culture. A vision. Know who you are. What you are about. And what you are trying to achieve.

The concept was widely popularized by Jim Collins’ #1 best seller, “Good to Great.” Why some companies make the leap… and others don’t.

According to Jim, “Those who built the good-to-great companies were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs. They used their hedgehog nature, to drive toward what we came to call, a Hedgehog Concept, for their companies. Those who led the comparison companies, tended to be foxes, never gaining the clarifying advantage, of a Hedgehog Concept, being instead, scattered, diffused, and inconsistent.”

As a professional accountant are you a hedgehog or a fox?

See you next post.

All my best,

James E

Being a happy & successful professional (part 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

Being a happy & successful professional (part 2 of 3)

Following on from Monday’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

Being a happy & successful professional (part 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

Passion + Relationships = Success

In the last post you’ll remember reading about Cameron – 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 Cameron 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 Cameron 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 Cameron 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 Cameron to think about; they are a good reminder to the seasoned professional services campaigner!

All my best,

James E

Is passion enough?

The other day I met a potential candidate on behalf of a client of mine. Lets call her Cameron as in Cameron Diaz.

Cameron 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.

Cameron 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 Cameron 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 Cameron 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 Cameron’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.

Cameron 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 Cameron do this? Tune into the next post!

All my best,

James E