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Can accountants save the business world?

This morning I was at the gym. Don’t  be too impressed. I joined a group about 4 months ago that goes to the gym every Monday & Friday morning and I hate very minute of it! The only reason I go is that I know it is supposed to be doing me some good.

Between some boring weight exercises I chatted with one of my fellow victims at the gym. We both knew each other before the gym and have been friends for a few years. My friend is the Head of Design at a small to medium manufacturing firm which designs, builds and distributes catering equipment. The firm employs around 100 people and has been locally owned & operated for more than 20 years.

I asked my friend how business was going. To cut a long story short, the conversation moved to the impact of the so called “carbon tax” For my readers overseas, the Australian government introduced a tax on carbon producers so as to penalise emissions on 1 July this year.

My friends firm, as one of the inputs into their productive process, uses refrigeration gas. This gas is one of the long list of items that attracts the new carbon tax. I was amazed to learn that before 1 July this manufacturing firm was paying a wholesale rate of $25 per kilo. Come 1 July the rate for the same gas increased to $160 per kilo. A whopping 640% increase! By the way … this manufacturer doesn’t use a kilo or two of gas a year – they use hundreds of kilos! And this is just one expense item that has been increased due to the carbon tax.

How do business owners and management cope with such a shock? In steps the accountant to the rescue. Given my work with accountants over many, many years I would have thought that  the above example is a golden opportunity to enter the business and use their expertise to help with solutions to manage such impacts on the business.

Numerous examples come to mind of accountants that I have met and worked with who are able to develop innovate ways to run business more efficiently and effectively. Its not just about numbers of course its about the helping the business do better!

Are you an accountant that can save the business world?

All my best,

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 http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/12/why_i_hire_people_who_fail.html

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

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

Accounting firm or an ideas factory?

A few days ago I was having lunch with a client of mine who had recently joined a 2nd-tier accounting firm having left one of the Big 4 for greener pastures. During the lunch my client told me about an exercise his old firm would perform on behalf of clients. It blew my socks off!

From time to time this Big 4 firm would hold a sandwich lunch for all their staff & partners in each of their offices around the country in a given week. The Brisbane office would hold their lunch on Monday, Melbourne on Tuesday, Sydney on Wednesday and so on.

The purpose of the lunch was to get as many people together – partners, directors, managers, graduates, support staff and others sitting around a table to talk and think about a particular problem or two and how they would solve it. Each table had a facilitator to help guide the conversation. The problems were real world issues that clients of the firm were facing. The purpose of the lunches is give the clients ideas they can use to solve their current business challenges.

The Big 4 firm would make an offer to their clients or even a prospect they are trying to win along the lines of, “How would you like a thousand of our staff who are amongst the best and the brightest in the market work on your problem(s)? By the way … there is no charge. It is our way of adding value to you and showing that we are here to help.”

What business or organisation would say no to such a fantastic offer? Having a thousand men and women of varying experience working on ways to solve the problems you have in your operations, marketing, recruitment and strategy is an incredibly powerful and compelling offer. The cost to the Big 4 firm  to facilitate the “ideas week” of staff lunches? Well it was simply the price of providing sandwiches and orange juice to their staff which of course would be a few thousand dollars. But think of the tremendous impact such an exercise can have on the clients and prospective clients of the firm.

Now … I know what you’re thinking. That is fine for a Big 4 firm – they have truckloads of resources and big budgets to do such things. However, since the lunch I’ve been thinking about ways in which smaller accounting firms can provide similar value for their clients irrespective of their size.

Tune into the next post to find our how!

All my best,

James E