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Rick Telberg

Take a Lesson From a Fat Smoker

Why doing the obvious isnít always easy. How does your firm measure up? Join the survey. See the answers.

June 2, 2008
by Rick Telberg/At Large

There’s hardly a finance or accounting organization on the planet whose owners and staff haven’t decided, resolved, pledged or promised to themselves and each other to deliver outstanding client service, create a great place to work or achieve phenomenal success. Maybe yours is one of them.

So why, then, is it so rare to find a firm that actually accomplishes what it says it wants to do?

Ask David Maister. The best-selling author of such classics as Managing the Professional Service Firm and True Professionalism has published a new must-read for accountants and finance professionals called Strategy and the Fat Smoker.

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As a consultant, Maister has helped many CPA firms develop strong and comprehensive strategic plans. But he’s also seen too many firms leave the plan on the shelf — ignored and forgotten until the next annual retreat. See Rick Telberg’s latest video on Partner Retreats.

Sure, strategic planning is essential. But, Maister says, “I am skeptical about the benefits of a written strategic plan if you think you’ve accomplished something just by putting it down on paper.”

It takes real action. And real action, in Maister’s new argument, requires real accountability.

Accountability is not a new idea. And Maister doesn’t claim it is. But he has hit upon a felicitous and practical metaphor: The fat smoker (of which he was one for a very long time). In examining his own lamentable inertia in continuing to smoke habitually, eat unwisely and exercise inadequately, Maister has written an engaging moral fable and delivered a practical guide for many a firm.

“Most CPA firm strategic plans contain very sensible conclusions,” Maister told us in an interview. “There’s hardly a firm that doesn’t include client excellence, teamwork and growth goals in their strategic plans. You’re fooling yourself if you think it’s unique.”

What’s missing all too often is the commitment to get it done. And that requires real goals, with step-by-step milestones and real accountability.

And that can be painful. For example, ask yourself, “Is my firm prepared to have a client satisfaction system that measures client satisfaction and holds each of us accountable for our scores, influencing performance appraisals and impacting the partners’ rewards scheme?”

“The minute we talk about the specific diet, people backpedal quite a lot,” he notes. “Too many written strategic plans end where they should be beginning. You don’t end when you’ve chosen the goals.” For a fat smoker, the question becomes, “Do I have the appetite for the diet?”

Every organization must have rules of membership, and these rules need to be enforced. Ultimately, businesses must be prepared for the ultimate in accountability, which means a partner might need to be “counseled out”; an organization is only as strong as its weakest link; your brand is at stake. “It’s hard to get a firmwide reputation,” Maister says, “if only some of us are doing what we should be doing some of the time.”

One more word of advice: Keep it simple. “Don’t try to conquer 10 or 15 things at once,” Maister says. “Pick just one or two things you really do want to improve. And get to work on those one or two things.”

HOW DOES YOUR FIRM MEASURE UP? Join the survey. See the answers.

LEAVE A COMMENT: Suggestions, questions, rants or raves? Contact Rick Telberg.

Copyright © 2008 CPA Trendlines/BSG LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. First published by the AICPA.

About Rick Telberg

Rick Telberg is editor at large/director of online content.

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Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or CPA2Biz. Official AICPA positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.