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Six Success Secrets in Finance

How CPAs can master the essence of excelling.

July 10, 2008
by Rick Telberg/For the Finance Executive

Why do some accounting shops excel while others stagnate?

Good question. And it's probably best answered not by looking fearfully at the dismal swamp of stagnation, but by optimistically assessing what makes some outfits burgeon from solo players to massive giants. Watch Rick's latest video snack on Partner Retreat Best Practices.

Business guru John Spence did just that and he detected a pattern. Spence is the author of Excellence by Design: Leadership. And his message is deceptively simple. He provides a few bullet points that speak volumes about the essence of excelling:
  1. Vision. You've probably heard of this. But have you seen it? Have you looked as far as you dare and seen how far you can go? Have you shared that vision with everyone in your firm or department? If so, do they all see it and share it? And if so, are they motivated to go there?

    When vision is just a lot of hot air and hooey, it isn't vision — it's a mirage. But when it means something to stakeholder on a team, it motivates them to excel.

  2. Best people. There's been an upheaval in all aspects of business. Venerable companies fall to upstarts. A desktop computer holds more assets than a factory. Storefronts on Main Street can't compete with phone operators in Bangalore, India. A local accounting firm takes on work from a distant client.

    But one thing hasn't changed: The firm with the best talent wins. If you want a firm that excels, then hire people who excel. And to keep them excelling, keep them trained. All that goes double for the leaders of the firm. They have to stay up-to-date and up-to-speed. They have to be the best-of-the-best people.

  3. Performance-oriented culture. The best people with the best vision aren't going anywhere if you're exhorting them to strive for mediocrity. And if almost everyone on the team is geared up for high-performance, they don't need to drag along an anchor who's stuck in the mud of "good-enough."

    Don't let slackers set your standards. If the culture around them is oriented toward excellence, the slackers will adapt and improve. Fostering that culture may be more effective than focusing on individuals.

  4. Robust communication. Easier said than done. Literally. Talk is cheap. It's also easy. And the same goes for e-mail memos, text messages and the other kinds of communication — the kind that tends to build up faster than you can dig through.

    Spraying information in all directions doesn't necessarily communicate anything. Communication involves skill, thought and planning. People can learn to do it right, and they can learn to plan before they do it. In the case of CPAs, this is quite likely something their accounting courses neglected to teach them.

    Your staff needs to understand that communication is also a matter of receiving information — not just from colleagues, but from clients as well. All channels have to be open to hear what the client is saying and not saying.

  5. A sense of urgency. If you have all of the above — vision, talent, performance and communication — but lack the urgent need to move ahead, you're going to have a lot of talented people sitting around waiting for a little guidance and motivation.

    A boss with a bullwhip won't solve the problem. Your firm needs a culture infused with a sense of urgency. That sense can get bogged down by someone's unwillingness to change, an uncooperative economic climate, a stodgy or sluggish company culture or a team that doesn't work together.

    You can't do much about the economic climate, but the rest is within the purview of good managers. Managers with an eye on excellence incubate urgency by implementing a process that identifies, clarifies, prioritizes, assigns, implements, reviews and rewards.

  6. Client focus. Your firm or department isn't about auditing, accounting or tax returns. It's about the client. No matter how good your skill with the numbers and papers, the service you actually deliver to your client has to be better than anyone else's. Period.

If you made a list of everything your clients or stakeholders want, it might well take you all day. Think about it. They want their books balanced, yes, but they also want to see your office rug clean, your desk organized, your phone answered, your smile sincere, their job simplified, some unrequested advice, a certain degree of friendship, a timely update, a gentle reminder, a comprehensive agenda, a place to park

Go ahead. Take a day. Make that list. Then go back up and apply the list to items one through five. See if that doesn't make you feel like you
too can excel.

COMMENTS: Questions, rants, raves idle thoughts or questions? Contact Rick Telberg or Watch him.

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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.