Have you heard the term “ear to the ground” lately? I haven’t heard it used much in recent times. I believe that it is something that managing partners and others inside a public accounting firm need to practice, keeping their ear to the ground.
It means: To be or try to be well informed about current trends and opinions.
Partners, managers and supervisors, you have to practice keeping your ear to the ground relating to both employees and clients. It is important for CPAs to develop the ability to skillfully listen and it has been written about numerous times. Yet a majority of CPAs in public practice will openly tell you that they have never had any sort of listening training.
Often, you want to impress a subordinate or a client with the high-level of knowledge you have developed over the years you have worked in the accounting profession. So, you talk and talk and at times almost brag.
You want employees to realize that you are knowledgeable and experienced so that they can trust your comments and opinions. You want clients to realize all the wonderful things you can do for them and how you and your firm are highly-trained accountants and very experienced business advisors. So, you talk more than you listen.
Try to listen more intently and always keep your ear to the ground.
Sometimes we make marketing and selling more difficult than it really is. According to the long-time consulting guru, David Maister, marketing and selling are about having conversations.
Here is an excerpt from his book, Strategy and the Fat Smoker:
Marketing (and/or selling) begins to work when a conversation moves away from being a role-to-role exchange of capabilities, contracts, and costs and becomes a person-to-person interactive dialogue about ideas, beliefs, and perspectives. Only then can it build the chemistry, confidence, and commitment that lead to new revenues.
Imagine a dinner party conversation. What makes a good conversationalist in such a setting? He or she:
- Has a fresh point of view, but does not try to thrust it upon everyone else
- Speaks politely and respectfully
- Tells good stories to illustrate key points
- Is good at drawing other people’s views out and drawing them into the conversation
- Speaks intelligently on a variety of subjects, but is not afraid to admit areas of ignorance
- Avoids trotting out well-worn arguments or cliches.
- Listens with genuine interest
- Is light-hearted in style, but always respectful of others’ views
All of these conversational skills also apply to effective marketing and selling.
I read this recently via Harvey Mackay. Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times #1 bestsellers Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive and Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt. Both books are among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times.
I am inspired by Elbert Hubbard, a very successful soap salesperson who retired in 1894 at age 35. He lived by this credo:
“I believe in myself. I believe in the goods I sell. I believe in the firm for whom I work. I believe in my colleagues and helpers. I believe in American business methods. I believe in producers, creators, manufacturers, distributors, and in all industrial workers of the world who have a job and hold it down. I believe that truth is an asset. I believe in good cheer and good health, and I recognize the fact that the first requisite in success is not to achieve the dollar or to confer a benefit, but that the reward will come automatically and usually as a matter of course. I believe in sunshine, fresh air, spinach, applesauce, laughter, buttermilk, babies, and chiffon, always remembering that the greatest word in the English language is sufficiency. I believe that when I make a sale, I make a friend. And I believe that when I part with a person, I must do it in such a way that when they see me again, they will be glad and so will I. I believe in the hands that work, in the brains that think, and in the hearts that love.”
This is an important area when a partner retires, and it is the one that pays the bills. The annuity revenue stream that we enjoy from our clients is critical and it is the currency that most firms use to pay the unfunded retirement benefits to the retiring partner. You really do have to get this right.
The client transition plan needs to be orchestrated over at least two years, it needs to be written and it needs to be supervised and managed by the firm’s managing partner. More and more firms are requiring a minimum notice period for early exits, mandatory retirement ages and that the retiring partner work through a specific client transition process with the firm. There is also a trend toward penalties (reduction in retirement benefits) for the retiring partner if clients are lost because of inadequate notice and/or the client transition process developed by the firm is not completed.
Beyond the above broad parameters, what should the process look like? First, separate the clients into groups based on their ease of transition. This really comes down to two or three factors: the closeness of the retiring partner’s relationship with the client decision maker, the degree of involvement of other people in the firm with that decision maker and the size of the client. The 1040s and small business clients may be as easy as a phone call or a letter introducing the new person. Perhaps personal introductions are all that you will need for others. The larger business clients are more likely to have other staff and partners involved and sometimes may actually be easier than accounts where the partner has been the primary contact. For the close personal relationships, which are always the toughest to transition, you should plan on shadowing through at least two year-end cycles.
During extensive research for the HBR Leadership Handbook, they discovered that the best leaders with the most outsize impact almost always deploy these six classic, fundamental practices:
- uniting people around an exciting, aspirational vision;
- building a strategy for achieving the vision by making choices about what to do and what not to do;
- attracting and developing the best possible talent to implement the strategy;
- relentlessly focusing on results in the context of the strategy;
- creating ongoing innovation that will help reinvent the vision and strategy; and
- “leading yourself”: knowing and growing yourself so that you can most effectively lead others and carry out these practices.
While the leadership development industry is thriving, they found, in its fundamentals, leadership has not changed over the years. It is still about mobilizing people in an organization around common goals to achieve impact, at scale.
Read the article: The Fundamentals of Leadership Still Haven’t Changed.
Summer flew by. Fall was so busy with extended returns. Now it is November.
Fall is prime time for your competitors to approach your valuable clients about switching accounting firms. Hopefully, you are also doing the same. Year-end is approaching and it is the time of year when clients are most likely to make the move to another firm.
How many times have you touched base with your best clients throughout summer and fall? Have you sent them articles relating to their industry? Have you helped educate them about the new tax bill? Have you scheduled their year-end tax planning appointment?
Now is the time to give them a call. Even better, drop by their place of business just to see how they are doing. Every conversation with a current client usually leads to opportunities to provide additional services.
“Steady as she goes” is something you might have heard growing up. We don’t hear the term used much any longer. Steady as she goes is an order for a helmsman to keep a ship’s current course.
I think it also applies to CPA firm leadership. During my many years inside a CPA firm and consulting with many other CPA firms, I have seen many interesting styles of leadership from managing partners.
Some managing partners are dictators, benevolent dictators, collaborators, delegators, know-it-alls, consensus builders, and even radicals. Some are very strong and some are wimps.
When it is time to appoint a new managing partner, beware of inconsistency and go with steady and dependable. I remember one firm that had a choice of two partners to take the role of managing partner as the current managing partner moved into retirement.
One was a great rainmaker, very involved in the community and great at client service. He was always quick to take action; however, he could be described as hot and cold. You never knew which personality you would be dealing with on any given day.
The other candidate had similar positive characteristics but he was steady, consistent and dependable. He was always easy to talk to and sought out feedback from everyone in the firm. He was confident but careful. He demonstrated the same demeanor day in and day out.
I guess you know which one was selected to be the firm’s next managing partner.
I don’t know how to put this in a softer way but, way too many CPA partners think they know it all.
I don’t mean to be harsh or disrespectful. Experienced CPA partners do know a lot. They have spent years developing their technical skills. Many have become true experts in a specific niche or discipline. Often, they discount their vast knowledge by not charging fees that are appropriate for their exceptional expertise.
However, when you mention Emotional Intelligence (EQ), they are in the dark. In working with many partner groups over the years, I have found that usually, but not always, the managing partner demonstrates more traits of EQ than the other partners. That is probably why the managing partner was elected managing partner.
Emotional Intelligence is a term created by two researchers – Peter Salavoy and John Mayer – and popularized by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book of the same name.
Some define it as the ability to:
- Recognize, understand and manage our own emotions
- Recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others
This means being aware that emotions can drive our behavior and impact people (positively and negatively), and learning how to manage those emotions – both our own and others – especially when we are under pressure.
According to TalentSmart, 90% of top performers have high EQ. EQ is responsible for 58% of your job performance and people with high EQ make $29,000 more annually than their low EQ counterparts. Maybe it is time to provide some EQ education and training to all your staff.
I work with many CPA firms on strategic planning. Often, there is confusion about the dedication and focus it takes to carry out a strategy.
Here is a brief passage from David Maister’s book, Strategy and the Fat Smoker that helps clarify strategy.
To be different in the eyes of the marketplace, you have to be known for something in particular. It’s not enough just to be known. (That’s name awareness, which is not the same thing as being seen as differentiated). And you can’t have a reputation for being something specific if you only to it occasionally.
The very essence of having a strategy is being selective about choosing the criteria on which a firm wishes to compete, and them being creative and disciplined in designing an operation that is finely tuned to deliver those particular virtues.
If you are charged with leadership of a CPA firm or want to be in the future, read Maister’s book on strategy.
Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, via an article on Inc., both have an important message for leaders and it certainly applies to all of us working, as leaders, in the CPA profession.
“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice — constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”
Musk believes good leaders seek feedback even if it is not what they want to hear. Negative and constructive feedback will stretch you to learn new things and consider better options.
“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Some CPA partners seem to actually fear feedback from their team. Some have even shared that they really don’t care what the team thinks of them. Continually asking your team and your clients for feedback should be a habit. Just ask, “How am I doing? Is there something you need from me that you are not getting?”