Six Success Secrets in Finance

How CPAs can master the essence of excellence.

by Rick Telberg/On Finance

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.

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. Vivid 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? If so, have you shared that vision with everyone in your firm or department? If so, do they all see it and share it? 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 everyone 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. 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, 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-mails, memos, text messages and the other kinds of communication -- the kind that tend 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 personnel need 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 has to be better than anyone else's. You have to do more for your client than anyone else would. 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 1-5. See if that doesn't make you feel like you too can excel.

MORE: At John Spence's blog.

COMMENTS: Rants, raves, idle thoughts or questions? Contact Rick Telberg.

Copyright 2000-2008 CPA Trendlines/BSG LLC. All Rights Reserved. First published by the AICPA.

2 Responses to “Six Success Secrets in Finance”

  1. Timster2001

    What you’re NOT talking about is HOW to do it? I have partners who should have died out with the dinosaurs. How do I convince THEM to change?

  2. Tom Hood

    Having just finished facilitating several strategic planning sessions, you are right on point. I would like to expand on the number one point – VISION. The secret to a great vision is two more management disciplines, 1) Alignment of all firm/company systems to your vision, and 2) Strategy as process (not an event).

    Two examples are – does your partner compensation system reflect your strategy from your vision? IF not, it will be very hard changing beahavior 0 for instance a one firm vision with a book of business reward system will conflct. Second, make sure that your executive management committee or officers are making discussion/evaluation of your strategy at least a quarterly topic and the subject of an annual retreat.

    Remember this – “If your firm or company does not have a vision, you will just get sucked into someone else’s vision (usually your clients and staff).