Regrets? They’ll have a few

OK, so we’ve all got them.  You know, those things that we look back on and think “what the hell – why did I do that?” or, (even worse) “why didn’t I do that?”

I’ve had plenty – more of the former type than latter, but it all forms part of the rich tapestry of life that we humans form part of.  And, much as we may regret things, it helps us develop into the people we are and forms the foundations of who we will be.  Great.

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BUT, what would happen if you knew that something was going to happen and, despite every nerve in your body screaming at you to do something, you didn’t “do it” (whatever “it” might be) – is that really a regret?  If you adopted a stance of denial, does that turn into a form of regret?

How is it that, even when confronted with massive amounts of evidence supporting a reality that is going to occur (and I’m not talking “consensus” here) – I am talking incontrovertible facts – you still don’t make the moves that are required?

I’m not going to launch into semantics here (I will leave that to my far more learned colleagues in Verasage), I am just trying to posit the argument that often times, people do not do what they should and don’t take action when they should or find a million reasons not to do something they know they need to because, well, they have lost something.

What is the loss they have made?

Consider if you will the current state of the accounting profession.  We are seeing massive changes set upon us – mainly from technology/cloud solutions, but also from offshoring operations.  Did you know, for example, that most of the Big Four have established offices throughout Asia to which they “in-source” their compliance work at (about) AUD10 per hour?  I know of an Australian example where a large corporate has moved a significant volume of their processing/admin work to a Pacific nation as the effective wage rate there is AUD1.20 per hour – a bit better than the award rate over here!

This is all happening now.  Today.  To our beloved accounting profession.  And what are the vast majority of our colleagues around the world doing about?  Nothing.

I posted some time ago about the changes that were occurring to our profession.  The changes that were coming then are rolling out even more quickly than I anticipated.

So, what is the profession doing to adapt to this change?  Not much.  Some of us a screaming to all who can be bothered to listen that there needs to be a change in business model.  Hardly anyone seems to be listening.  Or caring.  And we are not, by the way, being “chooky looky” – the sky is falling in!

What are most accounting firms doing to try and combat the inevitable?  They are trying to be more efficient.  Making better time recording platforms and putting greater emphasis on staff productivity.  Anyone recall Danny DeVito in “Other People’s Money”?  Buggy whips.

To make the process more precise isn’t what’s required in the accounting profession today (or tomorrow).  As Ron Baker is fond of saying – “I’d rather be approximately right than precisely wrong”.  Bravo Ron!  But tell that to the Luddites who persist with a 1950’s business model 65 years after it was made common place and 64 years after it became redundant.

The time-sheet is an anachronistic tool that does not fit with today’s requirements.  Staff hate them, admin hates them, managers hate them and Partners/Directors hate them.  The people who hate them most however, are the second most important people in your business – your customers.

In some respects, I am advocating a “back to the future” scenario – get rid of time-sheets – but with some important changes.  Changes like agreeing the scope of work and price up front with your customer.  The change which includes and involves your people in determining scope – and price!  The one where you truly empower your people to shine rather than record their misery in 6 minute increments.

Ed Chan of Chan & Naylor last week posted on Linked In.  Chan’s argument is that accountants sell time.  No.  We don’t.  We sell solutions to our customers’ problems.  His argument is that the “solutions” (I am expanding his argument a little here, but I believe it is in the same vein as what he has written) are all compliance-based whereby all we are doing is the “same thing” for each client.  As I have illustrated above, the basis of a lot of the compliance work is going to be automated or off-shored.  So scalability only applies if you’re doing basic, processing and bookkeeping work.  Not exactly what we’re trained for is it?

Similarly, setting an arbitrary hourly rate to charge them for your time isn’t reflective of their need or the value that they place on the work to be done.  Using the same rate for everything you do makes you pretty “average”.  And remember – average is where the best of the worst meets the worst of the best.

My belief is that every customer is unique and have their own set of fears, needs and the like.  To try and put them all in one basket is to demean both them and the people who work on their files.

Chan’s argument is also based on the premise that all you have to do is to hire more people and more customers will come to you.  Oh, to live in such a wonderful world!

From my experience (such as it is), the only way you can achieve this is to discount your offering to a level that drives people to you.  And then, what happens to “the margin” that Ed believes is the Holy Grail?  That and the fact that you’ll generally get the bottom-feeding clients who don’t value what you do anyway and will bring a whole heap of their “friends” along with them – High School Chemistry – like attracts like.  You will also not exactly engage your people as they merely become cogs in a never-ending grind out of tax returns.  Inspiring isn’t it!

So, in Ed’s world, where “you build a business to prepare a tax return”, I believe there will be regrets.  Lots of them.

Customers don’t want tax returns.  They want advice.  Support,  Counsel.  Encouragement.  SOLUTIONS.  The tax return work is only there because the government stipulates it.  Nobody really “values” it in the true sense of the word.  And the ultimate disruption?  I know of at least one of the Big Four that will be offering their clients compliance work for $0 in the coming years.  How’s “the margin” on that?

Getting the business model right for accounting firms is critical given the disruptive times we are in.  Making a bigger or cheaper version of what exists won’t answer the challenge – it merely cements in a race to the bottom for those firms that don’t adapt.

Regrets?  Yep, I have them.  A number of them.  One I do not have however is getting rid of time-sheets and moving to a business model that will sustain our business, our people and our customers for a long time.

Oh – the loss they have made that I referred to above?  It’s a loss of self esteem and belief in why they do what they do.  And that, my friends, can be scaled!

My New Question for CPE Polls

Lately, I have been doing a number of webcasts which offer CPE to those in attendance.

One of the requirements is that the participants answer poll questions during the session in order to prove they paid attention. The questions do not have to relate to the material in any way and are not quizzes with right and wrong answers, just survey questions.

As a presenter I find being interrupted four times for about a minute each time to be iksome to say the least. The webcast I am doing are 60 to 90 minute sessions and quite frankly the polls just interrupt my flow. I know #firstworldproblem.

Still I was wondering how the participants felt about this practice. After all, most of them are highly educated individuals who are trying to further their knowledge on the subjects about which I speak. Furthermore, as professionals they have some fairly high ethical standards to which I imagine they hold themselves. To me, it seems quite insulting to break from the material in order for the learners to “prove” they were paying attention.

Well, my twisted mind led me to create a poll questions which serves as a mini protest for both me as a presenter and for the participants. Feel free to use this in your own polls if you do educational programs requiring CPE. Here is the question with the results from my latest webcast.

I find it interesting that only 42 percent find this to be disagreeable to them in some way.

What do you think?

December 19th, 2014 Show Notes: Interview with Dr. Thomas Sowell

Ed and I were absolutely honored to interview Dr. Thomas Sowell, certainly one of the world’s greatest living economists, on The Soul of Enterprise: Business in the Knowledge Economy.

Dr. Sowell is currently Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Sowell was born in North Carolina, but grew up in Harlem, New York. He dropped out of high school and served in the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War. He received a Bachelor’s degree, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1958 and a Master’s degree from Columbia University in 1959. In 1968, he earned his Doctorate in Economics from the University of Chicago.

Dr. Sowell has served on the faculties of several universities, including Cornell University and University of California, Los Angeles. He has also worked for think tanks such as the Urban Institute. Since 1980, he has worked at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He writes from a conservative and classical liberal perspective, advocating free market economics and has written more than thirty books. He is a National Humanities Medal winner.

The new edition of his international best seller on economics, Basic Economics – 5th Edition (Basic Books, December 2015), was the focal point of our discussion.

Basic Economics is the best single volume primer on economics ever written. There are no graphs or equations, and the writing is clear, uncomplicated, eye-opening, and cogent. Ron has recommended this book to hundreds of people, most have thanked him profusely.

We discussed Dr. Sowell’s early years as a Marxist, his definition of an economy and economics, early baseball tryout, the notion of a “fair” price, the illogic of the “trade deficit,” his views on immigration, Thomas Pikkety’s book and income inequality, and why there are only “non-economic values.”

We also asked Dr. Sowell during the break what he thought of President Obama’s recent policy on easing restrictions on Cuba. He was adamantly against it, and hopefully he will be writing on this topic for his syndicated column.

It’s difficult to suggest one of Thomas Sowell’s books over another. Be sure to read Basic Economics, 5th Edition, but if you want to venture beyond that (and you will), we’ve listed Dr. Sowell’s books below, though not all of them. He’s written two on late-talking children as well, which I hear are excellent.

Ron’s favorites are: Knowledge and Decisions; A Conflict of Visions; and Intellectuals and Race.

Other Resources

Dr. Sowell’s Wikipedia page.

Fred Barnes interview with Dr. Sowell.

Article by Jay Nordlinger, of National Review, on Thomas Sowell.

Follow Dr. Sowell’s syndicated newspaper column on Twitter @sowellcolumn

Books by Thomas Sowell (partial list)

Say’s Law: An Historical Analysis, 1972

Classical Economics Reconsidered, 1974

Knowledge and Decisions, 1980

Markets and Minorities, 1981

Ethnic America: A History, 1981

The Economics and Politics of Race, 1983

Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality, 1984

Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, 1985

Education: Assumptions Versus History, 1986

A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, 1987 

Compassion Versus Guilt and Other Essays, 1987

Preferential Policies: An International Perspective, 1990

Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas, 1993

Race and Culture: A World View (Part I of a trilogy), 1994

The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, 1995

Knowledge and Decisions, 1996 (1980 original)

Migrations and Cultures: A World View (Part II of a trilogy), 1996

Conquests and Cultures: An International History (Part III of a trilogy), 1998

The Quest for Cosmic Justice, 1999

A Personal Odyssey, 2000

Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy, 2004

Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One, 2004

Black Rednecks and White Liberals, 2005

Every Wonder Why (collection of columns), 2006

A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, revised and expanded 2007

A Man of Letters, 2007

The Housing Boom and Bust, 2009

Intellectuals and Society, 2009

Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One, Revised and Enlarged Edition, 2009

Dismantling America (collection of columns), 2010

The Thomas Sowell Reader (collection of columns, essays, etc.), 2011

“Trickle Down” Theory and “Tax Cuts for the Rich,” (essay), 2012

Intellectuals and Race, 2013

Basic Economics: A Citizens Guide to the Economy, 5th Edition, 2015

July 25th Show Notes: The Economy in Mind

How much does the economy weigh?

Believe it or not, it weighs the same as in 1950, even though output is roughly five times larger. We are increasingly an economy driven by mind, not matter. Thomas Sowell explains how in his fantastic book, Knowledge And Decisions

After all, the caveman had the same natural resources at their disposal as we have today, and the difference between their standard of living and ours is a difference between the knowledge they could bring to bear on those resources and the knowledge used today.

Peter Drucker explained it this way:

We know that the source of wealth is something specifically human: knowledge. If we apply knowledge to tasks that we already know how to do, we call it productivity. If we apply knowledge to tasks that are new and different, we call it innovation. Only knowledge allows us to achieve these two goals.

Ed and Ron discussed the following topics during the show. For more information on this topic, see Ron’s book, Mind Over Matter: Why Intellectual Capital is the Chief Source of Wealth.

Five stages in society:

  1. Hunters & gatherers economy
  2. Agrarian economy
  3. Industrial economy
  4. Service economy
  5. Knowledge economy—often referred to as the “Information economy,” but this is a misnomer.

There’s an enormous difference between information and knowledge. Ever since Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog quipped, “Information wants to be free,” commentators have confused information with knowledge.

Again, Thomas Sowell explains why knowledge, far from being free, is enormously expensive, and the most severe constraint facing societies:

… [T]he most severe constraints facing human beings in all societies and throughout history––inadequate knowledge for making all the decisions that each individual and every organization nevertheless has to make, in order to perform the tasks that go with living and achieve the goals that go with being human.

Data, Information and Knowledge

  1. Data. Factual information (as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion or calculation. There is no judgment, interpretation, context, or basis for action. It knows nothing of its own importance or irrelevance.
  2. Information. Root in Latin is formare, meaning “to shape.” Peter Drucker said information is “data endowed with relevance and purpose.” It has to have a sender and a receiver, and it is the receiver, not the sender, who decides if the message is information or not. “We add value to information in various ways: Contextualized; Categorized; Calculated; Corrected; Condensed.”
  3. Knowledge. The fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association. To turn information into knowledge we need: “Comparison; Consequences; Connections; Conversation.

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The Physical Fallacy: 

Brains trump brawn and Bits are more valuable than atoms.

Merv Griffin has made “close to $70 million to $80 million” in royalties from the Jeopardy! theme song, which he wrote in less than a minute.

YouTube was purchased by Google for $1.65 billion.

Disney’s Snow White video release generated $800 million in revenue, $500 million to the bottom line, from a movie made in the 1930s. Compare these supposedly ephemeral products to the value of an automobile from the same decade

Disney bought Pixar in January 2006 for $7.4 billion (Steve Jobs originally paid $10 million for it in 1986). One analyst talked about the importance of retaining two key individuals from Pixar, otherwise:

            If two key people leave, Disney just bought the most expensive computers ever sold.

George Gilder likes to say that knowledge is about the past, while entrepreneurialism is about the future. Albert Einstein would have agreed:

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

Self Sufficiency = Poverty

One professor of economics assigns his student the class project of building something they normally purchase. Many choose beer, or electronic devices.

What they discover is it’s incredibly expensive, takes an awful amount of time, and doesn’t taste or work as well as what you can buy for a lot less.

Two works we highly recommend illustrate just how dependent we are on dispersed knowledge, in the heads of literally billions of people around the world. It takes millions just to make a simple pencil.

See I, Pencil, as told by Leonard E. Read. Also, The Toaster Project: Or A Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch, by Thomas Thwaits.

The Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote: “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

Think how much easier it is do perform many tasks that our ancestors spent far more time on.

 Rival vs. Non-Rival Assets

Alvin and Heidi Toffler define characteristics of knowledge in their book Revolutionary Wealth:

  1. Knowledge is inherently non-rival
  2. Knowledge is intangible
  3. Knowledge is non-linear
  4. Knowledge is relational––ideas having sex
  5. Knowledge mates with other knowledge
  6. Knowledge is more portable than any other product
  7. Knowledge can be compressed into symbols or abstractions
  8. Knowledge can be stored in smaller and smaller spaces
  9. Knowledge can be explicit or implicit, expressed or not expressed, shared or tacit
  10. Knowledge is hard to bottle up. It spreads

Knowledge is like the dark matter of the cosmos—we know it is out there, but we cannot see, touch, or measure it.

Again, Thomas Sowell:

Many of the products that create a modern standard of living are only the physical incorporation of ideas––not only the ideas of an Edison or Ford but the ideas of innumerable anonymous people who figure out the design of supermarkets, the location of gasoline stations, and the million mundane things on which our material well-being depends. It is those ideas that are crucial, not the physical act of carrying them out. Societies which have more people carrying out physical acts and fewer people supplying ideas do not have higher standards of living. Quite the contrary. Yet the physical fallacy continues on, undaunted by this or any other evidence.

Three Components of Intellectual Capital (IC)

IC = Knowledge that can be converted into profits (or value); it’s an entity, not a process.

IC was classified into three categories by Karl-Erik Sveiby, in 1989:

  1. Human capital (HC). This comprises your team members and associates who work either for you or with you. As one industry leader said, this is the capital that leaves in the elevator at night. The important thing to remember about HC is that it cannot be owned, only contracted, since it is completely volitional. In fact, more and more, knowledge workers own the means of your company’s production, and knowledge workers will invest their HC in those organizations that pay a decent return on investment, both economic and psychological. In the final analysis, your people are not assets (they deserve more respect than a copier machine and a computer), they are not resources to be harvested from the land like coal when you run out; ultimately, they are volunteers and it is totally up to them whether or not they get back into the elevator the following morning.
  2. Structural capital. This is everything that remains in your company once the HC has stepped into the elevator, such as databases, customer lists, systems, procedures, intranets, manuals, files, technology, and all of the explicit knowledge tools you utilize to produce results for your customers.
  3. Social capital. This includes your customers, the main reason a business exists; but it also includes your suppliers, vendors, networks, referral sources, alumni, joint venture and alliance partners, reputation, and so on. Of the three types of IC, this is perhaps the least leveraged, and yet it is highly valued by customers.

There is such a thing as negative human capital, negative structural capital, and negative social capital. Not everything we know is beneficial.

Think of the IC a thief possesses; social loss they impose is a societal negative.

Examples of negative intellectual capital in an organization: cost-plus pricing, Industrial Age efficiency metrics, Taylorism, focusing on activities and costs rather than results and value, and other forms of negative IC that have embedded themselves into the culture.

Knowledge Workers

Knowledge workers are unique:

  • They own the means of production
  • Firms need them more than they need firms—balance has shifted
  • KWs have unique value, not jobs
  • Office is their servant, not their master
  • Effectiveness is far more important than efficiency
  • Judgments are more important than measurements
  • •Ultimately, they are volunteers

The World Bank: in two reports, Where is the Wealth of Nations (2006) and The Changing Wealth of Nations (2010) report that 80% of the developed world’s wealth resides in human capital.

Other books and resources mentioned

The Rational Optimist (P.S.), by Matt Ridley

Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il, by Michael Malice

Ronald Reagan, speech at Moscow State University, 1988

Text here. Ron believes this is one of his all-time best speeches. He’s basically telling the students, in a very polite way, their economy is headed for the ash heap of history, due to what he calls the information economy, but we are calling the knowledge economy.

Email us at: tsoe@verasage.com

Twitter: @edkless @ronaldbaker #tsoe

Professional Firm, Decouple Thyself

Chain

Before the world was flattened by the personal computer and the Internet, most of the services provided by law firms, accounting firms, architectural firms, and even advertising agencies was considered to be highly specialized and valuable.

In the marketing space – the one I know best – marketers were compelled to work through advertising agencies for almost all of their marketing needs because companies lacked the ability, expertise, or internal resources to produce and place their own advertising. Indeed, agencies were valued as much for their specialized equipment (typesetting, photostat cameras, etc.) as their specialized talent. Agencies offered the creation and production of advertising as a bundled service, because both dimensions of their output – ideation and execution – were equally needed and equally valued.

Magic and logic

Some industry observers have labeled these two sides of the agency business as “magic” and “logic.” Think of “magic” as problem-solving work such as concept development, strategic planning, and recommending new marketing initiatives. “Logic” work, on the other hand, is the production, execution, and implementation side of what agencies do. Both of these service areas are important and must be done well. But today, “magic” work and “logic” work are valued in vastly different ways.

Armed with Apple computers and Adobe software, many client companies feel capable of doing the “logic” work themselves, and some do. At the very least, today’s companies feel that production work is so commoditized it makes little sense to pay high-priced agency executives working in expensive offices in expensive cities to do this type of work. So while “magic” work is still done by advertising agencies in places like New York, London, and Toronto, the “logic” work is increasingly being given to a new breed of marketing implementation agencies, often located in places like Costa Rica, Shanghai, and Buenos Aires.

Supply and demand

Today’s marketers even have a word for it: “decoupling.” Companies are consciously separating the high-value services that are scarce from the low-value services that are plentiful. Many agency executives will tell you that their client for “magic” work is the Chief Marketing Officer, while their client for “logic” work is the Chief Procurement Officer.

The client view is that advertising production services can be “procured” using the same methods and procedures as office supplies, because most production work is standardized, repeatable, and widely available. They often try (much to agencies’ dismay) to apply the same processes to buying “magic,” which by definition is not standardized, repeatable, and widely available. As my consultant friends Gerry Preece and Russel Wohlwerth point out in their book “Buying Less for Less,” you can write specs for marketing production but not for marketing innovation.

But the larger point here is that the decoupling phenomenon is happening in all professional services business. In law, “magic” services are still provided by expensive firms in expensive cities, but “logic” services like discovery work and contract review are being done by lower-cost talent in lower-cost geographies. Accounting, architecture, and IT services are all being decoupled in the same way, due to the same dynamics.

A right and wrong way to respond

The unfortunate response by many firms is to fight mightily to continue to provide their clients with both the high- and low-value services, which they proudly point out they can do as a “full-service firm,” all under one roof. Worse, many of these firms bundle these services together with a blended hourly rate, which is the absolute worst solution because it makes the “logic” work much too expensive and the “magic” work not expensive enough. (Not to mention the perniciousness of hourly billing to begin with, but that’s a subject we’ll leave to other articles.)

Instead of innovating their business model in ways that navigate through the very different waters of “magic” and “logic,” most professional services firms are choosing to sail ahead on the same course. But we should take inspiration from the progressive firms that are choosing to proactively disrupt themselves, often by turning their firm into two different brands. The venerable advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather (“magic”) now has a second agency brand called Redworks (“logic”). The agency Publicis recently formed a second brand called Prodigious. Some smaller independent firms are following suit, realizing that it’s much better to decouple than to be decoupled. Because if we don’t do it, the buyers of our services will do it for us.

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Tim Williams, a Senior Fellow at Verasage, leads Ignition Consulting Group, a U.S.-based consultancy devoted to helping advertising agencies and other professional services firms create and capture more value. He is the author of Positioning for Professionals: How Professional Service Firms Can Differentiate Their Way to Success.

Twitter: @TimWilliamsICG Blog: www.ignitionpropulsion.com

What PKFs Can Learn from Country Music

Modern country music blends the best of traditional American values of hopes and dreams with classical rock rhythms and melodies.  It is difficult for even the most ardent anti-cowboy listener to avoid toe-tap while listening to some of the classics and modern hits alike.  Country stars crossover to rock and pop a even some country singers are involving aspects of rap (with a better vocabulary and message, of course).

Yet, even if you aren’t a fan of modern country music, there are lessons to be learned.   Studying (and implementing) their success benefits all aspects of our firms and professions.

First, the historical legends are never far from center stage.  Those trailblazers that helped established a fledgling musical style are honored and revered.  The history is rebuilt into the future.  The young stars and hopefuls know their history, know how their music was developed, and proudly expand their offerings to a new generation without abandoning what came before.  Innovation and collaboration are two hallmarks that separate country music and most professionals.

Country, more so than rock and pop,  certainly appears to collaborate frequently.  They produce duos and join forces for songs and tributes that expand their individual capacities.  I rarely witness true collaboration in CPA, Law, or other Knowledge firms.  PKF’s are fearful of collaboration believing there is no benefit and only risks of losing an edge over the (perceived) competition.  In fact, this stubbornness by leaders of these professions creates excessive waste in human capital, fixed capital, and redundancy.  What we all need to do is constuct more duos and collaborative services where we align to serve new  and mature markets, alike.

Country music stars of today coach the stars of tomorrow, as they were coached by former stars. Even though they have separate bands, labels, and musical styles, the leaders of today invest in relationships by assisting the newcomers.  And when the newbie wins a prestigious award that the stars of today were nominated for, these leaders hoot and holler, clap and cheer, and genuinely support the winner without whining about their current popularity or success.

PKFs rarely, if ever, help develop the talent of their future competition.  PKFs see the world as a zero sum game instead of one of abundance.  They don’t value sharing their love of their work and guard their ideas like they wholly own them.  PFKs struggle to even share within their organizations and frequently treat each of their own in ways akin to how a Piranha treats a fledgling fish.

Envision how PKFs could change the world by working together rather than apart?  How firms could coordinate talent across party lines to serve the public good?  How firms could end duplication and specialize where they are strong and collaborate where they are weak?  How leaders could spot the young talent and help nurture even if it is a long-term strategy?

You can’t fake true admiration and awe.  I was privileged to attend Entertainer of the Year, George Straits’ final large venue concert.  He is clearly loved and beloved by fans and fellow performers alike.  He shared his stage with nine (9) other superstars of today and yesterday.  Each of whom he had collaborated with, toured with, coached, and supported.  The tears of joy shared by, between, and among these stars was genuine and moving. Even when one of the stars slipped on a lyric, there was laughter and happiness.  The value of being a family; and not just a competitor.

Leaders of PKFs should learn from the success of country music.  Learn to share with others the love of your profession.  Find talent wherever it is and coach, teach, and admire their future growth.  Find other firms and professionals to collaborate with and share your joint talents for the benefit of all.

Silo thinking is rotgut of the professions.  It is time to expand our horizons and partner up for a stronger and more collaborative future.

Partnerships: Lessons from the Army

A little over a year ago, I read a fantastic book by Thomas Ricks title The Generals:  American Military Command from World War II to Today.  It is a fantastic book on leadership, vision, character, failings, and resurrection.  For over a decade, I have been part of a chorus of colleagues wailing against the Partnership Model for CPA and other professional knowledge firms (PKFs).

 

As an outside observer of local, regional, national, and global firms, I have first hand witnessed the daily dysfunction that the Partnership Model creates and the carnage it leaves behind.   Partnerships as they are formed are more about protecting their firm’s bounty rather than increasing it.  Partnerships are more frequently about inequality among a band of supposed equals as it about collectively working together for the benefit of the firm.  Partners within partnerships are more frequently rewarded for individual actions rather than firm driven results.  Partners in partnerships more frequently sacrifice others before they sacrifice themselves.  Partnerships destroy more value frequently than they create even when their measured numbers increase, the toxins of the partnership permeate thorough the firm and its human capital.

Compare Partnerships with the Army.  Both have an overall mission/vision.  Both have groups of individuals, each with a personal vested interest in the success of the organization.  Both have to learn how to nurture a process for finding, recruiting, and retaining talent.  Both have specialists.  Both have career paths.  Both have roles that focus inwardly on producing results while others have roles of interfacing outside the organization.  The list of similarities could continue.  Ultimately a Partnership shares a lot with the Army.  Except in one major distinction.  Leadership.

The Army treats ultimate leadership differently.  Yes, the Army promotes within their groups and specialties. The Army rewards for time served and skills learned, just like Partnerships.  Except for the last major promotion, the processes are similar.  It is the last step that separates the Army from the Partnership and it is this last step that truly matters.  The Army transforms a soldier during the promotion to General.  Generals leave the insignia of their specialty behind.  They become Generalists.  Generals aren’t merely superior rank, they are to be the superior leaders of the entire organization and not just their current assignment to a Company, Brigade, Division, or Outpost.  As Ricks writes (p. 35 of 1407 on my iPad (how does one site a page when we can change the font?):

As brigadier generals, the newly promoted officers are instructed in a special course – they no longer represent a part of the Army, but now are the stewards of the entire service.  As members of the Army’s select few, they are expected to control and coordinate different branches, such as artillery, cavalry, and engineers – that is, to become generalists.

Compare the above to Partnerships.  Partnerships promote within their current groups.  They do not promote leaders for the benefit of the firm. They promote within their departments, or offices, and silos.  This is a mistake.  It leads to the continuation of the status quo. It leads the the hoarding that stops cross selling.  It leads to the world of Me instead of We.  It leads to choosing to benefit internally rather than externally.  We promote and reward the specialists at the time and leadership position that requires a generalists.

Substitute Rick’s terms of artillery, cavalry, and engineers for tax, audit, and consulting.  Partners in firms should be leaders of and for the benefit of the firm and not just their department.  They should be able to lead across the platforms and not merely within their chosen field.  Managing Partners should have demonstrated true multidisciplinary leadership by having lead in all departments and divisions with only one goal:  enhancing and protecting the firm.  This is why MPs should never have customer responsibilities.  the firm is the customer.  Partners should have leadership responsibilities first, including vision, nurturing, coaching.  Let the senior managers (think Colonels , Lt. Colonels, and Majors) provide the services, direct customer leadership, and technical review.  That is their speciality.  Partners should be their visionary leader with their hearts and minds on the organization and its components and not about the working papers that are collecting dust on their floor or credenza.

The Partnership Model is broken.  It regularly destroys value and interferes with the firm’s future.  When reality finally sits in and the firm  tires of listening to the mundane voices of the common consultancies, look to the Army for wisdom.  Promote leaders with vision and make the generalists and have them direct across the organization.  In this way, the firm flourishes, egos diminish, and the customer is truly served.

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare was Right!

Latest blog post about communication and how being more effective at it (which involves taking responsibility for ensuring the message is received) can make a big difference. It can be found here.

The Simple Truth About the Professional Firm Business Model

As we slip into 2014 there is much talk- and even some action-about what business models are appropriate for professional firms in the 21st century.

Whilst some professional firms are still in denial and others struggle with how to make the change it is clear that the 19th century era partnership model, overlaid by the early 20th century industrialized notion of the leveraging of people x time, upon which most professional firms are still based, has run its race.

There are now many options for professional firms as to how they best structure themselves and create firms that are much more suitable for the people that work within them and to better serve the customers they seek.

In my view no matter what structure your firm is- or should be-for many years I have held a very simplistic view as to how really good firms look at themselves. This is represented as follow:

 

IMG_1559

Let me explain.

I believe that only the best firms have an incredibly strong base that everything else is built upon.I call it their internal environment-their culture if you like. This is the way things are done around here,the way we treat each other, our values, our leadership,our behaviours,how innovative and creative we are,our goals,our vision and our aspirations. And I happen to think it is this internal environment and little else that attracts and retains really good people (at all levels in the firm); that really good people are inspired and motivated to do really good work; that really good work attracts and retains really good customers, and, finally, that really good customers pay really good fees.

And it is in that order. It is from the bottom up-not top down.Play around with the order at your peril.

Good luck in trying to attract and retain good people if your culture is crap. Good luck too in trying to produce good work and service if you have the wrong people.Best of luck trying to attract and keep the customers you really want if your service and work ethic sucks. And you will need more than luck if you are trying to extract top fees from average customers.

I know it is not MBA stuff nor worthy of a Harvard Business School program. Its not even new. Our parents might have even called this using common sense with common courtesies. But it is that simple.

Is it easy? No of course not. If it is was that easy all firms would be able to do it.

What do you think? Have I got this wrong? Is there something I am missing? Love to hear your thoughts.

The Potential Consequences of Hourly Billing

I ran into this still shot from a video I did with Mike Bailey in 2011. (If you haven’t seen the video yet, click HERE.)
Homeless CPA