Preparing for a coaching session

Following my recent post about preparing for meetings it seemed logical to set out some of the questions I ask coaching and mentoring candidates to consider before we start work.

The precise questions will depend upon the issues that require attention. Sometimes these will have become apparent from a skills self audit On other occasions the individual or their managing partner will have identified key issues that need to be addressed.

So the questions I would ask might be:

  • What prompted you to seek an external mentor/coach?
  • What specific concerns do you have as regards [key issue]?
  • What do you think are the key reasons for any shortfalls?
  • What are the 3 most valuable lessons you have learned to date as regards your personal development?

Any further questions tend to be more specific.

If you have any concerns that you are not performing as well as you could be, you might like to consider how you would respond to the first 3 questions. Answers to the fourth one provide an insight into what and how you prefer to learn things and can help determine the approach I would take so as help you to gain maximum benefit from our sessions.

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Preparing for meetings

How often do you attend meetings without preparing for them?

Yesterday was the first time for a long time that I’ve attended a meeting without having at least some idea of what it was all about. The managing partner of a large firm of accountants had suggested that there might be some beneift in me meeting the head of their tax function and their operations director. It seems we had all guessed that the Managing Partner (who was unable to attend) was curious about my new business venture. In the event I’m pleased to say the meeting was worthwhile but it was hard to prepare for it.

I did think about what we might address and why the Managing partner had suggested the meeting. I’m not going to say too much here as I don’t want to identify the firm – professional confidences and all that. To my surprise we moved onto talk about my role as a coach and mentor of partners and prospective partners. I had assumed that firms of that size had in-house partner development programmes but it seems there may still be good reason to engage me. Fingers crossed. Of course I’m happy working with partners in any size of firm – as long as they pay the fees!

Back to the topic of this blog. It’s far more common to know why you are attending meetings. This is true regardless of the nature of the meeting and therefore covers client meetings, pitching for new work, networking, internal meetings, partner meetings, management meetings, appraisals and business lunches. And in each case either you’ve been invited to attend or you’ve invited yourself.

But knowing why you are attending a meeting is not the same as preparing for the meeting so that it’s a worthwhile use of your time and that of the other people present. You will always gain more from the meeting if you have prepared for it beforehand. The level of preparation will vary depending upon the nature of the meeting but there are some generic things you should consider if you have initiated the meeting:

What is the reason for the meeting? – Does everyone who will be there have the same expectations?

By the end of the meeting what do we want the other party to…..
…… KNOW (or understand about us)
…… FEEL (as in their attitudes towards us)
…… DO (take specific actions)

WIFT (What’s in it for them)? – Why should they know, feel and do what we want?

What do we need to do to achieve the 3 aims above?

I’d welcome the thoughts of ambitious professionals as to how they prepare for different types of meeting.

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Filling vacancies at professional firms (part one)

I thought I’d share some thoughts here that I have raised with many firms over the years in the context of their recruitment needs and how they fill vacancies. I touched upon this in a recent series of postings ‘winning the war for talent‘.

Imagine for a moment that your firm has placed a recruitment advert in the professional press. What do you think is the first thing that any half-decent candidate is going to do these days if the advert catches their eye?

The very first thing they’ll probably do is to think about whether they know anyone else who works there and try to find out what they think of the firm. But this is only really likely with the largest professional firms.

What is the other quite obvious thing to do after you’ve seen a recruitment ad that sparks your interest? Remember – you’re trying to think like a target candidate.

Anyone worth their salt is going to check your website. Firms tell me that they can’t recruit enough good staff. There are more vacancies than good quality candidates. Which firms do you think the good quality candidates choose to go to see? I suggest it’s the firms whose websites make the firms seem attractive places to work.

So go and have a look at your website. It may well be great in many respects. But now try to think like a good quality candidate. What would you find attractive? Let’s start with your careers page. You do have one don’t you? Or do you just have a bland ‘vacancies’ page, as if you were a supermarket with vacancies for additional cashiers or cleaners? To my mind a professional services firm should be enticing new recruits by talking about their potential careers with the firm rather than the positions the firm wants to fill.

(I came across one firm recently with an advert in the professional press to fill two positions in the firm. They did have a careers page on their website but sadly it said the firm had no vacancies. What sort of impression does that inconsistency give about the firm – in the minds of their target candidates?)

On the same theme – What can a candidate find out about what it’s like to work at your firm? Your website probably has many messages aimed at persuading prospective clients that they will be well looked after and what sort of approach the firm adopts to client service. Good. But what about that other audience for your website – prospective candidates and staff (and possibly even future partners)? What messages do you have to convince them that they should come and talk to you? To attend an interview? Why should they respond to your recruitment ads as compared with those placed by other firms?

I’ve noticed that one of the quasi-template approaches for accountancy firms’ websites includes a jokes page. I’ve seen it on various firms’ websites recently. I’m not convinced it’s a good idea. On the one hand I like the fact that it shows the firm/partners don’t take themselves too seriously. That’s probably good. However most of the jokes insult accountants. Do younger accountants (of the age you’re looking to recruit) find them funny though? I don’t know. Incidentally I also wonder if they reinforce (bad) accountant stereotypes in the minds of prospective clients so they could be counter-productive in this respect too.

So what would I encourage you to include on your website to entice prospective recruits? Simply – more attractive information and more compelling messages than those of the firms with whom you are competing for candidates in the war for talent.

I’ll share some ideas along these lines in a future posting on this blog.

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Spotting opportunities and going for them

I’ve never been one of those people who thinks that ‘life sucks’. I’ve long believed that keeping a positive outlook is more likely to enable me to succeed than anticipating the worst. I’m lucky, I guess, as the trained Accountant in me ensures that I remain prudent and not TOO optimistic.

You know what they say:

  • To the optimist, the glass is half full.
  • To the pessimist, the glass is half empty AND
  • To the accountant, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

I’m launching a new venture shortly – an independent network of tax advisers. It’s a natural extension of my current focus on helping ambitious professionals, especially accountants. More on this in due course. The point I wanted to make in this blog though is how important it is to keep an eye out for opportunities and then to go for them. And I wanted to do that with a couple of examples:

I became aware a couple of weeks back of someone else who is also developing a network of tax advisers. His is very different to mine and there will be an element of overlap – but not much. I got in touch and explained that we could both benefit from additional PR. However newsworthy I hope my launch will be, the fact that two such networks are launching at around the same time will surely justify enhanced coverage in the professional press and possibly elsewhere too. I’m pleased to say that my view was shared and I plan to take this forwards in the next few weeks.

I also noted that Chiltern plc has recently been acquired by BDO Stoy Hayward so will no longer be the largest independent tax consultancy in the UK. Once news sinks in that BDO Chiltern is owned by an accountancy firm I wonder what will be the impact on the smaller firms that use Chiltern’s tax support facilities. I posted a couple of observations against online stories about the takeover last weekend. One of my contributions was then published as a letter in Accountancy Age and has led to two quite exciting enquiries.

Again the news is very timely as regards the imminent launch of my new network. If I was purely focussed on what I was doing however I might not have spotted this or been able to benefit from it.

I’m trying to avoid focusing here on my new venture – I’m just using a couple of very recent experiences to highlight the benefits of keeping an eye out for opportunities and going for them.

Let me add one very important caveat: The opportunities I referred to above are consistent and congruent with my personal and professional plans. The opportunities are not a distraction. If they were I would be foolish to have pursued them. You will not succeed in your professional career if you attempt to grab every opportunity without any form of plan as to what it is you are seeking to achieve.

You do have a plan don’t you?

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Managing your online reputation

It is becoming more and more common to ‘Google’ someone before meeting them for the first time – whether for a potential business meeting, to interview them or to be interviewed by them. If someone Googles you now or in the future what will be revealed?

I’ve just given an interview to a journalist who is writing an article about the possible uses of Facebook by certain professional advisers. During our conversation I outlined what I saw as some of the benefits and also the dangers of professional advisers playing around on Facebook. And I explained why my comments apply equally to other forms of online networking sites.

Possibly the 3 most well known and useful such platforms to professional advisers are:

  • LinkedIn – currently largely used by corporate job hunters, those who are headhunting them and those who know them;
  • Ecademy – mainly small businesses and corporate refugees who have set up their own business/consultancy; [Edited: Sadly Ecademy closed down in 2012]
  • Facebook – mainly used for sharing how much fun you’re having in your life. So this is seen as the main ‘social’ networking site.

Until September 2006, Facebook was only available to ‘college students’ but as they graduated so they wanted to continue to CONNECT with the people they knew. And everyone they knew and wanted to stay in touch with was on Facebook. It is now becoming ubiquitous but sadly a lot of people who are experimenting with Facebook or just playing around may be creating problems for themselves down the line.

I titled this blog ‘Managing your online reputation’ for a reason. These days Google is recording history in real time. Everything we post online is there for the future and can be found by Google and the other search engines. That means that when someone Googles our name – before meeting us, interviewing us or being interviewed by us, they can find out:

  • What we’ve said and written;
  • What we like/dislike;
  • What other people have said about us (good or bad);
  • Who we’re associated with and what other people have said about them (good or bad);
  • Where we’ve been and what we’ve done and who we were with;
  • And so on.

Thomas Power, the founder of Ecademy explains that the online networking sites are just like online magazines. Our profiles on the sites are just like adverts in a magazine. We’d always be careful about the impression we gave in an advert – so we should be careful about the impression we give with our profiles. And that presents an interesting challenge for ambitious professionals. On the one hand we want to control what Google finds when people look for us online. On the other hand we want to secure new profitable referral and work opportunities for our interactions on these sites.

If you just create a simple, professional profile on these sites, as your online advert, you will find it about as successful as waving your business card around in a dark room. No one will find your profile unless you shine a torch on it. You do that by interacting on the networking site, commenting on blogs, asking and answering questions, creating your own blogs, postings on the Facebook wall, joining and contributing to clubs and groups. Being seen to be a valuable person online. And this takes time.

Initially it’s best though to take it slowly. Join. Watch. Dip a toe in the water.Explore. Contribute. Help others. All this before you ask for help yourself. And all this whilst keeping in mind the need to manage your online reputation.

Incidentally – why had the journalist contacted me to talk about this topic? Because the editor of her magazine had seen my previous postings on the subject and was aware that I had established a number of groups on Facebook. My online reputation as a writer and speaker on this and related subjects for ambitious professionals is growing. Why? Because I’m managing it. At least as well as I can.

I’ll return to this theme in a future posting on this blog. In the mean time I’d welcome feedback and thoughts about what I’ve posted above.

Here’s a link to my previous blogs about uses of Facebook by professional advisers.

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Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity but cash is king

I’ve commented previously on billing related issues, for example, here and here.

Now though I want to focus on cash collection.   It’s great to win a new piece of work. We also get a warm glow when we issue a decent size fee invoice but what really counts is getting the cash in.

Are you one of those professionals who think it is beneath them to chase for cash? Personally I think that’s a contradiction in terms. How can you be a professional if you don’t focus on the cash? How can you profess to advice other businesses if you don’t ensure you get paid for your advice?

In my talk on ‘How to make more money from your tax work’ I explain that reducing ‘lock-up’ is an EASY way to make more money. It reduces the capital you need to have in the business and it’s non-taxable.  What I mean by this is that your tax bill is the same regardless of how quickly or slowly you collect your debtors.

‘Lock-up’, by the way, is the aggregate of your debtors and work in progress. It’s the total amount you have ‘locked-up’ in your clients at any one time.  By way of contrast if you billed all work in advance you would have no ‘lock-up’ at all.  If you typically bill your clients once a month and secure payment 30 days later then your average lock-up would be 60 days. Many established professional firms seem to struggle to get their ‘lock-up’ down to less than 100 days. For many it’s even longer than that.

Techniques for keeping ‘lock-up’ down can be used at every stage of the billing process – thus:

  • When quoting for work – Consider seeking payments in advance, especially from new clients you don’t know from Adam;
  • When the timescale for the work is extended but you’ve started the work – assuming it’s not your fault that completion has been deferred;
  • When you discuss the proposed fee with your client – thus avoiding unpleasant surprises and reducing the prospect of subsequent challenges and delays;
  • By enforcing your standard payment terms – perhaps allowing an independent creidt controller to chase up for late payments;
  • By stopping ongoing work if the previous fee has yet to be paid – to continue working in such cases just increases your lock-up and the liklihood of write-offs down the line.

Here’s one simple idea that many ambitious professionals can use when presenting an invoice to a client at a meeting.  As you do so ask, in the same breath, When can I expect to receive your cheque or bank transfer? Some clients will respond by asking if 30 days is ok? Others will have their cheque books with them and write one out straight away. Others will say ‘within the week’. To everyone who doesn’t pay you there and then you ask “Can I hold you to that?”

I’d welcome comments of other tips that can help reduce lock-up and will return to the subject in a future blog posting.

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What sort of advice do you give? Specialist, Compliance or Dangerous? (part two)

In yesterday’s blog I described what I see as the three categories of advice that best describe the approach of many professional advisers.

The third category I described was ‘dangerous’ and I explained that advisers giving dangerous advice, normally do so as they are what we might term ‘unconscious incompetents’. That is they are unaware how out of date or ill-informed their advice is.

I first encountered such attitudes over twenty years ago when I was a tax manager in a twelve partner general accountancy practice. A couple of audit partners (long since retired) routinely gave their clients tax advice and answered their queries without seeking the input of any of the firm’s tax specialists. When the clients wanted confirmation or clarification it was our job to provide correct advice without undermining the nonsense they had already been told. Not an easy task. But it was better than the other related role we had. That was to deal with enquiries and challenges from (what was then) the Inland Revenue. We were forbidden from ever admitting that the audit partner’s advice had been wrong from the outset. I hear apocryphal stories suggesting that such things continue to this day.

Indeed only very recently I had cause to review a case where the accountant had told his client that he was entitled to tax relief for the rolled-up (accrued) interest on a loan to refinance a close company even though the legislation has long denied relief for such interest until it is paid. The Revenue hadn’t spotted what was going on for 5 years and it was some time later before the accountant admitted that his view was incorrect. Of course this was a simple issue. I suspect that such situations are even more common where the client’s tax problem or situation is not something that the accountant encounters every day.

I am reminded of such experiences whenever I come across that immortal line in the Guide to Professional Conduct for those working in tax. This is a joint publication updated every few years by a working party that includes representatives of all of the major accounting and tax bodies. It forms part of the members’ handbook (or equivalent) of all such bodies too and says:

“Members will from time to time find themselves having to advise on matters which require specialist knowledge. In such circumstances they should be careful not to go beyond their own level of competence and, if necessary, should seek help from a specialist in the field”.

I’d welcome input from others on my suggested categorisation of tax advisers and the related ideas raised in this two part blog.

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What sort of advice do you give? Specialist, Compliance or Dangerous? (part one)

What would be the impact on your practice if a client alleged that you had been negligent? It’s not something that anyone wants to consider, of course.Often such allegations lead to complaints that result in investigations and disciplinary proceedings, or a professional indemnity insurance claim – whether justified or not.

All such eventualities invariably result in the poor adviser incurring significant costs, having sleepless nights and suffering significant disruption to their day to day practice. Of course no one really wants to think about any of this any more than they want to think about the need for effective computer back-up procedures. Much the same thought process is required. What can we do to reduce the risks we run and still provide a commercial, client-centred and profitable professional practice?

Over the last year I have been all around the UK lecturing to accountants and tax advisers on the subject of How to avoid tax related PI claims. It’s quite clear that a great deal of what I tell them gives cause for concern (and action). Positive feedback suggests that my insights and explanations will help reduce the incidence of such claims in the future.

I’ve recently realised that most accountants fall into one of 3 categories when it comes to the provision of tax advice to their clients. I would expect that similar categories arise in other professions too:

1 – Specialist tax advisers – These are the accountants who have a depth of tax knowledge in one or more key areas. There are also a handful of accountants who really seem to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things tax. They and most other specialist tax advisers I know are also able to admit what they don’t know. Specialist tax advisers are aware of the dangers of pretending to understand more than they really do.

2 – Compliance tax advisers – These accountants are very familiar with most compliance tax related issues. Their colleagues and clients may even think of them as tax experts but, like all good specialist tax advisers, they are aware of their limitations. Every now and then a client needs help or advice as regards an issue with which the accountant is not that familiar as it doesn’t crop up very often. When this happens the accountant seeks specialist tax support.

3 – Dangerous tax advisers – These are the accountants who advise their clients on tax matters even though they don’t really know the answer. Either they guess or they rely on their memory of what happened last time the subject came up. The self assessment system facilitates a continuation of this approach such that the adviser continues to assume that all is ok and to provide similar out of date or incorrect advice to clients. It can be some years before the issue comes to light.

One of the reasons I use the word ‘dangerous’ here is that such advisers may be what has been termed ‘unconscious incompetents’. They don’t know what they’re getting wrong. They will defend the indefensible and still think they can make HMRC go away merely by strength of argument. Indeed they even manage to do this sometimes and thus further their self belief that they know what they’re doing.

I will return to this theme in tomorrow’s posting on this blog.

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