Four essential elements to service excellence

When I first started this  blog in 2006 I focused on topics drawn from or which were due to appear in my talks, mentoring and coaching programmes.

More recently I have been focusing more attention on the development of my Tax Advice Network.  It contains its own blog containing tax commentaries, ideas, insights and news. In recent months I have noted that the posts on this blog for ambitious accountants have covered a wider range of subjects. The focus is still on helping you to achieve success – in your practice, career and business endevaours. It’s just that now I allow a wider range of issues and experiences to inspire my posts.

This one came about after I was asked if I was the same Mark Lee who asserted that there were four essential elements to service excellence: consistency, attentiveness, recoverability and continuous evaluation.  Now this may confuse the search engines but that Mark Lee is a past President of Singapore Airlines. He is reported to have conducted an exhaustive study in the early 90s to determine the factors that determine success in the airline world.

It was he who concluded that there were four essential elements to service excellence in that world: consistency, attentiveness, recoverability and continuous evaluation.

Before I share my views as to what might constitute service excellence in our world of accountancy and tax, let me ask for your suggestions.  Remember, as I have stressed in previous posts on this blog – what counts are what clients perceive in terms of the services we provide.


“Why I gave up giving tax advice”

Posts to this blog normally contain tips and advice to assist accountants, especially those in practice and /or building up their careers. Today I make an exception.

In July 2008 Taxation magazine published a 4 page lead comment article written by me. I had entitled it, ‘Why I gave up giving tax advice”. The editor cleverly revised that so that the headline became:

“A far, far better thing… that I do than I have ever done. MARK LEE explains why he gave up giving tax advice”

In effect the article explains the reasons for my transition from being a tax adviser in practice (after over 25 years).

The main thrust of the article deals with my frustrations, which have been described as ‘a sad indictment of the tax system’. You can read a copy of the article in pdf format: Why I gave up giving tax advice or on the Taxation website here.

Taxation magazine editor Mike Truman, who commissioned the article, has said “Mark is probably one of the few people who can write about this from the inside, because he is no longer giving advice, yet is still closely involved with the tax scene.”

I have to admit that I found writing the article quite cathartic. It enabled me to get a number of things off my chest.

In the context of THIS blog however, perhaps this quote is the most relevant:

Then two years ago, approaching the age of 50, I had cause to consider what I wanted to do for the rest of my career. Entrepreneurship beckoned. But I wasn’t interested in running my own accountancy or tax practice – for the reasons explained below. Instead I initially created the BookMarkLee ‘brand’, acted as a mentor and business coach for ambitious accountants and continued with my professional speaking engagements.

Despite my ongoing commitment to this blog and to my writing and speaking engagements I also noted that:

this was all moving me away from the world of tax and that didn’t feel right. Then the idea for the Tax Advice Network started to take shape and I eventually decided to focus all of my efforts and activities on this endeavour. Launched at the end of last year, it enables me to play to my strengths, continue with my professional speaking activities and stay in tax. Crucially however it doesn’t involve ME in providing tax advice so I’m not competing with the tax adviser members whose services we promote more widely than they would be able to do themselves.

Edit: It later became apparent that the Network didn’t need me to devote lots of time to it – which is great as I now prefer my other business activities – as set out on this website.

In my conclusion I noted that:

I consider myself very lucky. Not everyone is in a position to choose to review their career and take a new path.

So what about the ambitious accountants who read this blog? Are my fears and frustrations shared by others? Are you also looking for a way out of the profession (or would be but for financial concerns)?


Networking groups are a waste of time – or are they?

I’ve heard plenty of accountants express such views. Equally I’ve heard plenty of accountants extol the virtues and benefits of the networking groups to which they belong. Is it a question of luck, who else is there or is the reason for the differing views more a question of the accountant’s attitude and approach?

A friend of mine, Andy Lopata, who is a networking strategy consultant, recently shared the following story:

I have seen people turn up to networking events without any focus, they’ve had no idea as to why they are there. As a result, they’ve achieve nothing. I’ve even seen an accountant stand up at a BRE meeting for his 60 second presentation, only to say ‘I’ve got nothing to say this week’!!! That’s what a lack of strategy, a lack of planning, a lack of focus will bring you.

Now I know that there are plenty of accountants who attend regular breakfast meetings of networking groups like BNI, BRE (now BRX), BoB and the like. If you’ve tried one and considered it was a waste of time, have you thought through why you felt that?

Did you have realistic expectations or did you expect people to immediately ask you to take over their accounting and tax affairs? Did you expect them to take your card, know who you could best help, why you were special and different to the other accountants they already know and then to refer their family and friends to you?

In my own case, I know that BNI meetings are not for me. I do enjoy NRG meetings however – they are mid day events, include a useful seminar and a lunch with other professional people. They are right for me and I have realistic expectations as to what benefits I can hope to achieve by attending them.

What about you?

PS: I have written a 10,000+ word book specifically for accountants who want to Network more effectively. Click here for full details>>>

If you would like to book me to speak on the subject at your in-house conference or training session, do get in touch. There’s an outline of my talk on ‘How to ensure your networking activity is successful’ here>>>  


Confidence – inside you or through others’ views of you

In 2001 after I joined WJB Chiltern, the tax consultancy now owned by BDO Stoy Hayward, I became head of the Tax Support for Professionals (TSP) team.

The main backbone of the TSP service was Taxline, a tax telephone helpline service. Each day a different member of the team was allocated to answer the phones. Calls came in from accountants wanting advice on all aspects of tax. I recall sharing my admiration of the guys in my team who had the confidence to pick up the Taxline phone. On one occasion I said to John (an older member of the team) that I didn’t think I had a deep enough knowledge across the tax spectrum to answer the Taxline myself. I’ve long remembered his reply as he was evidently quite shocked:

You’re being harsh on yourself Mark. You invariably suggest additional points when we debrief on the calls of the day. And I’ve heard you on the phone often enough to know that you do have a broader knowledge of tax than you give yourself credit for. You wouldn’t have got to where you are otherwise.

John’s comments were not intended to have a long lasting and powerful impact. They were simply his instinctive response to my apparent reluctance to man the Taxline. That, in turn, was partly a reflection of a lack of inner confidence – a common enough feeling for many of us. I’m well over that now! Indeed John’s words have stayed with me and helped force a change in the way that I subsequently described my tax knowledge.

In some respects that conversation was also a catalyst for the creation of the Tax Advice Network. I may well have a good broad knowledge of the tax system but I’m not confident that I am uptodate sufficiently to give advice on which accountants or anyone else can rely. I know sufficient about what’s going on to comment on developments, to write and to lecture but I’m no longer interested in giving definitive advice myself any more. So now I refer anyone who asks me for tax advice to members of my Tax Advice Network.

One of the most powerful factors that affects whether an accountant will refer tax queries to us is the level of confidence that they have. Are they

  • Rightly confident that they know enough and that there is little chance of being wrong?
  • Over confident and reluctant to seek a second opinion?
  • Lacking in confidence and worried that clients will think less of them if they admit what they don’t know? (They’ll certainly be unhappy if the accountant gets it wrong, that’s for sure. Most clients recognise that their accountant is like their GP and that sometimes there is a need to go to a specialist);

What about you?


Whose relationship is it anyway?

You’ve been instrumental in bringing a new client into the firm and you’ve looked after them well. Or, perhaps you weren’t the finder, simply the minder of the relationship and the client thinks of you as their main contact at the firm.

What happens when you leave to join another practice or to start up by yourself?

  • Let’s assume that the firm will want to retain the client.
  • You may want to ‘take your client’ with you.
  • The client may want to go with you or may want to stay with the firm.

Your employment contract or partnership agreement will almost certainly contain a no poaching clause. I’m lucky. Whenever I’ve moved firms it’s always been on good terms and I’ve always abided by the terms of the agreements I’ve signed. The alternative approach is to look for legal loopholes and/or to risk legal proceedings.

New partners with a following are very attractive. I was going to qualify that and say a ‘profitable’ following. In practice what tends to matter is the value of the fees that are expected to follow the new recruit. Prospective partners in a firm are more attractive if they have client relationships that would be at risk if the individual was to leave and seek partnership elsewhere.

Whose relationship is it anyway? And does anything other than the client’s choice really matter? That’s a pretty simplistic view as a decent adviser can ensure that the client is more or less reliant upon them as individuals than might otherwise be the case. Is this simply down to morals? Good business sense? A commercial attitude?

Questions to ponder I think.

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Do you hold back due to fear of failure or fear of success?

What’s holding you back? Fear of failure or fear of success? That may not make sense initially but it’s a concept worth thinking about. I asked one of my mentoring candidates this question recently as I felt that they were inadvertently sabotaging their plans for the future.

I shared with them a famous quote by Marianne Williamson, taken from her book, A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. I set it out in full on this blog last year. It starts:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…”

Are you one of those people who feels they are not worthy of success? Why? Of course you deserve to be successful. Your experiences to date have brought you to where you are. You have a unique lifetime of experiences to draw upon and to learn from. You are worthy. You can succeed in your ambitions. But first you need to believe that you are worthy and to take steps to realise your ambitions.

Or are you one of those people with loads of great ideas and yet you take very little action towards making any of them a reality? Hard to choose which way to go? Hard to choose which option to pursue first? Not choosing is an option in itself.

I’m all for trying to anticipate the consequences of our choices. Indeed doing this can help exclude some options. It’s not always possible to wade through our choices and options alone. You may need the honest support and challenge of a third party, be it a friend or family member with whom you are comfortable sharing your ambitions and who can ask informed challenging questions. Or someone completely independent. 😉

Or you may simply need to be honest as to what’s holding you back? Fear of failure or fear of success?

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>


How enthusiastic are you?

In January 2003 the ICAEW published a report “The Profitable and Sustainable Practice”. You can still access it online and I recommend it as many of the points covered therein are as relevant today as they were 5 years ago.

It was aimed particularly at small practices, which operate in the SME sector. Although it’s hard to pull out just one or two ideas I had to highlight this one.

There’s one pre-requisite, one ingredient that sells…and that’s enthusiasm. If you really enjoy your work, that shines through, and you will be successful – clients will want to be with you, and will hire you. It can’t be faked – at least not for very long.

Everyone who knows me recognises my enthusiastic nature. When I was younger I may even have been a touch too enthusiastic. It can unnerve those around you if you are evidently more enthusiastic than everyone else. That was an important lesson for me some years back.

To be enthusiastic means: having or showing great excitement and interest;

So today’s question – which you can answer by way of comment here or simply for yourself is:

How and where do you show your enthusiasm at work?

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>


Become a rainmaker for your practice

The term ‘rainmaker’ means different things to different people. In professional service firms it tends to be used to refer to a partner who brings in lots of fees. In some firms the rainmaker has no other repsonsibilities. This is increasingly unusual however.

In my role as the Accountants’ Business Coach I have often used the description ‘finder’ rather than ‘rainmaker’. I have distinguished 12 key business skills as falling under the headings of:

  • Finders – who go out and find the new work
  • Minders – who look after the relationship with the clients
  • Binders – who keep the team working well together
  • Grinders – who do the work [this requires technical skills rather than business skills as such]

The point being that to be a good ‘finder’ you need at least 4 of the 12 key business skills.


  • Networking – meeting new people and generating work through those you meet;
  • Speaking in public – being confident and clear whether talking to small or large gatherings;
  • Pitching – asking for work or responding to invitations to tender;
  • Closing – gaining new work on acceptable terms;

Of course there are plenty of good rainmakers who never have to make a formal presentation to large groups of people. With that exception any good rainmaker will be confident across all four of those key skills.

To complete a piece of research I have been undertaking recently I’m asking readers of this blog:

  • Is it important that someone in your practice is a good rainmaker?
  • Do you relate to that concept better than that of being a ‘finder’? and
  • Are there any other skills or talents that you feel a good rainmaker needs to possess?

Please post your comments below. If you would like to see how you fare against the full checklist of a dozen key business skills, please let me know and I’ll gladly send you a copy.


Do you really know or are you just trying to impress?

Years ago when I joined a new firm I remember an audit partner telling me about two tax managers in his team He preferred ‘Dana’ because she always knew the answers. He didn’t like ‘Susie’ as much because she was never sure of anything and always wanted to check with a tax partner.

I expressed the view that ‘Susie’ was probably the better tax adviser as she was more cautious. ‘Dana’ was probably more dangerous as it was likely that she was overstating her real knowledge if she never needed to seek a second opinion. Armed with this new insight the audit partner became more open minded and within a few months he found that ‘Dana’ had indeed been covering up her mistakes and creating problems for the future.

The fact is that audit partners and general practitioners generally want their staff to be constructive and commercial. Being cautious is good upto a point but ultimately it is the partner who makes the decisions.If you are always overly cautious you may be seen to be uncommercial. So you need to develop confidence in your own knowledge and ability but this should not come from bravado.

It is generally the partners or the business owner who should decide on the level of risk they want to take when it comes to advising clients. This means that ambitious accountants should never present unresearched technical advice as if it were gospel. So, even if you have to advise in a hurry, qualify your advice if it is unchecked. At worst you will be given more time to research things. At best the person who runs the practice or the department can decide whether further research is required.


Are you a cost or a benefit?

On his blog Dennis Howlett has been commenting on the suggestion made on another blog(!) that accountants cost money, they don’t make money. And that

 “if your accountant is costing you more money than she is earning, saving, or generating, then either you have a rubbish accountant or you have difficulty tracking your costs and benefits. Of course, sometimes the latter is caused by the former, but that’s another story entirely.”

Dennis notes that:

“Compliance has to be offered at factory prices because it has been commoditized and it is being outsourced. “

I don’t fully agree with this. What matters most is whether your clients perceive that you are doing a good job for them. Whether clients perceive that you are willing to fight their corner. Whether clients perceive that you are saving them money. I wrote a more detailed entry on this blog in August 2006 on the related subject of ‘perception is reality‘. I was reminded of it when I read Dennis’s comments above.

In a similar vein, your client’s perception about whether or not you are saving them money or costing them money is determined NOT by what you do but by what you tell them and show them that you do.

Clients don’t understand what accountants do. They need to be told how much their tax bill has been reduced EACH YEAR as a result of the accountant’s work. Accountants who tell/show their clients the comparatives each year will have happy clients. Those accountants who just do their best work each year and tell the client what tax to pay will have unhappy clients.

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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.


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?


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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Why is anyone Hired or Fired?

Years ago I was told that People are hired because they are liked and fired because they’re not!

Whilst this maxim is no doubt true in many cases I think it does not reflect what really happens in many professional firms. That is that people get hired because of their perceived technical skills and knowledge. Their personal attributes are also important and these will often take priority when it comes to deciding whether or not the individual is going to make partner.

Being technically brilliant and highly chargeable will often help you move up the ranks but it will rarely enable you to achieve partnership. Occasionally it will be enough but more often than not, to paraphrase my opening comment, People are only invited to become partners if they are liked.

Ok. I know that’s very simplistic. It’s worth reflecting on though as the apparent headline reasons that people are invited to become partners are almost always a reflection of the individual’s likeability. eg:

  • A big portfolio of clients that would go elsewhere with the individual if they left;
  • A proven winner of significant profitable new work from new clients;

What personal criteria can you think of that enable people to be made partner and which do not rely on them being likeable in one way or another?

And what have you done today to help reinforce your own likeability?

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Strong technical skills are not enough

Taxation 2 Magazine often includes useful tips for ambitious (tax) professionals. Most of the time these are relevant to a wider audience too. The current issue (7/9/07) contains an excellent piece by Sheila Mandel of BLT in which she notes that

“The emphasis on marketing and relationship building has resulted in the existence of (and need for) more well-rounded ‘all singing, all dancing’ business types…. tax is no longer confined to the backroom!”

I would agree. Whilst exam training focuses on developing technical skills most firms and corporate employers need tax managers and partners/directors who also have a broad mix of business skills. As promotion is likely to depend upon such skills there are essentially only four options available to an employer.They will either:

  • pray, hope or make a wish that you magically develop all the necessary skills so they can justify promoting you;

  • send you on a range of generic personal skills courses and pray, hope or make a wish(!) that you pick up and practice sufficient tips to make the time and effort worthwhile;

  • arrange for you to receive personal, tailored mentoring that overcomes the problems inherent in the “courses” approach;

  • recruit someone else who already has proven business skills across the board.

Some employers combine the last two options and arrange mentoring as an additional benefit to attract potential recruits.In such cases the mentor is usually an independent third party; this evidences the firm’s commitment to the new candidate and will be a positive supplement to the firm’s conventional induction process. Ok – I admit it. I would say that wouldn’t I!

Such mentoring can be equally motivating for managers, senior managers, directors and even junior partners where traditional ‘hopes’ and courses have not enabled them to yet achieve their potential or to be as profitable as might be ideal.

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Five steps to winning the war for talent (part one)

Accountancy firms and other professional service firms have long been competing in what has become known as the ‘war for talent’.

I’ve never liked this epithet but the only alternative one hears (the ‘battle for talent’) also sounds as if it belongs in a bygone era and is more relevant to the armed forces than to those providing professional services to their clients.

The war and battle descriptions reflect the difficulties that firms have in recruiting the people they need to provide the service they have promised to their clients. These recruitment needs may be a consequence of growth plans for the firm or merely an effort to replace professional staff who have left for pastures new.

I’ve interviewed and recruited many dozens of professional staff over the years. It seems to me that there are five key steps to getting the right people on board – and to stay.

1 – Beforehand – specifying the talents, skills and experience required. This requires more thought then merely assuming that you need to find someone who can fill the shoes of the person who has left. Remember too that the key criteria will probably change if work is reallocated after someone leaves and before someone new joins.

2 – Attracting the right people – whether you run ads yourself or you engage an agent, you need to identify and highlight those features, benefits and advantages of working at your firm that will make your vacancy more attractive than those in other ‘similar’ firms. What are the real differences? Do you know or are you going to make the same broad assumptions, promises and assertions that the other firms make re your firm’s atmosphere, approach, absence of long hours, work/life balance? What can you do to prove your assertions are based on fact?

I will outline the remaining three steps in subsequent postings over the next couple of weeks. In the mean time I would welcome comments and suggestions as regards the first two steps I have summarised above.


You are better than you think you are

Ambitious professionals are not always confident and positive about the future. Just like everyone else they sometimes fear that they won’t be able to achieve the targets set for them or that they have set for themselves.

Most people suffer moments of indecision and self doubt every now and then. One of my functions as a mentor or coach for ambitious professionals is to help them move on and to reach their potential.

One of the tools I sometimes use is to share the following poem written by Marianne Williamson and included in her book, A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. The quote is popularly but incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela who included it in his 1994 inauguration speech.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

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Do you hope, pray or train?

It has been said that personal development in a professional environment is largely a matter of common sense.

Employers will spend a fortune in an effort to ensure that ambitious professionals keep upto date with technical developments. But when it comes to maximising the professionals’ potential to do their job, to progress and to get more done, little time or money is invested.  The largest firms will often have formal partner development programmes but smaller firms do not have the need to invest in such formality, neither do the legal, finance and tax departments of large corporates who also employ ambitious professionals.

The consequence of this is that managers and senior managers often have great technical skills but their wider business skills are not honed. This is likely to hold them back from feeling fulfilled, achieving partnership status or otherwise progressing in their job .

There was a time when professionals were routinely categorised as finders, minders or grinders. The finders went out and developed new clients and brought in the business; the minders looked after the relationship with those clients; and the grinders were the ones who did the detailed technical work. There is also a fourth category: Binders – those who keep (bind) the team together working effectively and who set a good example themselves.

If we accept that CPD training is generally focused on technical development then this covers only the ‘grinders’ quadrant of a potential partner’s development. That leaves Finding, Minding and Binding.  If no one invests in this the only hope of achieving personal development and fulfilment at work is to hope or pray.  So many business skills are thought to be common sense but I tend to think it’s unfair to assume therefore that they should also be common knowledge.  What do you think?


Networking in a new firm

It’s a fact of life that ambitious professionals are often competing with each other when it comes to seeking promotion to partnership.

There are invariably more managers and associates seeking progression to partnership than there are potential partnership roles in a firm. The better connected and respected one is the greater the prospect for advancement when the opportunity comes.

It took me many years to appreciate the truth in the old adage that It’s not what you know it’s who you know*. It’s now around twenty years since I first had to make an impression in a large firm of accountants that I had joined in the hope of ‘making partner’. At first I thought it was sufficient to work hard and to impress the senior partners who had been involved in my recruitment into the firm. After some time I realised that ofice politics would also have an influence. The more partners in the firm who knew of me and thought well of me the greater would be my chance of them voting in favour of my progression when the time came.

My own experience was by no means unique. My research, both formal and informal , has confirmed that prospective partners can improve their chances if they raise their profile in the firm. This will involve internal networking and getting to know and help those who could influence your career. That includes possible mentors, bosses, colleagues and staff, any of whom may have an influence somewhere down the line.

So I would encourage ambitious professionals to be sociable, to volunteer to attend and help at relevant business functions, be seen at ‘drink-ups’ (for new staff, departing staff, birthdays, retirements etc) and get to know (and be known by) more people than just those with whom you came into contact each day. NB: You also want to avoid being perceived as a free-loader, drunk or alcoholic!

Of course being well known of itself is not sufficient. What matters is your reputation, the level of trust and confidence that your colleagues have and the extent to which you are liked/disliked. This is the same both inside and outside of a professional firm. And effective networking skills can help contribute to that reputation. Equally, in due course when there is an opportunity for career advancement the better known and more highly regarded candidate is likely to have a head start.

* Actually I prefer to think that what really counts is not what you know but what you do with what you know. 

Edit 2013: You can get my 10,000+ word book specifically for accountants who want to Network more effectively. Just click here for full details>>>

If you would like to book me to speak on the subject at your in-house conference or training session, do get in touch. There’s an outline of my talk on ‘How to ensure your networking activity is successful’ here>>>  


Mentoring – who should pay? Employer or employee? Partnership or partner?

A new ethic: ‘pay as you learn’

The training day is widely treated as a joke. Depending on your point of view, it is either a day out of the office or an unbearable chore of corporate life.

Workers should pay for on-the-job training

These are all quotes from an item in the Times yesterday credited to

The article intrigued me as I would agree with a number of the points James makes. Equally I believe that there are different ways to achieve the same end and accept that there was no room to address these in the available space.

In my white paper on Personal development for ambitious professionals I have explored the advantages and disadvantages of sending people on personal development or management development courses. I have also suggested what may be more effective ways to achieve the desired changes in behaviour that such training is intended to secure.

It had not occurred to me to consider whether such courses would be more effective if the attendees had to bear the cost (or share the cost) themselves. If this were to happen I agree that the attendees might be more inclined to take the course seriously. Equally they might be more inclined to insist upon choosing the supplier of the course such that the employer has less control or influence over what it is that the attendees are ‘taught’. Sadly the UK tax system also does not facilitate such arrangements. Attendees would almost certainly have to pay for such training out of their net earnings as no tax relief would be available for the training costs incurred personally in such cases.

Coming back to the title of this item – I promote my mentoring programme for ambitious professionals to the managing partners and team leaders in professional firms. It is the firm that engages me rather than the individual person whom I will be mentoring. Quite simply the firm is more likely to be able to afford to pay my fees than will the individual. If the firm is unwilling to invest in the ambitions of its prospective or new partners what does that say to the individual concerned? My instinct is to continue as before and not to seek payments from the employees or partners. What do you think?


How can you stand out from the rest of the pack?

I have just watched an old video clip of the professional services firm guru, David Maister, in which he highlights the six most scarce resources in most professional service firms:

  • Energy
  • Excitement
  • Enthusiasm
  • Determination
  • Passion
  • Ambition

David also points out that his research has proved that the top achieving firms are those that energise, excite and enthuse their people to perform at a higher level than their competitors.

Those who’ve worked with me will know that the listed resources are all qualities that I possess in abundance. I have no doubt that they helped me reach the top of my career more so than any technical skills or knowledge that I developed over the years.

Would your colleagues and clients use all or indeed any of these words to describe you or your firm? If there’s a mismatch as between how others see you and how you want to be seen you will need to do something to close the perception gap. If you do nothing then nothing will change.

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I want to be an equity partner

I recently had a call from a salaried partner in a 12 partner professional firm. Let’s call him ‘Andy’. It was a good few months since the last time we had spoken.

Andy is in his early forties and has been with the firm for around ten years. Last week during his annual appraisal Andy had raised the question as to when he would be invited to join the equity partnership. As a result he has been invited to a meeting of the equity partners to discuss the position. Andy told me that he had reviewed the useful material on this blog and would appreciate any additional tips I might be able to offer him.

I’ve listed five of these below for anyone else in a similar position:

1 – Put yourself in their shoes. What will they want from you?

2 – Consider your BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). If your application is refused what will you do? You want to avoid a spontaneous resignation that you later regret.

3 – Evidence your commercial approach. Whilst in theory you want to join the Equity group, you would first want to understand the terms that would apply and the liabilities that you would be sharing. Can you see the partnership agrement? Are there any onerous lease provisions? Annuity obligations? Uninsued lossses? If the senior partners will be retiring in the near future it is the newer partners who will have to share the burden of such liabilities.

4 – Be clear as to whether you are prepared to sacrifice the near certainty of your salaried share for a real variable share of profits or LOSSES. Although this should enable you to gain a more equitable share of the fees (and profits) that you introduce, this will be subject to the impact of losses elsewhere in the firm. Are you sure you don’t just want to secure a performance bonus? If not, be sure you can explain why not.

5 – How much do you want equity? How much capital can you afford to contribute? What if partners are all required to contribute £50k of capital? £100k? £150k? What if the firm doesn’t have an agreement with its bank to facilitate the (inevitable) loan to you that enables you to contribute the capital?

These tips all made sense in the context of Andy’s scenario. They will not all be appropriate in every situation. In particular much will depend upon the relationship that you have with the equity partners. If you’re in a similar position to Andy I hope you find these ideas of some use. If you’d like to have a quick chat before you attend such a meeting, by all means call me. I’d be delighted to help you if I can.

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>


Are you an ‘Accidental Sales Person’?

Few ambitious professionals have ever chosen a career in sales. And yet, regardless of your professional discipline you will, almost by definition, have to be able to generate income. Inevitably that income will come from clients and you will have some, possibly a large, responsibility for helping to generate those ‘sales’.

My friend, Richard White, describes those of us who are in this position as “Accidental sales people”. We didn’t choose to work in sales but it is still an integral part of what we do. Richard’s view is that we will be more successful if we adopt a ‘soft-selling’ style rather than attempt to emulate the salespeople whom we hate. You know – those pushy people who try to persuade people to buy things they don’t want.

We need to ensure that our sales techniques are appropriate and that our prospective clients do not feel we are pressurising them to engage us for services they do not want. For this reason traditional sales training techniques are unlikely to be very effective when trying to help ambitious professionals enhance the results of their networking and client development activities.

I have long admired Richard’s ‘soft-selling’ techniques as they are very similar to solution based selling and consultative selling – being the approaches that I learned some years ago and incorporate into my mentoring programme. In essence the key point is to work with rather than against human nature. Rather than attempt to push your services, soft-selling demands that you first understand the primary motivations of your clients and prospective clients. Then, and only then, you should be able to make your services seem so compelling that they attract your clients to want to engage you.

The skills you need to develop are less a hard nosed approach to selling and more an understanding of human nature and a degree of patience.


Do you earn less than you want to from your smaller clients?

What’s your answer to that question?

What about this one? Do you want more GOOD clients?

And this one? Do you want less frustration from your smaller clients?

Most ambitious professionals would answer ‘yes’ to all 3 questions.

That then leads onto the key question, which is: “So what are you going to do about it?”

The simple fact is that nothing changes just because we wish it to. If we want different outcomes for our business activities we need to do things differently.

I’ve long referred to the following quote in my practice management training courses.

“If you carry on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll carry on making what you’ve always made”

The managing partner of a 14 partner law firm recently told me that he’d tried everything possible to get a couple of key staff to change their behaviours.

They worked hard and were conscientious and loyal. So he didn’t want to let them go. We ran though a number of things he could consider but he claimed he’d tried them all and that none had made an difference. Based on when he was telling me I concluded that there were only two other alternatives:

To accept things were not going to change or to engage an external catalyst to help bring about the changes he sought.

How often do you wish things would change? What are you doing differently to help that change become a reality?


How intelligent are ambitious professionals?

I was reading a report recently, from Kaisen, about characteristics of partners in professional advisory firms. The report concludes by noting that:

“what distinguishes partners from non-partners are ’emotional intelligence’ factors such as sensitivity to clients’ feelings and psychological needs, and the ability to trust people to ‘pick up’ on what motivates them as individuals.”

For my part though I tend to feel that there is a little too much generalisation in such statements. I know of plenty of partners who do not exhibit the qualities described above. Many of them are also deemed to be successful. Equally there are plenty of aspiring partners and ambitious professionals who DO exhibit those qualities but who will struggle to make partner in an environment that does not value them.

Most academics seem to agree that whilst IQ is one measure of intelligence there are many others that are worth considering – including Emotional Intelligence. Karl Albrecht considers there to be 6 types:

Abstract Intelligence – symbolic reasoning
Social Intelligence – dealing with people
Practical Intelligence – getting things done
Emotional Intelligence – self awareness and management
Aesthetic Intelligence – sense of form, design, music, art and literature
Kinesthetic Intelligence – whole body skills like sports, dance, music, or flying a jet

Conventional wisdom would probably suggest that ‘abstract intelligence’ is the one that is most frequently observed in high achieving professional people.

If you are an ambitious professional how intelligent do you need to be to succeed in your present environment?


Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>