The Business Hour – Radio interview with Mark Lee

I was delighted (in November 2104) to be invited onto Margo Manning’s radio show: The Business Hour on HCR.  [Edited: Sept 2016: Sadly the recording is no longer available].

Margo started by asking me to comment on a couple of news related issues. We then moved onto talking about how businesses, business owners and professional advisers can STAND OUT from the pack. And the value of having more powerful conversations.

You can find key elements from the interview using the time index details below:

  • 0.00 – 01.45     Music
  • 01.45 – 04.38   Introduction by Margo.
  • 04.38 – 08.00  Discussion re Duke of York’s recent suggestion that British Businesses need to be less polite, more competitive and embrace the Chinese market. Should we be more pushy or assertive?
  • 08.00 – 18.08   Possible differences between an employee mentality and a professional mentality.
  • 18.08 – 18.52    How to be more assertive without being pushy in sales
  • 19.00 – 20.15    The 7 key principles that can help you to STAND OUT from the pack
  • 20.15 – 44.58    How to have more powerful and impactful conversations
  • 44.58 – 49.00   Adapting the principles to online conversations
  • 49.00 – 54.59    Adapting the principles to networking events
  • 54.59 – 57.52     Final tips and thoughts

The free materials referenced at the end of the interview are available here>>>

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Are you sufficiently comfortable with your practice?

The ICAEW recently published some research showing that almost 40% of small businesses have no desire to grow bigger. Less than a quarter it seems want to grow more than a little. This comes as no surprise to me and accords with the view I have long had that the vast majority of accountants themselves feel quite comfortable. As a result they are unwilling to invest much time or money in trying to grow their practice.

If this describes your attitude, it makes sense to me entirely.

You have built up a pretty good portfolio of clients, most of whom need your services and possibly even your advice year after year. You are making a good enough living and you feel no great need to seek out new clients. You see little need to do much in the way of active marketing or networking. You win the odd new client and this pretty much makes up for the odd client that you lose each year.

There have been numerous occasions over the years when it looked like comfortable accountants might get caught out. By this I mean that forecast external factors made it seem to many commentators that even ‘comfortable’ accountancy practices would soon suffer the loss of a significant number of clients.
It didn’t happen when self-assessment was introduced; it didn’t happen when online filing became an option for taxpayers and it didn’t happen during the recession. Yes, of course, there was some client attrition but few ‘comfortable’ accountants lost loads of clients.

The question I want to ask in this blog post though is whether you are sufficiently comfortable?

Although new technology, new online facilities and new service models continue to arrive thick and fast, I do not believe that anything is going to lead to a miss migration of clients away from their existing trusted advisers. At least not overnight. As ever you will have plenty of time to adapt as the impact of changes becomes apparent.

In my experience, most accountants do not react well to being told, yet again, that some forthcoming change is going to have a major impact on their firm. In the past all has been well as accountants have simply adapted to new developments. This has been the way the majority of firms have evolved over the last 2 or 3 decades at least.

As I said earlier there is no need, in my view, to have big ambitions for your firm. Once it has reached a size that enables you to derive a good enough living, to work the hours you want, and to only look after the clients you like, there is no need to seek out new clients all the time.  On the other hand there is also nothing wrong with ambition, with wanting to build up a better quality client base, to secure bigger and more regular fees, to focus on the work you really enjoy and to evolve your practice faster than might happen if you leave it to chance.

And there is also good reason to consider whether your practice could be more successful, whether you could make the same money with less effort, reduce your cost base or increase your profits by embracing change and opportunity. But any change is risky so you don’t want to do it alone. I understand.

This is one reason why some accountants seek my input as a mentor – as part of their investment in the future. To avoid rushing off too fast and to ensure that they get best use out of new software and systems. I hold them to account and encourage them to get the best return on their investment.

Whether you do it alone, with me or with anyone else, you can, if you wish to, become even more comfortable.

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How do you develop the personal and business skills you need to succeed?

Most professional advisers build up their technical competence and experience over a number of years, often also while studying and taking exams.

In some professions the exams and studies endeavour to address related business and personal skills. These are invariably almost as important as the technical skills. There are some notable exceptions – such as the medical surgeon or consultant who has little in the way of bed-side manner. It’s a nice to have skill, but ultimately we simply want to be operated on by the best there is.

The specific personal and business related skills we each need to succeed in our chosen career will vary, by profession, by office, by colleagues, by clients and by ambition. Some years back I set out a dozen key skill sets that most professional firms need to have if they are to grow and succeed. In some cases the skills will be spread across a number of people. In other cases, especially for professionals running their own small practice, this can be more of a challenge.

How does the firm or business in which you work help ambitious professionals to develop key business skills? This is especially important as promotion is likely to depend upon such skills just as much as on technical competence and ability.

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.

Senior experienced colleagues can provide mentoring support. Or this can be bought in from a suitably experienced external mentor.

Mentoring can be equally motivating for sole practitioners, senior managers, directors, junior and established 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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Key business quotes for accountants

Not everyone likes seeing trite quotes that purport to inspire us to motivate us. Actually I do like them – in moderation. I’m not a fan of a quote a day, though I do have two calendars that offer me this option. If only I remembered to move them on every day….

For now here are a few that seem especially relevant to accountants. Hope you like them.

You don’t get paid for the hour. You get paid for the value you bring to the hour
– Jim Rohn

The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlights reel
– Steven Furtick

It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.
– Sir Winston Churchill

You’ll never regret what you couldn’t afford
– Unknown

I’m where I am because I’m willing to do things others are not willing to do to get what they say they want
– Jim Ziegler

Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.
– Lawrence J. Peter

Never argue with an idiot. They drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.
– Unknown

Prescription BEFORE diagnosis is Malpractice
– Tony Allessandra

It is not always the strongest who survive, nor the most intelligent, but those who adapt and change the most.
– Charles Darwin

Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude
– Zig Ziglar

Whether you think that you can or that you can’t, you are usually right.
– Henry Ford

Feel free to add any others, by way of comments, that inspire or motivate you in practice.

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6 key factors that can determine your success

I recently 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.  I can echo this based on my own experience and observations over the years.

Those who’ve worked with me will also 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 technical 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.

What other factors do you think can determine your success?

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads of valuable insights, short-cuts, tips and advice for accountants who want to STANDOUT and speed up their success. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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Carry on bumping?

Do you recognise the following quote?

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”

It’s from the opening lines of “Winnie-The-Pooh” (by A.A. Milne).

Can you think of anything that you continue to do the same way you have always done it even though a casual observer might have good cause to question that approach and to suggest there might be a better way?

If you run your own practice you may be quite happy with the rate of growth or the lack of it. You may get a raw thrill from going into your office each day and love both what you do and the way your business operates.

Alternatively,  if you are honest with yourself, you may recognise that you are effectively just bumping down the stairs, bump, bump, bump because that is the only way you know to do things.

One mistake I realised I was making recently, thanks to some very valuable feedback, was that I have made it seem that my mentoring programme is only available to people in larger firms. In fact I am happy to mentor sole-practitioners, those running their own smaller practices and also ambitious professionals who work in business or for institutions of one sort or another.  I need to revise my marketing literature to make this clearer. I can’t blame anyone else for my oversight. It was just me, bumping down the stairs. Mind you, my mentoring services are not cheap and I know that some smaller practitioners will not want to invest sufficiently in themselves to engage me.

What about you? Can you think of anything you do that you’re doing the way you’ve always done it even though it may not be the most effective or comfortable ways of doing things? Do you ever take time out, do you ever MAKE time to work ON your business rather than just keep bumping along working IN your business?

If any of this resonates it’s upto you to do something about it.

I’m always happy to have a conversation with ambitious professionals who sense there may be some value in developing a relationship and engaging me as their mentor. Such conversations are always without prejudice and will not always lead onto anything further. We have to like the idea of working with each other, for starters!

Like this post? You can now obtain my 10,000 word ebook containing loads more marketing insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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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?

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Why is management a struggle?

I saw a delightful definition the other day:

All too often the reason managers struggle is because they are responsible for a whole gang of people that they probably didn’t pick, may not like, might have nothing in common with and who perhaps don’t like them much.

Given how often this is what ambitious professionals have to cope with it is no surprise that they sometimes struggle to build trust and confidence in the team. Motivation will also be a struggle and delegation may not be as effective as would be ideal.

When I created a mentoring programme for ambitious professionals in 2007 I encapsulated these issues under the broad heading of ‘Binding’ – as distinct from Finding, Minding and Grinding.

Why do you think managers struggle and what differences do you perceive as between managers in practice and those working in commerce or the public sector?

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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?

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What happens when the ‘rainmakers’ retire?

Most accountancy firms have at least one ‘rainmaker’ who combines all of the ‘finding’ skills I have addressed in other blogs.

Wouldn’t it be great if the rainmaker could act as a mentor of younger ambitious accountants in the firm?

In practice this doesn’t happen very often. On the contrary it seems that very few rainmakers are also good mentors and this is borne out by research referenced in Ford Harding’s book “Creating Rainmakers” where he offers a number of quotes including:

  • “He didn’t mentor much. I never went to a sales meeting with him”
  • “He wasn’t much of a mentor. In his mind, he probably had better things to do than to mentor people”
  • “Mentoring isn’t a terribly strong interest of his.He is available to answer questions, but he doesn’t take the initiative to shepherd people along.”
  • “He wasn’t interested in sharing his style and technique with others. He moved fast and was more of a loner. It was hard to follow what he did.”

What happens when such rainmakers retire?

How many younger and prospective partners are able to take their place? Is it fair to assume that ambitious accountants will somehow have picked-up enough to ensure a continual flow of new work?

All too often we assume that only technical skills can be learned. Soft skills, such as those required to find and win new work depend only on instinct.This can’t be taught or learned.

I’m sorry but I don’t buy that. For example, I wasn’t born a good networker or a good speaker (although I did get around quickly at Nursery school and was in school plays in primary school). I learned these skills just as I learned about auditing, tax and professional ethics.

Okay. Of course there’s a difference but I cannot accept that anyone is incapable of improving their non-technical skills.

If there are no suitably qualified mentors with sufficient time, knowledge and commitment inside the firm, perhaps the answer is to look outside.

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Why gamble with your most ambitious staff?

A friend of mine, Stephen Harvard Davis is recognised as the UK’s leading authority on job transition and retaining top talent, He is the author of “Why do 40% of Executives Fail?”

The following observations were inspired by an item on Stephen’s blog in which he addressed the retention issues relevant to top executives in the corporate sector. Whilst some of Stephen’s points apply equally to ambitious accountants, I believe that there are also a number of crucial differences.

Replacing ambitious accountants can be costly and can easily involve as much as twice the salary in hard cash terms. Yet recent studies from the USA suggest that the opportunity costs when top talent leaving a company can be as much as twenty-four times the salary (Based on a salary of £62,000).

Most accountancy firms try to retain ambitious accountants by throwing money at the situation. Every single time I have witnessed this over the years the extra money only buys time; firms looking to poach the best partners and prospective partners will always pay more for potential because they have budgeted for the cost of the recruitment exercise and they are determined it should be successful.

I believe that there are four key steps to retaining your best ambitious accountants:

Step one is to recognise that top talent can be found at all levels within an accountancy firm. It’s not, and never has been, confined to the partner group. Once identified, however, top talent needs to be nurtured, developed and encouraged otherwise it walks. Partners (and managers in the larger firms) therefore, should be rewarded for identifying top talent, developing and nurturing it.

Step two is to understand the reasons for top talent leaving. This means learning what individuals want from their current and prospective role in the firm. Many firms view this as difficult because of the complexity of analysing human relationships. It also makes developing a one size fits all package of benefits difficult.

The result is that many accountancy firms ignore the real reasons for talent loss and blame attractive salaries and benefits on offer from competitor firms. Yet the fact is that top talent tends to be hungry for knowledge and experience and to seek out the firms that can offer them this.

Certain top talent can be therefore be categorised in three ways:

  1. “Knowledge nomads” moving from one firm to another seeking information that adds to their abilities;
  2. “Prospectors”, those that are looking for better career expectations; and
  3. “Relationship Migrants” who seek out a particular type of more senior experienced partner as a teacher and mentor.

Step three is to evidence the firm’s commitment to the individuals concerned in a way that motivates each of them. Top talent tends to be attracted by retention drivers such as, mentoring, coaching, training programmes and also by being able to contribute to the firm’s vision, direction and future. However paying lip-service to this communication will only create resentment. The engagement must be real and motivate the individuals concerned.

Step four is to provide constant feedback and stimulation. There is little point in hoping to retain one or more ambitious accountants if the partners merely pay lip service to their development process. Again external mentoring has a role to play here but partners cannot abrogate their own responsibility for finding out what motivates their star people and contributing to the process.

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When you need more than just technical skills

Whilst exam training focuses on developing technical skills most firms need managers and partners 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 your firm. 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; or
  • recruit someone else who already has proven business skills across the board.

Some firms 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.

Mentoring by an internal senior partner with sufficient time, talent and commitment – or by a trusted third-party – can be equally motivating for managers, senior managers and even junior partners where traditional ‘hopes’ and courses have not enabled them to yet achieve their potential or to be as profitable as the other partners would prefer.

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Finders, Minders and Binders

In a previous blog I referred to the classical categorisation of professionals:

  • Finders – who go out and find the new work
  • Minders – who look after the relationship with the clients
  • Grinders – who do the work
  • Binders – who keep the team working well together

It seems to me that most CPD is focused on enhancing one’s technical knowledge and skills ie: it helps us to become better ‘Grinders’. Beyond this there are some ‘soft skills’ courses but these are rarely tailored to the needs of individuals. This means that the effectiveness of such courses is variable.

The mentoring programme I have developed covers the Finding, Minding and Binding aspects of professional life. My research suggests that the key business skills that fall under these three headings can be summarised as follows:

Finding

  • 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;

Minding

  • Becoming a trusted adviser – understanding how to manage clients so as to encourage the right sort of referrals;
  • Handling tough clients – managing difficult relationships profitably;
  • Commercial billing – recognising the need to evidence value from the client’s perspective and appreciating the commercial value of our time;
  • Developing clients – identifying opportunities to encourage clients to instruct the firm re additional profitable services;

Binding

  • Managing teams – building trust, confidence and leadership potential;
  • Motivating staff – understanding common differences in behaviours, preferences and motivators;
  • Delegating – recognising the key elements of effective delegation and what can be delegated to increase efficiency;
  • Self/time management – avoiding common traps and keeping an effective work/life balance.

Where appropriate I am also able to lead group development sessions on each of the above topics.

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Mentoring or coaching ambitious accountants

Accountancy magazine (July 2006) ran an article “Coaching: the new religion”  written by Wilf Altman.  In it he suggested that ‘leading firms of  accountants are surprisingly coy about coaching.’

In my experience however all of the largest firms run partner development programs and most of these include a form of coaching or mentoring.  I agree with Wilf that there is no single definition of ‘coaching’ in the context of “the new religion”.  Many accountants have heard of life coaching, business coaching or success coaching.  We have probably also heard of mentoring – typically where a suitably senior person shares their experience and their wider knowledge of the profession to speed up the development of a less experienced person.

What the process is called however is less important than whether prospective partners and rising stars are motivated to enhance their skills. Most firms tend to rely on senior partners to act as coaches or a mentors.  In practice such partners rarely have the training, talent or time to be reliably effective in such roles.  The candidates cannot complain for fear of damaging their potential for progression and upsetting the senior partner.  The firms imply that the best candidates would take that chance but few people have the confidence that requires.

Increasingly therefore ambitious firms are engaging experienced credible mentors from outside the firm.  Mentors such as myself are not subject to conflicting time constraints or political manoeuvrings within the firm.   We are there for the candidates when required and can provide a tailored programme that includes coaching in those, generally non-technical, skills that the candidate needs to develop further.

Most firms that are not large enough to run their own internal partner development programmes are increasingly looking to find cost effective alternatives.  They want to ensure that their rising stars stay and develop the key business skills they require to be effective and profitable as partners.  Some firms may describe this as ‘coaching’. Others will see this as mentoring – which is possibly more relevant for all but the really experienced partners.  Offering new recruits the (tax-free) benefit of a credible mentor can also assist the recruitment process during the ongoing ‘war for talent’.

This entry was also submitted as a letter for Accountancy magazine and has now been published as such on p23 of the September issue.

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Mentoring prospective partners

I was a guest of Taxation magazine at their Annual Taxation awards ceremony last night. Big black-tie event at the Park Lane Hilton hotel. Met loads of people who had said they’d received my recent email newsletters and that they had not ‘removed’ themselves from my mailing list. Phew!

Sat next to a really nice guy who is the managing partner of a regional office of one of the top ten accountancy firms in the UK. He was very positive and enthusiastic about engaging me to mentor prospective partners in the firm.

He certainly seemed to buy into the proposition that it would benefit the firm and the individuals to engage me to help key mangers develop the business skills required for them to become valuable partners in the firm. He had some very complimentary things to say about me and how his firm could benefit from having me share my ’secrets’ with prospective partners.

He went further and commented that I could probably teach a number of the partners a thing or two too. Especially those partners who are good at the technical side of their role but perhaps less effective as regards the other aspects of their role.

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