Confidence is key but not if it’s based on naivety or, worse, deceit

Jul 11, 2023 | Client service, Sole practitioners

This true story helps to emphasise a key point – that may be relevant to your attitude with clients, colleagues and/or how you relate to staff with more specialised knowledge than you have yourself.

Years ago, shortly after I had 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 ‘Sarah’ as much because she was less sure of the answers to questions he posed and often wanted to check with a tax partner.

I expressed the view that ‘Sarah’ 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.  I suggested that she was either naive or being deceitful. I suspected the latter. No decent tax adviser ever knows all the answers  – even after researching them alone. It’s  a sad consequence of our overly complex tax system that all too often we cannot give absolute advice as to tax consequences or accurately predict HMRC’s reaction to transactions.

The audit partner understood what I was saying and started to adopt a more open minded approach to the two tax managers. Within a few months he realised that ‘Dana’ had indeed been offering definitive advice that would come back to bite him and the firm at a  future date. He also had another colleague check back and offer a second opinion on earlier advice provided by Dana. As I had suspected, Dana’s advice was often quite flaky and could have caused all sorts of problems in the future.   The partner started to rely more on Sarah and encouraged her to develop her approach so that it was more commercial.

The fact is that audit partners and general practitioners generally want their staff to be constructive and commercial. Being cautious is good, up to 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. Give them the information so that they can make such decisions.

Equally you 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. Failure to do this may be naive and dangerous for the practice; The other possibilities are that you are a genius or are being deceitful which will rarely help your career ambitions in the long run.

Postscript: The conversation I mentioned above took place over 20 years ago. Much more recently I used Linkedin to see how both ‘Dana’ and ‘Sarah’s careers progressed. ‘Dana’ went on to work for a number of firms, often for less than a year or two at a time.  I suspect her approach led to her moving on more often than perhaps she might have preferred. ‘Sarah’ moved to a top 4 firm and became managing partner of one of their offices.  In some small way I like to think I had spotted her potential at an early stage.

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