One of our clients is the principal-in-charge of human resources at a Top 20 firm. On the whiteboardin her office are written 15 initiatives she's working on. I read the list and asked, "Which of these are critical?"

"Who's asking?" she deadpanned.

Her list included initiatives that she knew were critical to retaining key talent through the downturn, but that her partners did not value. The list also had projects that her partners felt were important, but she did not. And then there were the "pet projects," things she wanted to get done - or her managing partner had asked her to do - that had various levels of business importance.

If you have any level of responsibility in your firm, you have your own list. And it never seems to shrink.

DEATH BY INITIATIVE

When I started consulting in CPA-land, I was blown away by the volume of initiatives underway at most firms. The lists were always long, and employees were incredibly busy.

It struck me that somehow we've confused being busy with being effective. We've become addicted to busy-ness, sometimes with little regard for our business. I call this "Death by Initiative" and it can burn out your firm.

Ask yourself these questions, inspired by John P. Kotter's book, A Sense of Urgency, to determine if your firm is suffering from Death by Initiative:

1. Are today's critical firm issues - like client retention, growth or marketing - delegated to consultants or task forces with little involvement of key people?

2. Do people run from internal meeting to internal meeting, exhausting themselves and rarely, if ever, focusing on the most critical client hazards or client opportunities?

3. Do people have trouble scheduling meetings about truly important firm initiatives ("Because my calendar is so full")?

4. Do meetings on key issues end with no decisions about what must happen immediately (except the scheduling of another meeting)?

5. Do people spend long hours developing PowerPoint presentations on almost anything?

6. Are specific assignments around critical issues regularly not completed on time or completed with low levels of thoughtfulness or quality?

7. Do people regularly blame others for significant problems, instead of taking responsibility and changing their own behavior?

8. Do people - especially partners and firm leaders - say, "We must act now!" and then don't act?

If you answered "Yes" to four or more of these questions, your firm is treading water in a sea of Death-by-Initiative complacency that may drown your firm's longer-term solvency.What needs to be done?

In his book The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker summarizes eight key practices that he witnessed among great leaders. Above all, Drucker says that effective executives ask themselves two simple questions:

What needs to be done?

What is right for the enterprise?

I have found these two questions so powerful and clarifying that I ask them of myself each quarter. They have become guiding mantras to determine where I invest my time and urgency, day by day and quarter by quarter. I now coach my clients to ask themselves these questions every 90 days, and encourage them to reshape their quarterly game plans accordingly.

Unfortunately, in most CPA firms, leaders do not build in the time to regularly assess what needs to be done, and what is right for the firm. It may happen every year at a partner retreat, but in our rapidly changing environment, it needs to happen more frequently, be communicated more clearly, and align with how leaders spend their time.

Deeper in our firms, few people have the courage to question a new initiative by asking, "Does this really need to be done?" or "Is this the right thing for our firm right now?" CPAs are unfailingly polite, and those who question their peers or their ideas are often considered spoilers.

Finally, employees throughout your firm - who are scared to death by the prospect of future layoffs - may be clinging to busy-ness as a way to justify their positions.

TRY THIS

Make a list of every initiative your firm is working on now. The list can include things that are in the current workflow, and things that are scheduled to start in the next six-to-12 months. Now ask yourself - or better yet, your team - "Of all the things on this list, which one(s) would we start now, if they weren't already underway?" At many firms, at least 10 percent of all the initiatives could be stopped. In some, up to 30 percent of all initiatives could be put to rest or frozen, because they're not mission-critical to what the firm needs now.

TCB

My favorite hair stylist is a fierce entrepreneur named Shelly. She is coated in tattoos and adds new ones at important turning points in her life. Recently, Shelly added a second salon, and I noticed a new tattoo on her ankle: three simple letters, TCB, and a lightning bolt. I asked her what it meant.

"It's the Elvis tattoo!" she said. Turns out that Elvis Presley had a personal brand - TCB arranged around a thunderbolt, just like on Shelly's ankle. It means, "Takin' care of business ... in a flash."

Shelly explained that to get herself through her shop's expansion, she had to be turbo-focused. Her new TCB tat was a constant reminder to stay on task - her way of asking herself, "What needs to be done?" and focusing on that.

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