Eight simple questions to hone your firm’s vision

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Every accounting firm leader can name the essential elements to running a business smoothly and successfully —vision, culture, efficient operations, client satisfaction, to name a few — but digging deeper into these generalized terms is crucial to actually achieving them, according to Bill Sheridan, chief communications officer at the Maryland Association of CPAs, during a presentation at the American Institute of CPAs’ Engage conference in Las Vegas last week.

This is especially true of the firm’s vision, explained Sheridan, who is an implementer of the Entrepreneurial Operating System model. The EOS model, Sheridan explained, encompasses six components: vision, data, process, traction, issues, people and vision. Sheridan distributed workbooks to help the session’s attendees reflect on the current state of their practices, before further drilling down into each part.

Vision, naturally, will be the starting point to self-evaluating a business, and it was a component Sheridan spent some time breaking down for the session’s participants. He shared the eight topics that should be broached when discussing vision, because to “the extent you and the leadership team can be on the same page with eight simple questions, you have a compelling vision to share with the team.”

Those questions begin with "What is/are our..." and address:

  • Core values. “For many organizations this ends up being words on the wall,” Sheridan said. Beyond that, they should be the “things you hold nearest and dearest to your heart," he explained. "What your organization reeks of — what defines you as an organization.”
  • Core focus. This consists of two things, Sheridan explained: your purpose/cause/passion/why you get out of bed in the morning, and your niche (something you do better than anyone else). “At that intersection is the core focus. Stay laser-focused on that. We call it the sweet spot.”
  • 10-year target. Ten years is a somewhat arbitrary number, Sheridan reassured the audience, so it’s important not to get hung up on exact dates. Instead, the purpose is to find a longer-term plan that will be narrowed down in some of the subsequent vision questions (below).
  • Marketing strategy. There are four elements crucial to a marketing strategy, which Sheridan deemed to be “really powerful” in the success of a firm:
  1. Targeting the market/ideal client: “Focus on them to get the biggest bang for your buck. Surround yourself with these people.”
  2. The messaging you send to the world to attract clients to you: “Your three uniques — what differentiates you from the competition, three things set you apart from everyone else.”
  3. Proven processes: A powerful tool “from inception until the time they’re lifelong partners with you.”
  4. Your guarantee: “Designed to get them to a ‘yes.’”
  • Three-year picture. This should be a “very clear, concise, simple idea of what it looks like in your organization three years from now.”
  • One-year plan. On the shorter term: “What do we have to do over the next year to ensure we’re on track to where we need to be three short years from now?” This should include specific goals, Sheridan explained — three to seven things that an organization needs to accomplish over this time frame to make it a “great year.”
  • Quarterly “rocks.” This is a “fun, sticky term” for priorities, Sheridan clarified, and more specifically, what would be prioritized over the next 90 days, because “research shows that teams start to fray after 90 days.” Sheridan advises teams to get together every 90 days to determine the progress being made on these “rocks” and lessons learned, repeating that every 90 days.
  • Issues list. Also known as “those barriers, problems that are getting in the way, that you have to solve, that are getting in the way of you executing your vision,” he said.

The deadlines within these eight questions create a nice progression, Sheridan observed, with the quarterly rocks keeping teams on track for the one-year plan, which leads into three-year, and then 10-year, planning. The first of those milestones, the 90 days, might prove to be the most critical to getting momentum to achieve a clear and shared vision.

“Now it’s your job to share [the vision] with everyone in your organization, frequently. Every 90 days, have a state of the company meeting with everyone in the organization so you can continue to share where you’re going,” Sheridan advised, before offering one more number that could be key to ensuring successful implementation: “People have to hear things seven times before they start to understand and embrace it the first time.”

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