When Dirk Nowitzki was a gangly teenager, his coach asked him to decide: stay in Germany or go to the NBA. Nowitzki came to the United States and turned pro, winning the 2011 NBA championship with the Dallas Mavericks.

I'm no Dirk Nowitzki, but I did play professional basketball in Europe. Until recently, I hadn't thought much about how my hoops career could inform my business career, but at the urging of Joel Cooperman, managing partner of Citrin Cooperman, I took a crack at it.

Turns out there are many parallels.

Business - like basketball - is about competition. To perform at the highest level, you must consistently execute better than the other gal (or guy). You have to work well with your clients and associates - your team. And it doesn't hurt to be in great physical condition. Here are five lessons from professional sports that all CPAs can use to raise their game.

 

WATCH YOUR GAME FILM

In the early days of my career, coaches would scream at me to "Block out!" I blew them off, because I knew I was blocking out; I just wasn't getting the rebounds. But then I saw some game film, and it was clear: I was terrible at blocking out. Seeing myself on tape gave me a whole different outlook on my game. Suddenly I could see what the coaches saw ... and I could improve.

In our firms, there are only a few ways to see our performance from another perspective: client feedback (which is rarely solicited in a way that is truly helpful), on-the-job training, annual reviews and 360 reviews.

If you're serious about raising your game, you have to take all of this feedback to heart. It's the equivalent of your game film. Yet I routinely see CPAs who blow off their 360 or other feedback because, "I know who said that, and they have an ax to grind."

What a shame. Rather than manning up and watching their film, these CPAs are putting a lid on their performance. That's not being a pro; that's being obtuse. Pros are relentless about finding the parts of their game that need work.

 

WARM UP

Throughout my basketball career, all practices and games started in a routinized way: with a warm-up. Warm-ups prepare our minds and bodies for the task ahead.

Do you have a warm-up to your workday? Maybe you start each day with a to-do list, but when you get to the office, do you get sucked into someone's cubicle to talk about last night? Does the e-mail vortex take hold of you? If you're like most CPAs, your to-do list implodes by 10, because you don't have a good warm-up, or workplace discipline.

Steven Pressfield, author of Do the Work and The War of Art has a daily ritual to help him overcome resistance and get writing: He reads a compelling poem, dons a special necklace, and sits down to crank out 20 pages. Every day. Those are real results.

What's your warm-up?

 

PRACTICE

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be great at anything. By the time I started playing professional basketball, I'd shot upwards of 20,000 free throws. I had an 89 percent free throw average because I practiced. A lot.

Professionals become pros because they practice. They're committed.

If you want to take the step up from "amateur" to "pro" in any area of your firm, you need to practice. You can't read about being great at sales; you have to sell. You can't simply attend training about new IFRS regulations; you have to get in there and solve those issues for a client.

Ira Glass, producer of public radio show This American Life, offers the following advice to aspiring producers. It's great advice for all of us who want to be great: "For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that good. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it's normal, and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline, so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions."

 

RECRUIT GREAT PASSERS

Geno Auriemma, coach of the women's team at the University of Connecticut, has the best record in college basketball. He can recruit the world's best defensive players and the best shooters. What does he look for? Women who can pass the ball, because they make everyone on the floor better.

In your firm, these folks are called "maximizers." They get the best work out of everyone around them. If you want to raise your game, become a maximizer. Learn the strengths of the people around you, and pass them work that plays to their strengths. Sharpen your communication skills. Keep your promises. Be the kind of player who raises everyone's game the minute they step on the floor.

 

SCOREBOARD

In baseball, traditional player stats include hitting percentage and runs batted in. Those are the wrong stats. Research shows that on-base average is more important. In other words, a walk is as good as a base hit for winning ball games. Billy Bean famously reformulated the Oakland As by focusing on the right metrics, not the traditional ones.

In CPA firms, bad metrics abound. We measure the largest firms based on employee head count or annual revenues. That's the wrong measure - it's profitability that counts. Or we measure partners' performance based on their book of business. But what if 30 percent of that book is crap?

I could go on and on. The bottom line is that if you want to raise your game, your firm must create a scoreboard with the right measures, not the popular measures, and build the culture based on those.

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