Are you committed to being a better firm or just interested?
Remember the old fable about the chicken and the pig?
A pig and a chicken are walking down the road. The chicken says, "Hey, Pig, I was thinking we should open a restaurant!" The pig replies, "Hmm, maybe, what would we call it?" The chicken responds, "How about ham and eggs?" The pig thinks for a moment and says, "No thanks. I'd be committed, but you'd only be involved."
What does this fable have to do with accounting? Plenty, it turns out. I’ve found that there are two types of people at most CPA firms: pigs and chickens. Pigs are totally committed to a new project and accountable for its outcome. Chickens consult on the project and are informed of its progress.
Which personality type does your firm have more of? As Jack Welch liked to say: “If the rate of change on the outside [of your organization] exceeds the rate of change on the inside [of your organization], the end is near.”
You and your team need to ask yourselves “What are we committed to changing? What initiatives can we decide to implement, and ‘burn the boats,’ never looking back?” That’s the way change works. There has to be a little bit of discomfort. There’s no other way to get through “the suck” phase than to go through the suck phase. Welcome to the future.
How to make change stick
As I wrote in Four Quadrants to Master for 2018, people set goals all the time, but they rarely ask, “Which goals are we really committed to?” Note: Being committed means…
• We have accountability from the people involved.
• We have buy-in from the necessary decision-makers.
• We are all aligned and moving in the same direction.
Unless you have these pieces in place, you are not committed!
This is the time of year when CPA firms like to have their offsite meetings. Client demands are fairly light. You go to a nice conference center, bring in breakfast and lunch and talk about value billing and cutting-edge technology and becoming the firm of the future. You have a great happy hour and then the next day, you get back to the office and you get swept up in your day-to-day responsibilities. All the great ideas you white-boarded at the offsite meeting get buried in a drawer deep in your file cabinet.
Unfortunately, the world’s not going to wait for you to fish them out. If the rate of change outside your firm is happening faster than the rate of change inside your firm, then you’re at a competitive disadvantage and falling further behind.
To break through this inertia, you have to set a realistic timeline for implementing change. Start with a bite-size chunk that you can commit to implementing in the next 90 days—a change that will have a big impact on your firm and the value you’re delivering to clients. Call those your “90-day rocks.” Don’t do five things—just do one.
The Warren Buffet approach
As Warren Buffet advised: “Write down 25 goals that you would like to accomplish in your career. Pick the top five and cross out the rest. Now, ask yourself what do you need to do to accomplish your top five goals? It works the same way at your firm, except we need to get even more selective when it’s your firm. Write down the top five things you could accomplish at our firm over the next 90 days, i.e.:
• Having a better client onboarding process.
• Building a better client portal/vault.
• Implementing a better CRM.
• Just making April less stressful.
• Improve our staff’s continuing education program.
Now pick one of those items above—just one—and cross off the rest. Be 100–percent committed to doing the one thing you selected. Make sure everyone at your firm is onboard with that decision.
Unfortunately, many professionals get the words “interested” and “committed” confused. You go to a conference and you get all kinds of ideas, so you bring back all these great things that could happen at your firm. But nobody at your firm ever steps up and says, “These ideas sound awesome! OK, let’s pick one and figure out how we’re going to implement it.”
Who is going to raise their hand and say, “OK, this is going to be my baby. I’m going to have ultimate accountability for it. What roles and responsibilities will be assigned to the people involved and how much time are we going to commit to getting it done on a weekly and monthly basis?”
Time to rip off the Band-Aid
One of the best ways to break through this stagnation is to set a hard deadline for implementing a new idea. You’re a CPA. You get the concept of deadlines. Give yourself a strict deadline every quarter to reach a 90-day rock. Treat 90-day rocks as seriously as you treat quarterly filing deadlines. Then break off manageable chunks of those rocks that you can reasonably implement every three months.
Start with easily achievable rocks and then move on to the more ambitious ones. But you have to keep moving toward those 90-day rocks or you risk becoming irrelevant. As retired U.S. Army General Eric Shinseki once said, “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less.”
From personal experience, our firm merged with two other firms last year. It was an ambitious plan and we knew we had to streamline operations everywhere we could. That included deciding which single tax software everyone at the firm would have to use. We knew the software had to be robust, fully online and scalable. Even though the other two firms (and ours) were using the same tax software, we decided to move to an alternative that we thought would give us more room to grow. Everyone had to start fresh.
As most of you know, switching tax software is a big decision. But we didn’t waffle or say, “Let’s try it on a few returns first and see what happens.” We simply made the decision to switch and haven’t looked back since. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right decision. During a three-way merger, you have to make big wholesale changes—i.e., rip off the Band-Aids—and just get it done. We’re 100 percent committed to doing all the returns on the new software this year.
As expected, we had a massive learning curve because we were forced to learn a new tool under a very short time frame. It was trial by fire. But we didn’t have the choice of “half-assing” it and going back to the old software. We couldn’t quit the diet. We raided the pantry and threw out all the junk food so there’d be no temptation to fall back on our old ways when things got tough.
Change is hard and it’s human nature to fall back on your comfortable old ways. Fight the temptation. Stay committed. Burn the boats and never look back! You’ll be glad you did.