Voices

Take a lesson from the sharks: Move or die

Summer is my favorite time of year: warm weather, swimming pools, barbecues and of course, “Shark Week,” which kicked off its 30th season this week on The Discovery Channel.

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tiger shark

Many sharks have an ingenious breathing system that allows them to process sea water into oxygen. But, if they don’t keep moving, the breathing system shuts down quickly and they die. CPAs have the same genetic requirement. They have to keep moving and innovating or else they will be swallowed up by the competition and ultimately die.

As former General Electric CEO Jack Welch said, “If the rate of change outside your organization is greater than the rate of change inside your organization, then your organization may not be alive much longer.”

Take an honest look at your business. Chances are the average accounting partner is getting older, the staff is getting older and the average client is getting older. As clients get closer to retirement and/or selling their businesses, they’re going to need fewer and fewer of your services. You have to keep swimming so you can keep bringing in new staff and new clients in order to stay alive.

But that’s not all. Client expectations keep rising. Don’t believe me? Think back to the last time you didn’t have Wi-Fi on a plane. I bet you were pretty upset about that. But it wasn’t that long ago that having Wi-Fi on a commercial plane was an unheard-of luxury. Now it’s expected. If you’re an airline, offering free Wi-Fi had better be part of the standard ticket price or else your rivals will swallow you up. Airlines constantly need to adapt to consumer expectations. So do CPAs.

It does not matter how efficient you are at putting numbers into boxes and making sure they are 100-percent accurate. Unfortunately, what you’re doing here is not adding value — clients assume you are already doing it. Anything that can be automated, sooner or later, will be automated.

Sharks don’t stay in one place for long. They’re always on the lookout for new pockets of ocean that have plentiful food and minimal competition for that food. CPA firms can’t just stay in one place and assume clients and business opportunities will always be there. Everybody wants to grow and become better, but nobody really wants to change. You can’t achieve growth if you’re not willing to change. Growth, by definition, means changing.

Sharks keep moving even while asleep

How do you create a culture in which personal growth and firm growth become automatic for everyone on your team? Sharks aren’t telling themselves they have to keep moving all the time; it’s part of who they are. In fact, sharks have a way of staying in constant motion even while they’re sleeping.

If you’re in any type of professional services firm, you need to ask yourself how you will ingrain a constant growth mindset into your firm’s DNA. Pursuing growth and better opportunities should come naturally. You shouldn’t have to think about it consciously. Because when you do, you’re just using energy and taxing your willpower. It’s exhausting and it will slow you down. (For more about building better, instinctive habits, see my recent article, "The ant on the elephant.")

Most sharks aren’t ruthless killing machines who attack for no reason

Sharks aren’t vicious animals: They’re simply part of the natural ecosystem. As CPAs, we’re all part of the financial ecosystem — an ecosystem called “creative destruction.” Everything that is coveted and valuable is always at the mercy of something else. The iPhone destroyed many jobs. The internet destroyed jobs. Amazon and Uber destroyed jobs. They’re part of the natural ecosystem of business. Every innovation destroys jobs and companies in order to move forward. Instead of obsessing about protecting your turf, you should adopt a growth mindset that’s always asking, “How are we going to become part of the solution?”

Clients are always going to want better advice. Computers crunch the numbers and fill in the boxes better than most humans do. What computers can’t do for your clients is tell them what the numbers in a tax return or financial statement mean for them. Computers can’t tell clients what they need to do about those numbers in order to be successful.

'Blue Ocean Strategy'

As W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne explained in their 2015 book "Blue Ocean Strategy," competition is irrelevant because the rules of the game are waiting to be set. In a blue ocean environment, there is almost unlimited market potential to explore because the space is vast, deep and virtually unexplored by rivals.

The blue ocean is where you and your team want to be. But your stretch of blue ocean doesn’t last forever. When the tide starts to turn red, you need to be ready to find the next blue ocean. A red ocean is where competition is fierce. Territories are clearly marked, and more and more rivals are trying to kill each other in order to get a greater share of the same resources (i.e., market share).

The red ocean is not where you want to be swimming. But I can’t tell you how many CPAs still think their job is to plug in numbers and to make sure the numbers are accurate. That is the bloodiest red ocean! Computers are going to take that away from you sooner rather than later. You need to focus on things that computers cannot do — like knowing your clients and delivering relevant advice. That’s what clients really want, and not many other CPA firms are doing that. Stick with your most valuable assets — your relationships with your clients.

That’s your blue ocean.

Being called a “shark” may have negative connotations, but it’s actually a compliment if you’re a CPA.

It means you’re savvy, you’re adaptable and you have a single-minded focus to keep searching for wave after wave of deep blue opportunity that you can call your own. Thinking like a shark may not land you a hit series on The Discovery Channel, but it will ensure you have a unique territory in the marketplace that none of your rivals can take a bite out of.