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The mark of an educated mind

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How often do you read an accounting profession-based article that begins with a quote from Aristotle? It seems like a stretch, I know, but bear with me, because this single quote just may be what triggers a whole new way of thinking for you. It certainly did for me.

“It’s the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

To put this into perspective, just consider the current political landscape — one where many have taken sides, unrelenting to ideas that don’t align with their own. How can positive change ever occur if we are only willing to accept one way of thinking, unwilling to entertain alternative perspectives? In the realm of change, closed minds will only ever lead to a stalemate — to the land where discussion goes to die.

It’s this brief yet profound quote that has pushed me to do more listening and less talking. To be open to ideas that I had long since settled in my mind. To have conversations with my adult children that don’t start with: “When I was your age … ” There’s a true power and feeling of freedom that comes with the opening of one’s mind to other perspectives. Can you see yourself as a person who others come to in order to share and vet ideas, because they know you will entertain new thoughts and ideas?

Applying this philosophy to the accounting profession makes more sense than ever, considering the ever-present and rapid rate of change. I’ve encountered many firms that still operate the way it’s always been done — hanging on to outdated, one-way perceptions that keep them from making any real changes, and, oftentimes, pitting one partner against another. Now, for a moment, think about what it could mean to lead with an educated mind. What would your firm look like if you began discussions by listening? If you opened yourself up to entertaining and analyzing different ideas?

Ancient wisdom and modern thinking

Aristotle’s words offer great inspiration, moving us to think on a deeper level about how we operate our firms — and our lives. It’s the notion that by leading with an educated mind, we open ourselves up to greater possibilities and thinking that can have a far more positive impact.

Now, fast forward from ancient Greece to the more recent past and the work of Steven Covey (who based his “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” on the works of ancient literature). You may recall that I discussed Covey’s first three habits in my last column:

  1. Be proactive.
  2. Start with the end in mind.
  3. Put first things first.

The culmination of his first three habits are meant to get you thinking about your future, what Covey calls a personal victory. For firms, a personal victory translates into the power to choose the firm and the life you want. Today, I want to advance the idea of the educated mind and connect it with Covey’s Habit 5: First seek to understand, and then be understood.

It was Covey’s modern-day philosophy (spelled out in Habit 5) that helped me better connect with people in my personal and professional life. Essentially, Habit 5 pushes you to first understand the position of others before pushing your own. This means really listening, with an open mind, to what others have to say. It means not arguing your own position before hearing the ideas of others. It means listening with the intent to understand.

The blend of Aristotle’s and Covey’s ideas is where I find great inspiration. The combination of keeping an open mind and seeking to understand another’s position before stating one’s own is a winning formula to becoming an influential, effective and positive leader.

Imagine how different conversations could be, whether with a spouse, employee, peer or client, if you take the time to truly listen to others’ thoughts. If you’re perceived as someone willing to entertain alternative solutions and ideas … as opposed to immediately rejecting them or choosing to maintain a predetermined position. Being open to new ideas and paradigms is the mark of an educated mind, and has helped me immensely both personally and professionally.

As a dedicated follower of Aristotle and Covey, today I find myself in far more open conversations with family, friends, staff, peers and clients about multiple facets of life and business. “First seeking to understand the positions of others” has helped create a rich working culture in my firm, where new ideas are shared and discussed. It’s also opened up lines of communication with clients, helping us collect honest feedback that ultimately improves services and the overall client experience.

It’s time to start the discussion ...

One thing everyone can agree on is that we live in an era of constant change, and with change comes friction. Whether that’s friction caused by generational differences, the rapid pace of technology turnover, or rising client demands, it’s friction that every firm owner must deal with. Approaching change with an educated mind helps to better understand the challenges, within their given context, and then solve for them.

The following are three areas of friction within firms that I most often hear about from peers. I challenge you to start open discussions in your firm around these topics, and approach each with an educated mind:

  • Discussion No. 1: Inputs versus outputs. We are a profession that has largely measured success based on inputs. How many billable hours can we get out of each staff person? How many billable hours can I personally work? But what if success were measured based on outputs? Outputs like revenue generated, cultural fit and value-building ideas. How much more successful would your firm be with the right focus on results? The answer here is likely not one or the other (outputs or inputs). In fact, many firm leaders feel more comfortable with a blended model. Nonetheless, this is an important discussion to have as you work to secure the long-term future of your firm.
  • Discussion No. 2: The importance of culture. Where does culture stand on your list of priorities? Some of the most successful firms put culture first because they understand that if they are to provide a superior client experience, they have to build a quality team. And with a rich culture comes superior employees. The following are a few questions to get the discussion around culture started in your firm: Will your firm be able to grow if you can’t recruit and maintain quality staff members? What kind of culture is attractive to the modern workforce? What can you do today to start building a strong, qualified-staff-attracting culture?
  • Discussion No. 3: Modernizing your technology stack. The rate of technology change is not going to slow. Newer, better and faster innovations will continue to hit our profession. Start this discussion in your firm by asking such questions as: What is our position on adopting modern technologies? How agile are we in terms of implementing new apps? Do we have buy-in on modernizing our technology stack from all partners? How badly do we want to be seen as modern and maintain a distinct competitive advantage?

Change is not easy, especially in a profession that moves as fast and furiously as ours does. But when you lead with an educated mind, it makes implementing change that much easier because you’ve opened the door to alternative solutions. Use your educated mind to challenge the traditions of the accounting profession, to start resolution-generating discussions with those around you, and to move forward in achieving the life and business you want and deserve!

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