So, which zone is better: Performance Zone or Learning Zone?

The Performance Zone is the core implementation of your work. It’s where you apply your skills, execute, try to minimize mistakes and achieve our best results. The Learning Zone is where you make improvements and focus on what you don’t know. It’s where you experiment and make mistakes in a low-risk setting so you can learn and get better.

Actually you need to spend time in both zones to be the best you can be. Let me explain.

When pop music icon Beyoncé is on tour, she spends every night on stage in the Performance Zone.

Pop music superstar Beyoncé performs during the annual Wal-Mart Shareholders' Meeting at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Pop music superstar Beyoncé performs during the annual Wal-Mart Shareholders' Meeting at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Aaron Skinner/Bloomberg News

But after each show, she spends deliberate, focused time in the Learning Zone. She watches a video of the just-completed show and identifies areas for improvement—not just for herself, but for her dancers, cameras and staff. The next day everyone receives pages of notes about what they can do better before the following night’s performance. That’s why Beyoncé is a superstar. On top of huge talent she has a relentless desire to keep improving.

During a recent TED Talk, author and motivational speaker Eduardo Briceño said most of us go through life trying to do our best at everything we take on—our jobs, families, school, relationships, etc. “But I came to the realization that I wasn’t getting better at those things—even though I spent a lot of time on them,” he observed. “Based on mountains of research and in-depth conversations I’ve had, this type of stagnation tends to be pretty common.” (I know you’re busy, but carve out 15 minutes to view the video of his TED Talk. You’ll thank me later.)

Like most CPAs, you have been deep into what we call the Performance Zone—grinding out your daily work, applying your skills and trying to minimize mistakes. You’re consumed by deadlines, deliverables, discarded coffee cups and pizza boxes. During tax season this year, it was a mad dash to the April 17 finish line and some long-awaited R&R. The last thing you need is someone telling you to stop what you’re doing and think about how you are doing, why you’re doing it or who you are doing it for. But, that’s how you get into the Learning Zone. The Learning Zone is where we improve and focus on what we DON’T know. It’s where we can try new things, experiment a little and make some mistakes in a low-risk setting in order to get better the next time.

“We’re doing it this way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

“It is what it is.”

Do these cop-outs above sound like language you hear around your firm? Unfortunately, with that kind of mindset your firm is going to have a hard time increasing the value you deliver to clients.

Get out of the Performance Zone and into the Learning Zone

After all these years of practice, have you gotten any better at punching numbers into boxes? Of course not. It’s the same thing year after year. I’m guessing you don’t spend much time asking yourself, “What are the bottlenecks? What are the pain points? Where can we improve for next year that will have the greatest impact on our clients’ lives?” Research shows you will hit your plateau after just two or three years on the job if you’re not constantly improving your skills and expanding your horizons.

CPE is not the Learning Zone. Look at how CPE works in the accounting profession. It’s based on credit hours, not on mastery. Go to a conference and leave the breakout sessions early. You still get credit. Log into a webinar, punch in the code while you’re working on other things. You still get credit. Sign up for a seminar and manage to stay awake for the whole event. You still get credit. Getting your 40 CPE hours in every year is like billing your clients by the hour—it counts, but is it really valuable?

Instead, build a real learning plan that’s based on improving the higher level skills you need, not on racking up credit hours. Clients don’t need you to get better at being a number cruncher or financial historian. Computers can do that better than most humans.

What technology can’t replace is your unique relationship with clients. By learning how to automate the routine tasks that technology can do better than you, your brain is freed up to do higher-level thinking and to provide better advice to your clients.

Many CPAs I know could really improve their listening skills, not their talking skills. That’s why we have two ears and only one mouth. Learn to ask your clients better questions; questions that are relevant to their lives, not just their tax returns. Most clients don’t want to talk about tax forms and IRS regulations. They want to know how they can plan for retirement, send their kids to college and increase the value of their business. That’s what a high value CPA does—taking care of things that keep clients up at night so clients can focus on what gets them up in the morning.

Books like Kerry Patterson’s Crucial Conversations and Richard McKenzie’s Predictably Rational are chock full of tips for improving your listening skills and for understanding that most clients don’t make decisions on a balanced mental ledger.

Ask your best clients what they really want

The next question I usually get is “OK, so where do I start?” Talk to your best clients—the influential ones you want to replicate—and get very clear about what they’re most worried about. Then become the best person around who can solve that unique problem for those clients. Before you know it, your best clients will start referring you to people just like them who need the same problem solved.

Congrats on surviving another Busy Season, but you’re not done. If you don’t want to feel this exhausted and frustrated again next year, now is the time to document your biggest frustrations and take proactive steps to solving them.

So, what does Beyoncé have to do with running an accounting firm? It’s all about the way she approaches her craft. As a CPA, your job isn’t just to perform—it’s to perform a little better every single day. You may not have millions of fans scrutinizing your every move, but if you can apply both the Performance Zone and the Learning Zone to your work, you’ll turn your clients into fans and your fans into evangelists.