Doug Thompson, the recently retired president of the CPAmerica network of accounting firms, was thinking about the key to success in today's business arena.
He should know. He joined the association in 1982 when it had only 17 members and built it into the fourth-largest group of firms in the business.
After a long pause, he said simply, "Your ultimate altitude in life is not determined by your aptitude. It's determined by your attitude." To Thompson, that's as true for firms and finance organizations as it is for individual, career-minded professionals.
I think he's on to something.
Like "wash, rinse and repeat," the accounting business seems to be going through a cyclical period of shakeout and consolidation, which, if the past is any guide, should evolve eventually into new innovation and growth. So it seems it's rarely been as important for individuals, as well as firms and companies, to remain alert and adaptable, agile and flexible, to both sidestep unforeseen pitfalls and to seize new opportunities.
Thompson called it "an attitude of continuous improvement" that may be "even more important in a down market." For firms, it may mean devoting two percent to three percent of revenue to researching and developing brand new service offerings.
Or, it may be as simple as nurturing an environment "where people aren’t afraid of looking silly," according to Ira Rosenbloom, once the CEO of a major New Jersey regional firm and now a mergers-and-acquisitions advisor.
According to Rosenbloom, niche practice groups at one highly successful CPA firm, for example, hold meetings once or twice a month that — in addition to routine business — call for one team member at a time to make a brief presentation to the group. The substance of the presentation is not as important as the fact of it. "It gives people practice presenting and also a safe place to look a little stupid," Rosenbloom said. "And it encourages new ideas and ways of connecting with each other."
"Most CPA firms have a very slow learning curve," according to August Aquila, another practice advisor. "So if your firm can be just a little bit quicker, if your firm can get smarter just a little bit faster than the others, then you could have a big advantage." Some, according to Aquila, might use the term "learning organization" to describe this particular key to success.
The firms, companies and individuals who can master the learning curve will also be masters of opportunity. Think about Richard Branson. He started in the music industry with a business model practically dead today. And yet, he has discovered or created one new opportunity after another. With around 200 companies in over 30 countries, Branson's Virgin Group has now expanded into leisure, travel, tourism, mobile, broadband, TV, radio, music festivals, finance and health.
Who's the next Branson in your company? Why not you?
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Rick Telberg is president and chief executive of Bay Street Group LLC, advisors in marketing, management and strategy.
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