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Leading With Fanatic Discipline in a World of Disruption

By Joey Havens

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Last summer, I wrote My Very Own Jerry Maguire Blog, a series that challenged the public accounting profession to evaluate how well we are performing as trusted advisors.  Fortunately, it did create some healthy conversations and reflections by lots of firms as well as HORNE. Reflecting on those conversations encouraged me to write a new series—Are We Really Choosing to Be Great?

This series is designed to evaluate us as individuals, as CPA firms and as a profession. Complacency is a cancer that is hard to see and even harder to eradicate. There’s so much opportunity and growth for our profession if we can generate more urgency (and education of future facts) to transform how we work and live. Are you creating the urgency to take action and meet the changes required by today’s technology transformation? 

This isn’t designed to call anyone out. This is about having the conversations that help us challenge our present beliefs that may or may not be relevant or beneficial truths for us today. Our beliefs (human nature) are designed to make us feel great about our decisions so it’s hard to challenge them and seek out truths that might contradict them.

In his book Great by Choice, Jim Collins identified three attributes present in high-performing companies—companies that performed at least 10 times better than their peers. Over the next three posts, I’ll explore each of these attributes. I think they provide a great litmus test for us to evaluate ourselves, our firms and our profession for today’s transformation in how we work and live. 

The first attribute is FANATIC DISCIPLINE. The uncommon discipline to stay the course and focus on what makes you distinct. The uncommon discipline to focus on what you are great at and to avoid distractions. As a profession, I’m not sure we get a passing grade on this first attribute. Let’s ask ourselves—are we distracted from being great in certain areas because we are still adhering to being everything for everybody? What has our firm stopped doing recently? What truly makes our firm distinct and are there things we are doing that take time and talent away from that focus? Are we serving clients that don’t fit our level of service and investment? All of these are distractions. We are feeding the enemy of GREAT by allocating and spreading our sacred resources on things we are simply good at. 

Recently, an audit committee member of a large company shed even more light on how we are ignoring this lack of discipline in our firms and our profession. He shared his experience from his company’s recent interview involving oral presentations from four CPA firms who were bidding for a substantial three year audit engagement. There were three national firms and one regional firm in the final oral process. “They all sounded just alike, they said the same things, talked about their quality and how they did things. You could throw the names in a hat and assign them to any of the presentations. It was amusing and BORING.” Does the word commodity ring a bell? Our services will only be commoditized if we allow them to be. 

So if one of these four firms were really deploying the fanatic discipline that Collins identified in his research, would they have been able to deliver a better message on how they were distinct? 

Why is it so hard for us to focus on the things we can be great and truly distinctive at? We cling to too many challenges and excuses. “We are good at it.” “Partner X brought it in.” “Client B knows other influential people.” “People will think we are too busy and we will miss opportunities that we do want.” And the most damaging one of all—”it’s profitable.” I have heard it a thousand times in our firm’s discussions. The excuses go on and on—justifying our belief system that we must be everything to everybody.

I believe that most firms struggle to some degree with this fanatic discipline. The truth is—we are TOO BUSY being good to really be distinctive or innovative where we could bring greater value and impact to our clients. 

Now, the challenge is that OUTSIDE competition is zeroing in on distinction and we are losing revenues to competitors outside of our profession. A great place to start making changes? Ask yourself these questions: Does this really fit? Can we create critical mass, distinction and leverage our talent? Sometimes the individual parts look good but the sum of them is really not more. Don’t you see that math in some of your practice areas? 

Fanatic discipline requires we focus more on what we can be great at. Distinct. Relevant. With more automation, more complexity, more change, more regulations—are we too focused on just being good?