I just spent a few days in Atlanta attending Xerocon, and used Lyft to get around town. One of my drivers, an African American man in his 40s had just moved to Atlanta from Omaha. Omaha is 73% white, 13% African American, while Atlanta is 38% white and 54% African American. He told me that if he’d grown up in Atlanta, he would have had an entirely different view of what could be possible for him.
Driving for Lyft around Atlanta, he had discovered entire neighborhoods of multi-million-dollar mansions owned by African Americans. Such wealth for African Americans had been inconceivable for him in Omaha.
That got me thinking about how my own experiences have colored my perceptions of what I could — and should — do.
I grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, home of Los Alamos National Laboratory and birthplace of the atomic bomb. My parents were both scientists and worked at the lab. So did most of my friends’ parents. Tiny Los Alamos, with less than 20,000 residents, has one of the highest proportion of residents with PhDs in the world, and this in a state that routinely ranks at the bottom of the US for educational outcomes.
It was a given in my family and among my peers that the career path was to get a PhD in science or engineering and then do scientific research. So even though I had enjoyed keeping the books for my Girl Scout troop and my Explorer post — both of whom operated businesses — I planned to major in engineering in college.
Business, after all, was what you did if you weren’t smart enough to be a scientist, and I was clearly one of the smart ones.
A few career gyrations later, starting out as a biochemist and finally returning to my high school love of accounting, I have found my most satisfying work in writing about accountants and accounting.
There aren’t too many like me, so it hasn’t been a career path I could model based on the experiences of others. I have been inventing it as I go. I am amazed at the connections with thought leaders from around the world I’ve made because of my oddball status as a CPA who can write.
Like many industries today, accounting is in the midst of disruption and transformation. The model of an accounting firm that served well for decades won’t work for too much longer.
My friend and mentor, Steve Major, co-founder of The Revolutionary Firm in Australia, believes that in the future, there will be only two kinds of accounting firms. One model is a high volume, low cost firm that focuses on bookkeeping and compliance work. To keep costs down, this model will rely on offshore labor — in the Philippines for Australia and in India for the US.
The other model will be focused on high value advisory work, with the bookkeeping and compliance thrown in on the side. Firms choosing this model will need to learn how to provide this high level work since it’s not really a big part of anyone’s college curriculum yet.
If Major is right, today’s typical accounting firm, with a service foundation of tax, audit, and maybe bookkeeping with revenues based on hourly billing will be on life support in just a few years. But because it’s been so ubiquitous, many firms have a tough time envisioning a different model, just as I had a tough time imagining a successful career as anything other than a scientist while I was a student at Los Alamos High School.
That was all I knew. To me, the handful of successful businesses in Los Alamos looked more like support services for the scientists who worked at the lab and less like successful businesses that happened to be located in the wealthy enclave of Los Alamos.
As Peter Block writes in his excellent and thought-provoking book, The Answer to How is Yes: Acting on What Matters, part of the key to transforming businesses and our world is replacing how questions with what he calls yes questions.
The relevant how question here is “How are other people doing it successfully?” In my case, and for accountants seeking a new way forward, it’s hard to find good models.
But rather than letting that stop us, asking the corresponding yes question opens up possibilities. Here the yes question is “What do we want to create together?”
Do we want to create more of the same, or do we want to open the doors and create something new?
Block emphasizes that the how questions are not unimportant. Examples of pioneers who have gone before us can show us what has and what hasn’t worked. They can provide a roadmap, a blueprint to help move forward.
But when we ask the how questions too soon, they can act as barriers that prevent us from creating workplaces and cultural institutions with the potential to transform our world.
If we don’t see successful models, then it’s easy to just say it’s unproven, dangerous, risky and impractical. Or if the models we do see don’t resonate with our desires, it’s easier not to try.
But it’s in asking the yes question of “what do we want to create together” that will bring transformation and help us weather the disruptions of automation, AI and blockchain.
Fortunately, pioneers have been reimagining what the accounting firm of the future looks like. For those who like to follow models, this is encouraging. And the pioneers out there have been largely inventing it as they go, trying new things to see what sticks.
Many of these firms have millennial owners. All leverage technology to automate their work so that they have more time for consultative services — for which their clients gladly pay top dollar. Most use value pricing and don’t use time sheets. Some are virtual firms, with no office space and all remote workers.
All of them provide additional services besides routine compliance work. Their client base isn’t limited by geography. They understand that their greatest asset is the knowledge of their team, so they do all they can to nurture that knowledge. As one such pioneer told me at Xerocon, he strives to train his team well enough so that they could leave for brighter career options, while treating them well enough so that they never leave.
The models for a firm of the future are out there, so if you need a model to emulate, you can find one. Those firms will help you answer the how question: “How are other people doing it successfully?”
But first, to truly transform your firm and our world., spend some time on the yes question: “What do we want to create together?”
You won’t regret where that question takes you.