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Advantage of the rookie mindset

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Conventional wisdom says that experience makes you a better leader. But sometimes having a fresh set of eyes — a beginner’s mind — gives you a better perspective on tackling tough problems at your organization, reports Kyle Walters at Accounting Today.

As management guru Steven Covey liked to say, “Some people say they have 20 years [of experience], when in reality, they only have one year of experience, repeated 20 times.”

In fact, Harvard Business Review recently reported that first-time CEOs — regardless of age or gender — have been outperforming veteran CEOs for the past two decades. HBRsaid that’s because novice CEOs are much more likely than veteran CEOs to be curious, adaptable and flexible — and less likely to rely on the same old playbook. As a result, they tend to confront problems with fresh eyes rather than with rules of thumb.

That really hit home with me as we start a new year with mountains of uncertainty on the horizon. In 2021, it may be more important than ever to have a fresh set of eyes when you think about the future of your firm.

HBR cited a Spencer Stuart study of S&P 500 CEOs that found “rookie CEOs” led their companies to higher market-adjusted total shareholder returns, with less stock price volatility, than veteran CEOs did. Among leaders who headed two successive companies, researchers found 70 percent performed better the first time — and for more than 60 percent of CEOs, their second companies failed to keep pace with the overall stock market.

Think back to those early days when you first assumed the reins at your organization — or the first year after you launched your own firm. Everything was new. It was a heady mix of excitement and anxiety. Your adrenaline was pumping, and you were fired up to come to the office every day knowing that the sky was the limit.

I’m not suggesting that all the senior leaders of your firm should step aside for a younger cohort of new managers. I’m simply suggesting that veterans adopt a rookie mindset and approach 2021 with fresh eyes. Here are three ways to do it:

1. Shoshin. Loosely translated from Zen Buddhism, Shoshin means “beginner’s mind.” It’s about having an openness, an eagerness and a lack of preconceptions when tackling a new challenge or opportunity. What if you didn’t have any preconceptions about the people, clients or systems at your firm? How would you change your decisions?

2. Focus on growth.You may feel like you have all the business you can handle, especially during tax season. But being super-busy is not the same as being super-profitable. Not every client is the right fit for you — or financially worth your time. The more time you spend with difficult or high-maintenance clients is less time you can spend with high-value clients who can help you grow faster and generate better referrals. No one likes to sacrifice revenue in the short-term, but you probably have a number of clients that are more trouble than they’re worth. Trim them from your client roster ASAP and help them find a better home. Stop procrastinating and just make the decision to let them go.

If you’re not growing as a professional, as a team or as a firm, you may have some real issues in the future. Clients get older and eventually retire or pass away. If you’re not adapting to changing times, it may be very difficult to replace them.

3. Focus on the one thing you can accomplish right now. By making yourself the de facto “newly appointed” senior partner, you must look at all aspects of your firm with a fresh set of eyes. Do team members need more training? Do we need to recruit more of a certain kind of team member? Are there processes we need to rethink? Do we need to trim our client roster?

These are all good questions, but you can’t tackle them all at the same time. Just select one challenge that will help you move the needle the most in 2021 and allocate your resources accordingly to solving it. These kinds of decisions were readily apparent when you first got to know your firm, but your judgment gets cloudy over time. That’s natural.

A new playbook

The aforementioned Spencer Stuart study found that during tough times, veteran leaders tend to rely on the same playbook they used from their previous jobs and get overly concerned about cost-cutting. As a result, they tend to be less adaptable to change than rookie leaders, who tend to be more focused on top-line growth. Rather than saving money on paper clips and expense accounts, rookie leaders tend to focus on ways to develop new business and to introduce higher-value new services.

I’ve learned over my career that cost-cutting is fine for the short run, but eventually you can’t squeeze any more juice out of the same orange. You have to go out and find more oranges.

Once you’ve regained your beginner’s mind and have shifted your focus to growth rather than cost-cutting, you can tackle the future with fresh eyes on your client mix, your marketing, your recruiting, and your service offerings. Ask yourself, “What is the one thing I can really put my shoulders into that will move the needle the most?” As a rookie senior partner (or self-appointed rookie partner), you need to bring new energy, new ideas and new initiatives to the firm while still staying focused in 2021.

If you do, your clients, team and strategic partners will thank you.