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Some Thoughts on the Characteristics of Great Business Advisors

At a time when many accounting firms are planning to get into the so-called business advisory space it’s important to think about the type of personal characteristics that are most suited to success as an advisor because the characteristics that are exhibited by great compliance people are not necessarily those that suit business advisory. Here are my thoughts.

I happen to believe that accountants are best placed and best equipped to help small and medium size business clients improve the profitability and value of their business. For starters, they already have a close relationship with their business clients and act as trusted advisors in the tax and general compliance space, and they are also by nature analytically inclined and well versed in the money side of business.

As SME advisors we must learn how to gently encourage our small business clients to see and get excited about the bigger picture without insulting them and without making them feel they have failed or are failing. We need to be able to paint that picture for them and motivate them to want to achieve it. This is not easy and it requires extraordinary patience on our part but it also calls for a person with particular characteristics that many accountants do not possess by nature. Here are my thoughts about those characteristics in no particular order:

  1. Have wisdom born from experience in business generally and preferably outside of an accounting practice
  2. Have common sense
  3. Have a highly developed critical thinking skill – google “critical thinking” to better understand what that means
  4. Be self-confident but humble – have presence and exhibit confident humility
  5. Never believe you know enough, unshackle yourself from an “expert” mindset – move from “know it all” to “learn it all”
  6. Be enthusiastic, celebrate wins no matter how small and always seek always to make your client the hero
  7. Acknowledge and accept errors of judgement and your mistakes – take responsibility
  8. Be constantly curious
  9. Have a high tolerance of ambiguity
  10. Have a growth mindset – views failures and mistakes as a normal part of a learning process
  11. Have contagious enthusiasm and a positive mindset – naturally see a glass half full rather than half empty
  12. Prefer to associate with positive people (as Jim Rohn says: “you become the average of the 5 people your spend most time with!”
  13. Have strong analytical skills e.g. able to use Microsoft Power BI (or have someone on your team who does)
  14. Have positive empathetic communication skills – seek first to understand then be understood
  15. Use Socratic questioning skills (don’t feel the need to offer solutions, draw them out of your client’s mind)
  16. Be an exceptional listener – you were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason and remember, your ears are closer to your brain than your mouth is!
  17. Be patient
  18. Be courteous
  19. Be intuitive – listen to your gut but temper it with rationality
  20. Understand the difference between strategic planning and best-practice operational & tactical planning
  21. Be strong in leadership development and organization design
  22. Have a very strong understanding of the 5 ways to grow the profitability and value of a business
  23. Understand creative ideation process skills
  24. Be resilient – don’t be offended by client push-back
  25. Be diligent, punctual, well organized, and focused on what’s important
  26. Do what you say you’ll do – the key to being trustworthy
  27. Be an avid reader and active lifelong learner seeking to continually develop your knowledge
  28. Be aware of cognitive biases and in particular the Confirmation Bias – have (and display) an open mind
  29. Have integrity – consistently reflect and act the values you subscribe to
  30. Exhibit a strong sense of humor
  31. Be willing to go head-to-head with your client to seek understanding but always with respect
  32. It helps if you like your client’s company and that feeling is reciprocated
  33. It helps if you have an interest in, and competency with, teaching and coaching
  34. Do not be a perfectionist

I add to this list from time to time when I think of something worth noting – see my February 2019 post on this important topic.. It’s also worth noting that we all have these skills/characteristics to some degree but I have found over many years of making mistakes that working on them would have eliminated a lot of problems. The point of the list is to use it as a guide to personal development areas an advisor could work on to be more effective. You might notice #25 is the only characteristic that relates to your efficiency all the rest are about your effectiveness or simply your underlying character.

I strongly advise you to study Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People; follow the advice in it and you will become a very effective adviser. Note I suggested you STUDY not just read the book; when I have done seminars in the past I occasionally would ask “who has read the 7 Habits?” and typically at least 60-80% of people in the room would raise their hands. I then ask to keep your hand up if you could recite the 7 Habits right now and most (often all) hands go down. If some hands remain up I then ask if you can honestly say you consistently “live” the habits and all hands go down – mine included. It’s tough to live this stuff but as long as you’re consciously aware of them and consider it a work in progress you will be a better person, you will achieve more, and you will be a much better and more effective adviser.

Covey published the 7 Habits in 1989 which was getting towards the end of my time in practice. I did a quick read of it (which is code for skim) but focused on the importance of having a clear vision and working on first things first (time management.) This reflected my interest at the time on goal setting and efficiency – young man in a hurry syndrome which, incidentally, is common for younger advisers today (hence my #1 success characteristic.) If I was to start again I would give my clients a copy of the book (or an audio book, or a written summary) and I would use it as a framework for the business development assignment which is precisely what I’m working on right now!

See this post – What makes a good business advisor

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