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Though I am not in the habit of offering required reading lists to our staff, I am happy to share my appreciation of authors such as Simon Sinek, Stephen Covey, Dan Pink and Jim Collins. These writers share some common ideologies about business, work and management.

Our industry is competitive which means we must always be getting better in order to stay ahead of the curve. True leaders must be continual learners, searching every day for innovative improvements.

If new employees asked me for reading suggestions, I would pose three topics for consideration: innovation, leadership and organizational culture. These are the tenets of leaders and the basis for building a better work environment.

What have you read on these topics that made an impression on you? What topics would you suggest new employees explore?

Today is Throwback Thursday on the blog, and I’m posting an excerpt from the second of two articles on the cultural changes we pursued at Elliott Davis DecosimoBattlefields & Board Rooms: More Cultural Transformations in a South Carolina Company was published on the BizSC media platform and covers four more principles of culture change. (In June I posted an excerpt from the first of the “Battlefield & Board Rooms” articles.)

We needed to help people find the right roles and use their strengths.

Washington was a surveyor, a scout, a commander of a regiment tasked with defending Virginia’s “frontier” in the French and Indian War, and a farmer — all before the age of thirty. The lessons learned in each of those roles later translated into leadership traits on the battlefield. His strengths were well-suited for his time as general of our country’s first army.

At the same time, the decisions Washington made about recruitment of other leaders within the army were some of the most important that he made during the war. Time after time, appointed leaders were tasked with certain vital war duties — sometimes by Congress. When they failed at those tasks, Washington made decisions to replace them with more suitable leaders. His actions in getting the right people in the right job were assertive, and of course, sometimes desperate. At one point, he replaced his most experienced general, second-in-command Charles Lee, in the very midst of battle. He selected a German, von Steuben, to conduct the vital training that the army needed during the long winter of Valley Forge. He placed Henry Knox in charge of transporting immensely valuable artillery across 300 miles of ice and snow. He recruited Nathanael Greene to take over the logistics of managing the supply transport for the army. All these moves were master strokes of placing people in the right roles during the war.

At Elliott Davis, our old system encouraged people to try to do everything: manage business, do the work, develop staff, be out in the community, bring in business. We all were wearing too many hats.

We discovered that discerning and recognizing people’s skills and drives, and then allowing them to gravitate towards their strengths, reaped bigger and better benefits. We wanted people to ask the question, “What are my strengths and how can I develop them to achieve goals?”

Our people needed to have a clear career path based on their strengths rather than striving desperately to be “good at everything.” They needed to be great at pursuing and developing their own strengths. Far from feeling constrained or fettered by unrealistic expectations, there’s a certain relief in knowing that you’re not expected to be something you’re not. And there is motivation in seeing where you can end up. As others have said before, it’s about putting the right people in the right places doing the right things.

 

One of my favorite movies is Mr. Holland’s Opus – a classic about a dedicated teacher who has a passion for music. His secret dream is to compose and conduct his own symphony. For years he toils toward that achievement, but everyday life continually interrupts his efforts and his dream is eventually shelved.

The movie chronicles most of Mr. Holland’s adult life, the majority of it spent teaching young people while he shares his passion for music and tries to make a difference in their impressionable lives. Yet ironically, it is the continual demands of his teaching that constantly place his dream on hold.

Glenn Holland was committed to what he did, to what he loved and to his passion. His path was clear and defined and he walked it every day. Although his lifelong dream became a little less attainable each day, he accepted it because he was choosing to do the right thing. He committed himself to his students while his dream slipped out of reach.

If we have an accomplishment because we give it our full focus, commitment and faith, is it any less of an achievement than our dream?

Most people who know me are aware that I love American history. Abe Lincoln, Ben Franklin and George Washington are three of my favorite historic figures. I have enjoyed reading their biographies and appreciating their accomplishments.

Abe Lincoln, for example, did what he did because he believed it was right. The innovation and accomplishments of Ben Franklin were nothing less than extraordinary. George Washington’s military leadership accomplishments remain awe-inspiring to this day. All three had such vision and incredibly strong commitment to those visions. Each was willing to take a stand even in extremely difficult situations.

Something I find most impressive is realizing what they did when they did it. Today, we are creatures of comfort. The world is at our fingertips with the click of a few buttons. We can discover virtually anything we want to know within seconds. Communication occurs instantly. There is very little waiting and we are ultra-connected to the support of vendors, employees, family, clients and friends. We are practically never untethered.

Lincoln, Franklin and, particularly, Washington did what they did — great things, historic things, spectacular things — within a context and time that we in 21st century America would find unbearably slow and inconvenient. Imagine trying to emulate some of their accomplishments today without modern technology.

One cannot help but be amazed by the accomplishments of people like Washington, Lincoln and Franklin. But when you think about the adversities and inconveniences they navigated to achieve these accomplishments, it is downright humbling.

What are you doing to learn from our country’s history?

I occasionally play a few rounds of golf and enjoy the game. One of the most critical concepts in golf is taking dead aim at the target. Done right, you let the target drive the physics of the swing. You don’t think about it, you just let it happen. You simply focus on seeing the target and driving toward it.

Naturally, to perfect the game you need to understand the basic techniques. You need to understand the rules of the game. Perhaps you read books on the subject or enlist the help of a professional coach. And then you practice, practice, practice.

We can translate this same concept into a business principle. Excelling at client service, recruiting and retaining talent, finding a better way to do things – all of these can be achieved once you focus on the target and take dead aim. Perfecting techniques, continual learning and practicing the skills all play a part in that success, but taking dead aim and driving toward your goal is the critical piece to making it happen.

What rules of sports do you apply to help you achieve your goals?

I’m posting an excerpt from one of my articles that was published in the March 2014 issue of South Carolina Business magazine. The article covered three changes we made at Elliott Davis Decosimo. If you want to read the whole piece, feel free to check it out — “Battlefields & Boardrooms: Three Cultural Transformations in a South Carolina Company.”

 

We needed to change the way we communicate.

Perhaps no American leader is as revered for his various “addresses” — addresses to Congress, addresses to his troops, addresses to his officers, his extensive letters — as George Washington. His language was formal and his phrasing complex. But behind the language was intense feeling — feeling that some of us, aspiring leaders in the 21st century — might do well to express a bit more often.

Washington, for all of his scrupulous honor, his sense of tradition, his formality, and his dignity had a way of bonding with those who worked under and with him. One of the more well-described scenes during his farewell tour after retiring as General of the Continental Army was his goodbye to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York City. He filled a glass, held it up, and stated simply: “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” And then, Washington wept. As each man came forward in silence across the long tavern room, Washington embraced him, tears flowing.

One does not often see such a display in corporate America. We live, it seems, with a bit more distance and reserve and what some call “ironic detachment.” It’s much easier to be sarcastic and witty, then easily touched or passionate.

However I do know one thing. It’s much more difficult to connect with those who live like the former, and much easier to love those who live like the latter.

Elliott Davis leaders have not taken to weeping; but we have changed the way we communicate.

For one thing, we discovered that we simply weren’t communicating frequently enough — not face-to-face nor in writing.

We also weren’t gathering enough input from everyone. So not only were we not giving information; we weren’t receiving it either.

We recognized that we needed to share information at all levels, not simply the “management level.” And we needed to be open and candid. We needed to discuss the right things with everyone.

Finally, we needed to talk more as a group, in front of one another, in order to exchange and process information together, rather than in small groups alone.

The communication channels we opened up at Elliott Davis allowed us to connect with one another more broadly and more deeply. Consequently, people at all levels understood more about what we were trying to change, and more importantly, why.

When I look at the accounting and consulting industry, I see plenty of tough challenges ahead. A stringent regulatory environment, the ever-changing global context and technology complexities are just a few. But one of the biggest challenges I see is the necessity to help young professionals envision their career opportunity and path for what it can be, rather than what it used to be.

Our industry has a reputation for grueling hours, tedious work, myriad regulations and a poor work-life balance. Firms who mentor young professionals in the current environment of specialty practices and burgeoning opportunities are going to experience a substantial talent advantage. That advantage, meaning the recruitment and retention of exceptional people, is going to be a primary differentiator in this industry.

Companies striving to recruit and retain great employees must focus attention on building a corporate culture which achieves that goal. A mission to have a positive impact on our clients and our communities provides the basis for such a culture. But expanding that mission to include having a positive impact on our people is what will set us apart from the competition. Creating a culture where people want to work and choose to stay sets us up to thrive in the long term.

What aspects of your corporate culture create a talent advantage for your firm?