Archive for April, 2013

Walt Disney once said: “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” I am a curious person by nature, and enjoy speaking with people and asking them questions about their personal and professional lives.  I believe that has been a factor in my success in helping develop new business over the years. dis


Tom Basilo, partner-in-charge of our Morristown office, shared with me this enlightening checklist from leadership author John Maxwell’s recent book, Law of Curiosity. He writes: “Curious people possess a thirst for knowledge. They are interested in life, people, ideas, experiences, and events, and they live in a constant state of wanting to learn more. They continually ask why? This is a gift that great leaders nurture and grow. It adds luster and shine to their creativity, enabling them to imagine the unimaginable.” Here are Maxwell’s ten suggestions for developing a strong sense of curiosity:


  1. Believe you can be curious – “You cannot be what you believe you aren’t.”
  2. Have a beginner’s mind-set – “…wondering why and asking a lot of questions.”
  3. Make why your favorite word – “Never forget, anyone who knows all the answers in not asking the right questions.”
  4. Spend time with other curious people – “…seek out other curious people” – they serve as stimulants to you.
  5. Learn something new every day – “Begin each day with a determination to learn something new, experience something different, or meet someone you don’t already know.”
  6. Partake in the fruit of failure – “People who grow and develop see failure as a sign of progress.”
  7. Stop looking for the right answer – “Single solution people are not putting themselves in the best situation to learn and grow. Why? Because this is always more than one solution to a problem.”
  8. Get over yourself – Don’t be afraid of looking foolish. “If we never tried anything that might make us look ridiculous, we’d still be in caves.” Roger van Oech, author
  9. Get out of the box – Have an abundance mindset – “There ain’t no rules around here! We’re trying to accomplish something!” Thomas Edison, inventor
  10. Enjoy your life – ‘The race will go to the curious, the slightly mad, and those with an un-satiated passion for learning and daredevilry.” Tom Peters, In Search of Excellence


Here at WithumSmith+Brown, our people embrace a philosophy by which we work and live, defined by ten attributes. We call it “the Withum Way.” One trait is to “Live Life Passionately.” That would include taking the time to be curious. Asking questions. Exploring new paths. You just never know which new opportunities may present themselves in doing so.


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I have had younger staff member ask me, “What can I do to help me be successful”?  Aside from having the te596232_origchnical knowledge needed to do our jobs, the essence of a successful professional is effective communication, whether internally to our peers or supervisors, or externally to our clients.   Some clients prefer we only send emails; others need us to spend time on the phone; most effective is to meet in person. Regardless of our clients preferred mode of contact, we must always keep in mind the following tips on being an effective communicator. In addition, effective communication with our fellow engagement team members will improve the efficiency of the engagement and enhance “world class client service.”


  • First, we have to remember that good communication starts with being a good listener. We must always be prepared to patiently listen to our client or teammate and never interrupt them. A simple way to be sure we understand their point or questions is to rephrase it and ask them to confirm that we didn’t misunderstand him or her.


  • Second, we must try to focus on being self-confident and positive. By projecting the right attitude, our words must also become more positive – affirmation and encouragement will help get the best out of people, and clients will get more from the conversation. A good tip in this regard is to smile even when we are speaking on the phone and can’t be seen. This helps project a positive attitude.


  • Third, understand who the audience is. When speaking with clients, it generally is not necessary to be technical in nature. Tax clients don’t really care what the code section is that allows the deduction; they only care that they can take advantage of it. We must be sure to speak in our clients’ terms.


  • And for last, we don’t always have to be right – sometimes it is better to let go. There will be times when a conflict with a client or fellow team member will occur. It’s generally best to hear each other out and allow time to cool off before addressing it. Remember that there is normally a compromise that is possible, and you just need to approach the conflict with a cool and rational state of mind. If you do make a mistake, both clients and peers are forgiving when you are honest or if you find your previous position on a subject is no longer accurate.


Effective communication is the best way to differentiate yourself in the market place. When providing professional services, everyone states they will be progressive and have the most talented people. Most important is to deliver on the these promises, and let our clients know they are important to us.

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team coachingI have been watching pretty intently the news accounts of the basketball coach at Rutgers and his conduct that lead not only to his firing, but also to the resignation of the athletic director. I have had the opportunity to meet the AD, Tim Pernetti, a number of times and liked him, although I wouldn’t be so bold as to call him a friend or to say I have any inside information on this incident.

I tend to look at these very public incidents and try to put myself in the position of the players to determine what I would do. I find it interesting that the media really has taken control of this and has exerted influence way beyond the boundaries of the role a healthy media should play in our society. They have expressed an opinion in hindsight and without all the relevant facts, and good people have paid with their jobs and perhaps have altered their careers.

If you forget the high profile of the coach’s action, what you really have is a management employee that acted inappropriately. Unfortunately, I have to admit even with the great culture our firm enjoys, that there have been times when a partner or someone in our organization with management authority has said something that is not politically correct or acted out of anger in the heat of the moment. Fortunately for us, ESPN isn’t around to air the infraction.  But regardless, our position has been to sit with the employees that may have witnessed or bore the brunt of this behavior and explain this is counter to our culture and what we are trying to accomplish at our firm and will not be tolerated. We also sit with the offender and counsel them on how to mitigate the behavior and essentially warn them that future offenses may result in termination.

I always try to keep in mind that a) people are people and make mistakes, and b) they have families that rely on them for support.  We have had great success with this and have rehabilitated a number of people with this process. We are also rated number one accounting firm in the country for culture and employee morale.

Based upon all the news accounts I have read, Tim went through a similar process and even took extra steps to obtain the advice of outside counsel. It is unknown whether the process could have worked and the coach could have been rehabilitated. What is clear is that due to outside intervention, the coach will most likely never have a job like the one he had at Rutgers. And Tim was forced to resign despite all the good things he has accomplished for the University. Which in my view is a net loss for Rutgers.

When we make decisions in managing people and in life, we try to accumulate all the available data points and review the facts before us at the time and make the best, most honest decision taking into account all these factors. I have done this myself many times, sometimes unsuccessfully. Fortunately for me, the accounting profession is pretty boring and the media isn’t watching every step and second guessing those decisions. Otherwise, I could be writing this from early retirement.

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I read with some amusement about the IRS’s attempt to kick off a training and leadership conference with a Star Trek themed video, and now members of Congress are criticizing them for misspending taxpayer dollars. You can see the video for yourself at CBSNews.com.


We had a similar issue three years ago, when we were looking for something fun and interesting to do as a kick off to our annual State of the Firm meeting. This meeting takes place just before busy season, and is designed to update and motivate our staff about our firm, with about 450 people in attendance. One of our partners, Dan Vitale, saw a lip sync video done by the Today Show to the song, “I’ve Got  Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas, and forwarded the video link to me and our Director of Marketing and Practice Growth, Rhonda Maraziti, thinking it would be something fun to do to ‘boost morale’.  Rhonda came to me with the thought that doing something similar would make for a great meeting opener, and convinced me that her team could pull this off.  I must admit, I was hesitant in our ability to deliver – hey, we’re accountants! – but you can view the fantastic results of our inaugural video here.


Now, three videos later, WithumSmith+Brown has become known nationally in the accounting circles as “the firm with the cool videos.”  They likely accomplish everything the IRS was looking to achieve in their not-so-successful attempt, having morphed into great motivational and team-building tools for our staff.  On video filming days, the excitement is palpable, as our hard-working professionals get a half-day reprieve from the norm to reach outside of their comfort zones and do something new and different. What makes it special is that our staff don’t mind laughing at themselves, truly enjoying the experience and having a good time. The videos have helped with our recruiting efforts; increased our profile in the profession; and amongst clients, we are thought of as a progressive firm willing to think outside of the box.


You can view our second and most popular video to date here (52,000 hits).  Our newest video can be found on the home page at www.withum.com.


So, after viewing the IRS video, I can sympathize with those who made the decision to move forward on this project, understanding what they were trying to accomplish and recognizing the monumental task at hand to create something that would motivate and energize the leadership of their massive organization. Of course, since they are a government agency, they can’t help but overpay for everything, with the cost of the Star Trek video being almost double the cost of all three of our videos combined.  Then again, we didn’t need three bids to get ours done.

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