Pete’s Blog

At Last, The Secret to Active and Authentic Listening

Have you ever had a conversation with someone – and you know the entire time that they are not listening to you? You can feel it in their energy, you can hear it in their tone, and you can see it in their body language.  They’re leaning back, with the “deer in the headlights” look; and if you look down at their feet, they are pointed to either the left or right because they want out of the conversation. Or, perhaps they are not listening to you because they have an agenda to push and they are just waiting for their turn to talk? 

If it’s about their agenda, then their body language is the exact opposite from before – leaning forward, rolling their eyes, and trying to make themselves taller with their feet pointed at you. They have something important to say, and they are either waiting for you to stop talking or better yet, they rudely interrupt you. Any of this sound familiar?  We’ve all been on the giving and/or receiving end of poor listening – how does it make you feel – and how are you making others feel? 

I used to be a terrible listener.  My over-inflated ego was driving the scene and I wanted my ideas to be accepted by all. Arrogant I was (think ‘Yoda voice’). 

Then, I was introduced to, and stepped into, the world of improv. One of the very first lessons I learned, was that to be successful in the art of improv, you need to “listen to understand,” aka, active listening. Listening to understand means you park your ideas, your biases, and eliminate all distractions. You suspend your judgment (set your ego aside), so you can focus on listening to what the other person is trying to communicate while managing your emotions. It is authentic.

Easy enough, right? WRONG!

Listening to understand is a skill that needs ongoing practice and strengthening. Over the last 20 years, I have become a better listener, with plenty of setbacks. In my book, Improv Is No Joke: Using Improvisation to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life, I share this story.

Let’s say a CPA has a client across the table who is pouring out her angst about what’s keeping her up at night. The client is making it clear what she needs and wants, but the CPA is thinking of the services that they came in to sell and is waiting for their opening.

“Well,” the CPA tells the long-faced client, “we have this new product here that we’ve developed…”

The client wonders whether the CPA was listening to her – and he wasn’t. He was waiting to deliver a sales pitch. Far better if he could have put those products and services to the side and truly heard his client’s wants and needs and asked questions to learn more about them. A real conversation results in a meeting of minds. That’s the way to a genuine sale—one that’s a real fit.

We all can strengthen our listening skills if we work on them every single day. And when we do this consistently over time, you might just hear a client, customer, or co-worker say, “

“I am not sure why I told you that?” Or, “do you mind if I rant about a situation that happened to me without judging, only listening”? (Google – “It’s Not About the Nail”.  This is a perfect video to understand my last sentence.)

The other critical part of listening is empathy.  Empathy is being fully present and listening deeply to understand what they are saying from their point of view. In the Forbes.com article, Empathy Is an Essential Leadership Skill — And There’s Nothing Soft About It by Prudy Gourguechon, she states, “Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience, perspective, and feelings. Also called “vicarious introspection,” it’s commonly described as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. But make sure you are assessing how they would feel in their shoes, not how you would feel in their shoes.”

Learning how another person feels in their shoes is critical and challenging to becoming a better listener.  We need to ask many questions – many good questions – to understand the other person’s situation and feelings. We all come from different backgrounds, ethnicity, and race. As a friend of mine, Dino Tripodis, once said, “we are the sum of our experiences.” Take the time to understand the other person’s journey, listen and learn, and think about how you may need to change your mindset based on the information you are receiving. 

If you would like to discuss ways that you can improve yours and your co-workers listening skills, please contact me at peter@petermargaritis.com and in the subject line put – At Last, The Secret to Active and Authentic Listening 

THANK YOU to all the heroes!

The coronavirus will be part of our lives until a vaccine is developed and administered. As of May 14, 2020, there are 4,387,438 confirmed cases with 298,392 (7%) deaths, globally. In the U.S., there are 1,395,265 confirmed cases with 84,313 (6%) deaths. These facts are from the COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

When you take a step back from these numbers, they are entirely staggering since the first known case was discovered on November 17, 2019, according to the South Morning China Post. The virus came ashore in the U.S. in February 2020, just three months ago. 

There are hundreds, if not thousands of heroes in this battle, and we owe each and every one of them a big THANK YOU for putting their lives on the front lines to protect every one of us. Here’s to the doctors, nurses, healthcare professionals and scientists working on the vaccine and therapy’s; truck drivers, grocery store personnel, those who work in distribution centers, those who are making masks and giving them away, food delivery people, funeral directors, police, firefighters, governors, state officials, directors of state health departments; those essential profit and non-profit businesses; those who have recovered from the virus and have donated their plasma;  all of these are just some off the top of my head who deserve our gratitude.  And there are many, many more. 

The coronavirus has touched us all in some manner. You may know someone who had the virus and recovered, or you may know someone who has died from the virus, or you know one of the heroes of the virus. I know:

  • A personal friend contracted the virus early in March when the key questions were – have you traveled to China or one of the other infected countries? OR, have you come in contact with anyone who has tested positive? He was not tested, but his doctor told him to self-quarantine. It took three long weeks to recover and has no idea how or where he contacted the virus. During the three weeks of his battle, I would text him about every other day to see how he was feeling and check on his progress. Now that he has recovered, he is going to donate his plasma to help others.  
  • I have a friend who is a nurse in Lexington, KY, and she volunteered to go to New York City during the peak of the outbreak and help out in any way possible. I sent my friend a thank you note for her service.
  • I have a friend and his fiancée who are doctors and are working in the COVID-19 wings within their hospitals in Boston. We have sent them thank you cards for their service and will send them Cheryl Cookies once Cheryl’s and begin delivery.  
  • When I visit a grocery store, I try to thank all of those people who working to keep the shelves stocked and the store sanitized for the betterment of their customers.  

Take a moment and think of those heroes that you know.  Have you thanked them for their courage and service during this crisis? If not, then take a moment and thank them. I am sure they will be very appreciative. Stay healthy, be safe, and practice social distancing.

Step Away from the Script

The unlikely blending of Accounting and Improvisation is something I have in common with my two guests, Kristen Rampe and Jason Lieu, from Slide Deck Improv. Both Kristen and Jason started their careers in the Accounting field but later discovered Improv as a creative outlet. This prompted Kristen to create Slide Deck Improv, which features improv-based workshops as a way to put the fun back into the way professionals communicate in their workplace.  

Slide Deck Improv marries both worlds by working on presentation and communication skills with an improv angle. Besides being in a classroom learning environment, the audience also plays improv games, which is a great way to teach people to think on their feet. The experience not only taps into the creative process, but it also gives you more faith in your abilities and boosts confidence. Participants learn to enhance their speaking and storytelling skills so that they can connect with others in more impactful ways. It teaches people how to observe and try new skills while having much fun in the process. 

Kristen designed the program, so there is “a little bit of learning, a little bit of practice, and just a whole lot of fun.” Also, the course helps participants build confidence by assisting them to get “comfortable in the uncomfortable.”  

Professional development workshops are notoriously dull, but this one is not. According to Slide Deck Improv, they offer “a fresh and fun classroom experience to help professionals tap into their creativity and gain confidence presenting to groups.”  

Besides teaching improv skills, volunteers in the workshop present before the group. They present five slides (one picture per slide) that they have never seen before and a topic that will be selected by the audience. Just imagine a seasoned tax professional speaking on the subject of Botany. At the same time, a picture of cows pops up on the screen. While laughter ripples through the room, the group learns how to make public speaking a little less scary.  

All professional groups from sales to engineers will benefit from learning how to engage people with the newfound confidence that Slide Deck Improv provides. Whether it is interacting with your sales team, customers, or management, these skills can be utilized in your profession, but also transfer over into your daily life.  

Many professionals are highly analytical and spend a lot of time in their heads. Jason described his experience with Improv as, “In any given moment, I’m in my head trying to digest information. And I like to go back and analyze everything before I come up with an answer. Improv gave me this tool that allowed me to live in the moment, listen to people, and to engage in real-time, and I love the feeling and energy of it.”  

Jason expands on the benefits of the program. “I love Improv because it’s such a general skill. It’s not just a business communication skill. It’s a life skill. You can bring this into all your facets of everyday life. And it’s all about connecting with your audience no matter who the audience is. It could be your customers, clients, sales team, internal, external, whatever. It comes down to people talking to people. And if you can connect and engage people, you’re going to have this newfound confidence in your work.”

Everyone can benefit from this kind of workshop, whether you are a CEO or a young professional. Improving your communication skills while in a less traditional forum sparks more productive business relationships. 

You can join in on the fun, while Kristen and Jason show off their improv skills during season 2, episode 13 of Change Your Mindset podcast by clicking here. You’ll get a taste of how the programs work while gaining valuable insight into the process. Thank you, Kristen and Jason, for taking the time to share your innovative program.

Visit SlideDeckImprov.com to find out more about how you can ‘Step Away from the Script.’

FASB is the villain

After I heard this from an audience member for the third time, I realized I was perhaps on to something. This third time came when I was presenting a keynote at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, hardly a hotbed of radical CPAs. 

With the flood of complex changes to GAAP foisted upon us in recent years, it’s no wonder that accountants – and our clients – see FASB as a villain. Not only is FASB considered the enemy, but I recently learned that GAAP is the name of an actual demon!

The guidance from FASB is getting more and more complex. In 2018, the entire codification was over 10,000 pages, in five volumes that were more than a foot high. This complexity translates to full employment for CPAs and auditors. But for business owners and other stakeholders, this is incomprehensible and of minimal value.

Following GAAP and getting an audit are what business owners have to do, not what they want to spend money on. After all, what value is an audit report that’s dated three months (or more) after the end of the year?

GAAP is out of touch with today’s economy

The basic format of a set of financials hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years, as Baruch Lev and Feng Gu point out in their book, The End of Accounting. In that book, they put the 1902 financials for US Steel side by side with the 2012 versions. Except for the numbers, the format and the categories are exactly the same. 

What’s changed in the last 100 years is our economy. Back in 1902, businesses were far more reliant on heavy equipment and machinery. In today’s information age, customer lists, patents and intellectual property are more valuable. 

As Lev and Gu point out, the most important things for investors and analysts today aren’t even on the balance sheets. You won’t find contracts, proprietary know-how, and employee knowledge, except as an afterthought in the notes. In our current knowledge economy, the most important asset is the combined skills, proprietary processes and knowledge of employees. Yet the costs for developing “the most important asset of our company – our people” are expensed.

Another big change is the rise of the subscription economy, as Tien Tzuo describes in his book Subscribed. Today, besides all the SaaS applications we have on our smartphones, you can subscribe to almost anything under the sun. Toilet paper, vitamins, dog food, clothes – and even cars! Hertz and Porsche both have subscription offerings that let you swap out cars for a monthly fee. 

But as Tien Tzuo points outnowhere in GAAP-basis financials will you find any of the numbers that are important to a SaaS company. No annual recurring revenue, no customer churn rate, not even the number of subscribers. 

When GAAP doesn’t make sense

Now according to the FASB’s own website, their mission is “to provide useful information to investors and other uses of financial reports.” What a noble goal. But how do you square that with the contradictory results that the head of a SaaS company shared with me when they implemented ASC 606?

Previously, revenue for the implementation phase of a contract was recognized upfront, while the periodic revenue was recognized over time. But under ASC 606, that implementation revenue is recognized over the expected life of a contract. Not a problem if your customers stick around for the entire contract period. But now, losing a customer – which is operationally bad – results in immediate recognition of the remainder of the implementation revenue – which pumps up revenue. 

So, if you give your customers such lousy service that your churn rate goes through the roof, your financials will still look great because you’re pulling all that deferred revenue to the top line. How does that make sense? 

This complexity and irrelevance have led to an increased use of non-GAAP metrics, which are perhaps intended to give investors more realistic information, but in reality, can be manipulated to conceal less than perfect performance. In 2017, 97% of companies reported non-GAAP financials. This likely contributed to the rapid downfall of WeWork – just WTH is “community-adjusted EBITDA??”

The black box that is GAAP

Of interest to leaders of CPA firms, this complexity leads to a value gap between what we do and the value we bring to our clients. Our work has become a black box that they can’t see inside. How many of us have become the reluctant biller, embarrassed to charge a client for complex work that largely remains invisible to our clients? 

If we don’t have the ability to explain the complexity behind the numbers, then our clients indignantly ask us “how hard can it be to put numbers in boxes?” Translating what we do into normal English isn’t generally in the CPA’s toolbelt.

Slay the FASB villain by becoming data storytellers 

FASB and GAAP are not likely to change much in the near future, so our role must be to translate those rules into English. But we can’t stop at explaining FASB rules. GAAP-basis financials are backward-looking. They don’t contain the insights they need to grow their businesses. 

We need to evolve to become data storytellers. As data storytellers, we can guide our clients to slay the FASB villain and help them to be the heroes of their companies. Stories help us connect what’s in their numbers to what’s in their hearts. 

Business owners and entrepreneurs don’t think the way we do as accountants. We have insights into company performance that we’re not sharing. But when we share those insights in story form, we shine a light on their path forward.  

AI and technology remove the human error and the manual effort so we can spend our time on the higher-level work that computers can’t do. With technology tools as our allies, we can 

uncover the hidden treasures in our clients’ numbers. We can show them the real trends so they can make decisions based on data, not just the gut-level instincts they have relied on in the past.

Our superpower is knowledge of accounting. We can help our clients defeat the villain of FASB by using our superpower for good in the world.  

Published in Accounting Today, January 15, 2020

Train Every CPA to be Anticipatory & Future-Proof with Rebekah Brown, CPA

istockphoto.com

“It’s really about being able to pivot and move to those future-ready skills,” Rebekah said. “Also, developing communication and leadership skills will set you apart as a professional, and that will be the game-changers in success.”

All three of these phases will be crucial, moving forward — because the business is changing, regardless of whether or not you’re ready for it. 

For example, Rebekah told the story of a group of chief accounting officers she spoke to, who worried that their auditors were falling behind because of a lack of future-ready skills. 

“They were saying, ‘We’re doing robotic process automation in our accounting department, and our auditors don’t know what to do with it,’” she said. “They need to level up and get ready because we’re doing it regardless.” 

The same mindset needs to embrace in any technological innovation in the accounting industry. You may not be ready to switch over from your 10-key to Excel spreadsheets, and you may not be interested in learning how artificial intelligence (AI). But accountants’ lack of adjustment doesn’t slow down the continued innovation. It’s happening, no matter what.

And being able to adapt isn’t just about making your life today easier. It’s about finding new ways to grow for tomorrow.

“CPAs spend so much time, heads down, versus looking up and seeing what is in front of us and beyond. CPAs are completely missing out on huge opportunities to grow,” Rebekah said. “And it’s that mindset shift of ‘Yes, I need to do my day-to-day job, And part of my day-to-day job needs t be looking out to the future.” 

If you want to listen to the entire episode, please click here.