S5E26: Off-Key: Learning To Listen To Avoid Tone-Deaf Leadership

“Leaders of organizations tend to be controlling, but the ability to let things go and see where the journey takes us can be more powerful.” Peter Margaritis

This is an excerpt from the book, Off Script: Mastering the Art of Business Improvisation.

Leadership is not about self-promotion, being the center of attention, talking as much as you can, speaking in the third person, always being right, even when you’re wrong, disrespecting others, or being a narcissist. However, in some organizations, these traits are viewed as effective leadership skills, which is the slippery slope to the leaders and potentially the organization’s demise.”

The one skill that helps to save people’s careers and organizations is the art of listening. Leadership is all about becoming a better listener. Leadership is all about listening to understand versus listening to respond. Listening to understand means you genuinely want to understand what is being said to you directly, in the room as you participate in a meeting, or while attending a presentation as an audience member. When you listen to understand, you park your ideas and biases somewhere else, and you go out of your way to eliminate all distractions while listening.

When you’re exhibiting the kind of listening skills worthy of a true leader, you suspend your judgment, set your ego aside to focus on listening to what the other person is trying to communicate, and you do so all the while managing your emotions. When you are “listening to respond” rather than “listening to understand,” you aren’t fully listening to what is being said. We can all strengthen our listening skills if we work on them daily.

Leaders of organizations tend to be controlling, but the ability to let things go and see where the journey takes us can be more powerful. Improv exercises teach us practical skills that can be applied in moments when the gameplay is the furthest thing from our minds. They can teach you and your team how to be better communicators and leaders. When practiced often, these improv games give you muscle memory of how to behave in real-world situations.

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in a CPA’s Career

This article was originally written for The Georgia Society of CPAs magazine Current Accounts

To succeed in the highly competitive world of financial consulting, accounting professionals must possess the right mix of technical expertise and soft skills – think ‘emotional intelligence (EI).’ As discussed in an article published by Harvard Business Review, EI plays an increasingly significant role in today’s business environment. Therefore, it’s vital that you optimize your EI to improve your bottom line and increase your organization’s job satisfaction, engagement, and retention rates. 

Let’s start by explaining what emotional intelligence is. According to the HelpGuide.org blog, “Improving Emotional Intelligence” EI “is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.” EI helps build stronger relationships, succeed at work, and achieve your career and personal goals. “It can also help you to connect with your feelings, turn intention into action, and make informed decisions about what matters most to you.”

Four components define emotional intelligence: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management.  

  1. Self-awareness: You understand your emotions and how they affect your thoughts and behavior. When you first learned about EI, you had no self-awareness and thought it was silly. A couple of performance reviews brought this to your attention, so you decided to research EI and find ways to improve. One exercise was to write down whenever a situation sparked an emotion. For example, you were happy when someone remembered your birthday. On the other hand, you were angry because you were late for a meeting. Journal two weeks’ worth of data, analyze the data, and increase your awareness.
  2. Self-management: According to a SkillsYouNeed.com blog post titled, “Self-Regulation | Self-Management. This blog is all about how “you control and manage yourself and your emotions, inner resources, and abilities. It includes your ability to manage your impulses, taking responsibility for your actions, and ensuring that what you do matches your values.” This is not masking or hiding your emotions but recognizing and controlling them appropriately. We all have bad days, whether we overslept and were late to a client meeting; got in a fight with our significant other as we were about to login into a virtual meeting; the computer crashed, or dealing with the myriad of other unexpected events that can happen at any given moment. Those who can self-manage their emotions can change their thoughts and attitude into a positive one if they choose. Or they can bring their bad juju into the meeting, office, or lunch and complain about all the things that have gone wrong. Tigger or Eeyore (Winnie the Pooh) will rise up – and you have a choice of whom you want to be in that moment and beyond.
  1. Social awareness: Do you recognize the emotions in others? Do you respond and interact appropriately when you do? Social awareness is about ‘reading’ the emotional landscape and responding with empathy. Empathy is not putting yourself in their shoes; it’s about understanding how that person feels in their shoes. Big difference. According to the PositiveAction article, Social Awareness: An Introductory Guide, “social awareness skills will help us understand professionalism in the workplace, as well as making it easier to share information, communicate, and collaborate with others.” Social awareness is a fundamental part of creating relationships with the people we work with and the customers and clients we need to build our businesses.
  2. Relationship management: In the HelpGuide.org article referenced above, when we understand the top three elements of EI – self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness – and apply them correctly, CPAs can begin “to develop and maintain good relationships, communicate clearly, inspire and influence others, work well in a team, and manage conflict.” Good leadership skills drive a positive mental attitude, a.k.a being an optimist.

The following are some strategies on how to increase your EI. First and foremost, remember that improving your EI requires intentional effort.


To retain employees, managers must first understand how people feel about their jobs. Engagement surveys help you assess how content your staff members are at work and whether or not they will stay for the long haul. To help improve morale, you need to listen to your employees’ concerns and address them appropriately. By learning what makes people tick, you can manage each person individually and create EI central to every manager. By regularly measuring engagement scores, you can keep tabs on employee happiness while also taking proactive steps to ensure that employees remain engaged over time. If scores begin to drop off, investigate why and brainstorm ways to bring your team back on board so they stay engaged, excited, and productive for the long term.


It is crucial to increase employee engagement to reduce turnover and avoid talent shortages. According to the Hay Group, employee retention can help a company achieve a return on investment (ROI) as high as $34 for every dollar spent. But what factors influence engagement? According to one study, three main elements—empowerment, meaningful work, and recognition—can drive engaged workers to stick around even when they’re unhappy with their pay or leadership. However, the company also found that disengaged employees are three times more likely than engaged ones to quit within six months, resulting in lost productivity and costs amounting up to $3 million per year for larger firms.

Improvisation – plays a critical role in EI.

In business, life, and sports, a critical EI skill separates high performers from mediocre/average performers – Improvisation.  Improvisation is vital when things don’t go as planned during a negotiation, meeting, disagreement, or game. In improv and business alike, being able to roll with whatever comes your way will make or break the outcome. It is the ability to adapt to change. It is ‘Yes! And’ philosophy of improv and EI leadership.  There is a widely used quote in improv that describes this philosophy by Keith Johnstone, “There are people who prefer to say “Yes,” and there are people who prefer to say “No.” Those who say “Yes” are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say “No” are rewarded by the safety they attain.”

This skill is also crucial for career development. When employees are taught and developed to recognize patterns and manage their emotions during performance reviews or when delivering presentations or dealing with client issues, they learn how to respond effectively to any scenario that might come up. This can be instrumental in employment and everyday life; many believe EI contributes more to success than cognitive intelligence (IQ). Improvisation allows people who may not have a natural knack for talking themselves out of trouble to get creative by thinking on their feet. And by doing so, they practice getting outside their comfort zone and gain confidence that applies in various situations.

Build an EI culture

Think about how you’d build EI into your organization from start to finish. The first thing you’ll need to do is hire people skilled at managing their emotions and reading those of others—and then develop a culture that promotes these skills so employees see the value in developing EI. One way to do that is by emphasizing engagement, retention, and connection. Another is by encouraging improvisation among employees to tackle new projects or work with unfamiliar clients. You could even team up with an expert consultant or coach specializing in improv leadership development to help integrate EI building into your workplace strategy. Whatever approach you take, make sure you are very clear about the kind of environment you are building and what everyone can expect when they enter the office every day—and that it reflects the type of relationships that matter most to you and the organization.

Reflect and report – no, really!

No matter how intelligent you are, you’re not immune to boredom with your job. In fact, according to a study done by Mercer Consulting, 40% of people are actively disengaged at work! While job-hopping may seem like an easy solution to your boredom problem, it has more severe long-term effects. Employees who change jobs multiple times over their lifetime earn less money than those who stick with one employer for their entire career. So what’s an unhappy employee to do? Instead of quitting, commit yourself to improving your emotional intelligence.


An optimist CPA and a pessimistic CPA walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “Is there such a thing as an optimistic CPA?”  The pessimistic CPA says, “no,” and the optimist CPA says “yes, and it is all about one’s attitude and emotional intelligence.” The optimist CPA asks the pessimist CPA, “what do you see/think when you look at a glass filled halfway” – the pessimist CPA says, “the glass is half empty.” The optimist CPA says, “add ice.”

“Originally written for The Georgia Society of CPAs magazine Current Accounts.”

Improving Emotional Intelligence (EQ). https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/emotional-intelligence-eq.htm?pdf=13508

Self-Regulation | Self-Management | SkillsYouNeed. https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ps/self-management.html

Social Awareness: An Introductory Guide | Positive Action. https://www.positiveaction.net/blog/social-awareness

Building Loyalty Through Quality

Sometimes we try to save a buck or two that ultimately may just cost us more in the long run.  

It was the Sunday after the NFL Championship game, and I woke up that morning craving some barbecue. So, for lunch, I went to a familiar barbecue joint and ordered a pulled pork sandwich to go.  The aroma filled my car ride home – love that aroma – wish I had that scent on one of those hanging car odor eliminators.  I love BBQ.  

When I got home and opened the container, although it smelled terrific, something was amiss. I took the top bun off and looked at the pork. The pork was flat dry, and it didn’t look good. I added some barbecue sauce with the hopes of reviving the sandwich. However, when I took a bite, I realized that the bun was stale, and the BBQ sauce didn’t restore the sandwich.  I was sorely disappointed in this pulled pork sandwich and wondered what went wrong.  Then it dawned on me. The restaurant is closed on Mondays.  

Being Greek American, I have worked in several restaurants since the age of 12. Side note: when I graduated college, I thought I would be in the restaurant business for the rest of my life!   Back to the story – I completely understand the relevance of food costs. Restaurants are in a business where the product needs to be sold at a price that will cover the food costs and a portion of administrative costs. That’s the only way to turn a profit. It’s that simple. 

In this case, however, the pork and the bun were both from the previous day – old meat and a stale bun. The restaurant may have helped to control their food costs by doing this, but they created an unhappy customer in the process… a customer who is now most unlikely to make a return visit, and, will share the story with others! Saving a few pennies is not worth losing a customer. In this era of social media, bad reviews, pictures of the disappointing meal, and word of mouth can significantly impact your business.  

In the long run, the person preparing the sandwich should have asked themselves, “Would I eat this sandwich knowing that the quality was not up to standard?”  The answer should be no. However, the company policy might be to first use up yesterday’s food before using what is freshly prepared for that day. That type of policy is not a sustainable strategy. 

We all make mistakes. I get it, and I’m very empathetic to everyone in the restaurant business, especially during this pandemic. And, we must always watch our costs in order make a profit, but revenue drives that profit. If we don’t get return business, we lose revenue, and the business loses sustainability and growth. Period.

However, there seems to be a new way of controlling food costs: shrinkflation.  Using less food to help control food costs. There is a national sub shop chain that has been using this strategy. I ordered a turkey sub with provolone cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, and mustard. What showed up was a sub roll with very little of the ingredients requested.  I have stopped ordering from this chain.  

Now, take this scenario into every business and apply the same analogy. I’ll use the professional speaking business as an example. As I do, think about your business. Have you ever attended a conference or seminar that feels like a canned presentation?  Or better yet, you attend a conference and recognize one of the speakers you enjoyed five years ago. You look at the title of the presentation, and it doesn’t sound like the presentation before. You decide to sit in their presentation, only to realize it is the same presentation that the speaker did five years ago, word for word— it just has a different title. Yesterday’s leftover food – old meat and a stale bun.   As a professional speaker, I customize my presentation to each audience and never do the same presentation twice.  Yes, this takes a lot of work –  and it has been a key driver in the success of my business for 12 years.  I will never serve leftovers to my audience or client. It’s simply not a good business plan or practice.  

The many years I spent in the restaurant business taught me a lot about customer service that I use in my business today.  We all need to remember that we are in the people business. We have no business when we don’t treat our people and customers with the respect they deserve and provide them with a consistent, reliable, and top-quality product or service.  Period

BTW- If you are ever in Bloomington, MN, you must go to Ciao Bella. Ciao Bella understands this philosophy, provides the best customer service, and backs it with a quality product. If you happen to go, ask for Sue, and tell her that I sent you. 

Contact me at peter@petermargaritis.com if you would like to discuss how to increase your customer loyalty.

S5E14: Fresh Approach Beats Out Cost Control

We are in the people business and we need to treat our people and customers with the respect that they deserve.” Peter Margaritis

Saving a few pennies is not worth losing a customer. In this era of social media, bad reviews, pictures of disappointing meals, and word of mouth can significantly impact your business. While we must always watch our costs in order to make a profit, it is important to realize that it is the revenues that drive that profit. If we don’t get a return business, we lose revenue, and the business loses sustainability and growth period.

As a professional speaker, I customize my presentation to each audience and never do the exact same presentation twice. It takes a lot of work, and has been a key driver in the success is my business for 12 years. I will never serve leftovers to my audience or client. It’s simply not a good business plan or practice.

We all need to remember that we are in the people business. We have no business when we don’t treat our people and customers with the respect that they deserve, and provide them with a constantly reliable and top quality product or service

How Do You Eat an Elephant?

Has anyone ever asked you this question “How do you eat an elephant?” This question has never been asked to me, and I discovered it while reading an article. This question and answer is a powerful metaphor for learning and development for all professionals.  The answer to the question is “one bite at a time.”  

Think about it, and if you tried to eat an entire elephant in one sitting, you would get sick. From that experience, you would never want to try to eat an elephant again. However, when you take your time eating one bite at a time, over a period of weeks or months, you would be able to consume the entire elephant.

Another way of thinking about this metaphor is that you have back issues and decide to strengthen your core by doing stomach crunches.  You have not done any abs exercises since Nixon was President of the United States.  Day one, you choose to do ten crunches, and you have success without any muscle cramps. You continue this daily trend, and by day 20, you might be up to 30 crunches by adding one additional crunch a day (small bites). By the end of three months, you might be able to do 75 crunches. However, when you look in the mirror, you don’t see any difference in your body shape, and your back is still giving you issues. Yet, you don’t give up, and you keep on putting in the daily work. This is the journey I started back in November of 2020.  This morning, September 3, 2021, I successfully did 1,000 crunches which took me 14 minutes. As a result, my back is stronger, and I even have a better definition in my abs. 

The question now becomes – How long does it take to create a habit?  If you search the internet, you will find that it takes 21 days.  However, that is a myth.  According to research, it takes 66 days to start a habit. That’s right, a little over two months to START the habit AND don’t forget to continue this habit development every single day, if possible. So if you miss a day or two, don’t get discouraged, start again, and try not to put too much distance between when you stopped and then started again. And don’t beat yourself up because you miss a day or two or even a week. 

I began 20 + years ago adopting the mindset of an improviser.  I would leave sticky notes around the house, my car, and my office that said Yes! And. I wanted to keep those words accessible to me so I could create a habit and enact change. Unfortunately, over the 20 + years, I have fallen off the improv wagon way too many times than I wish to count. I would have to force myself back on the improv wagon and away from my old habits in the early years.  Getting back on the improv wagon was not easy at all. I was very comfortable with my earlier bad habits – letting my ego get out of control, not being a good listener, and trying to make it all about me.  However, I felt that those were not the suitable characteristics for a good leader and business professional, despite the behaviors I was witnessed by my current bosses/leaders.  

So, I would get back on the improv wagon and keep working toward my goal.  I learned that the amount of time it took me to get back on the improv wagon decreased because I was building up solid improv skills.  

Why is “one bite at a time” essential to learning and development for all professionals? Let’s break it down into two pieces – technical learning and development and non-technical learning and development.

Technical learning and development is the mastery of your technical competency. 

You want your surgeon to be technically sound as they cut into your body. You want your attorney to be technically sound while they are representing you in a jury trial. You want your insurance salesperson to be technically sound in the insurance policy they are offering their clients. Features, benefits, and side-effects are valuable information that is memorized to avoid getting policies confused with other policies or products. 

You developed the foundation for these technical skills during your college years. That foundation allows you to elevate into developing your complex technical skills.  

Non-technical learning and development, ahh, okay, let’s change this to Power Skills learning and development.  Today’s technical professionals (accounting, finance, engineering, health care, etc.) need to develop the mastery of power skills: communication, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, listening, adapting, strategic thinking, innovation, and more. When you sum all of these power skills into one, it becomes LEADERSHIP.  

Okay, I see some Scooby-Doo heads tilted and thinking, why?  I am technically sound in my craft, so why do I need to invest time into developing my so-called power skills to become a leader.

Let me sum it up in two parts. 

Part 1, the technical knowledge, jargon, and acronyms you spent years developing are now considered foreign languages. Have you ever had a meeting with your CPA, and you had no idea what the person was trying to say when you left? For example, I had a conversation with my doctor concerning some test results, and a massive tsunami of medical lingo consumed me.  I stopped her and politely said, “I have no idea what you just said. Can you tell me in plain English?” She paused and then said, “You may have cancer”. Okay – I heard and understood those words. And that gives me the knowledge I need to know what I possibly am dealing with (it was not cancer, thankfully). 

Anyone in any technical profession needs to become a better translator of their knowledge and expertise into plain English so others can understand and act upon the information.

Part 2, what business are you in?  It seems like a silly and simple question to answer, right? Yet, when I ask this question during a keynote or workshop to a group of CPAs, I get replies like auditing, tax, consulting, data analysis, etc.  I reply, “that is not the business you are in. That is the by-product of the actual business you are in”.  I take it to the point that either someone gives me the correct answer or it looks like someone wants to punch me out.  The correct answer is – you are in the people business, first and foremost. Without PEOPLE, you have no business!

I hope you ponder this thought for a while and come to realize that I am correct.  Since we are in the people business, we better develop those critical skills, or we will be out of business.  Business improv develops all of the critical people skills that everyone in an organization needs to master. Business improv is about letting go of your agenda to listen intently — to be empathetic and open-minded in the present moment — so you can truly connect with colleagues and other stakeholders to generate optimal results.

Think about that elephant and what that elephant represents – Leadership. Now, take one bite at a time and start investing in your power skills so you can have a greater impact on the people you hire, on the people you lead, on your customers and clients, on the people that are your business partners, the people in your community, and the people of the world.