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Why Starting With Why isn’t Enough

start with why

by Liz Farr, CPA.

Simon Sinek’s TED talk, Start with Why, and his book of the same name have become a staple of leadership training. It seems almost mandatory to show the video or talk about the book at management and leadership retreats.

And while I agree that finding a meaningful reason to do your work — whatever your work may be — can be a powerful motivator and can help propel you to great success, that’s not enough to build a successful firm today, and it might even hold you back.

I was talking to my friend and colleague Matt Wilkinson, CEO of Bizink recently, and he vented his frustration at the number of accountants he talks to who are obsessed with finding their Why. “It’s really simple, actually,” he told me. “Do good work and provide good customer service. That’s all you need to do.” From my time in public accounting, I would add one more to Matt’s list of fundamentals: Treat your people well.

I thought about what he said, and I have to agree that he’s got a point. Recently, I read a book that challenges the primacy of Sinek’s message: So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport.

The title of Newport’s book comes from a 2007 interview with Steve Martin, who was asked by Charlie Rose about his advice for those who wanted to follow in his footsteps. He said that the advice he had wasn’t what people wanted to hear — that there wasn’t any shortcut to success, but that the key was to “be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Newport’s carefully researched book makes the point that it’s not following your passion that leads to a meaningful and successful career, but rather mastering skills that are rare and valuable. Becoming a master takes effort, and when you ensure that your effort is targeted in an area that people will pay for, you will be rewarded, not only financially, but also with meaningful work.

According to the people Newport interviewed, you’re more likely to find meaning in your work — a powerful Why — when you put in the time and effort to do your job well, and you become “so good they can’t ignore you.” Those who simply pursued their passions without putting in the time and effort for mastery didn’t fare so well, and frequently found themselves broke and despondent.

Even Steve Jobs, whose 2005 commencement speech at Stanford advised graduates to “find what you love” as a path to doing great work. didn’t follow that advice. As Newport details, just a few months before he founded Apple Computer, “Steve Jobs was something of a conflicted young man, seeing spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash.”

For an accounting firm, becoming “so good they can’t ignore you” might mean developing expertise in a specific industry or service. It might also mean providing such an exceptional client service experience that your clients can’t help but rave about how wonderful their accountant is to all their friends. And if you treat your staff so well that all their friends are envious, you just found a solution to the talent shortage in accounting.

Following the logic in Newport’s book, accounting firm leaders who relentlessly focus on building the best firm they can will find their why and success through that effort.

A version of this article appeared previously in the ePlus newsletter of the New Mexico Society of CPAs.

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