Learning and Development on a Budget


Your budget for the next year is set and one of the casualties is learning and development; meanwhile your employees are asking what training is available in the coming year.  Believe it or not, the two are not mutually exclusive and a reduced L&D budget may actually be the perfect opportunity to ensure you are maximising the return on training investment as well simultaneously meeting employee and business needs.

The following three areas hold the key to getting the most out of your L&D dollar:

  1. Policy, Process & Structure
    A clearly defined policy, process and structure will assist you to maximise the benefits of the learning and development activities you invest in.  Key areas to address are:
  • Ensuring alignment between individual and business objectives i.e. rigorous analysis of skills and/ or training needs versus your business strategy;
  • Actively evaluating the effectiveness of learning and development activities by reviewing their application in the workplace;
  • Reviewing supplier contracts with any external providers. This may involve negotiating discounts or consolidating suppliers;
  • Maximising internal organisation of training requirements to leverage economies of scale.  This may have the added benefit of bringing together employees from different parts of the business and be a positive influence on internal culture and relationships.
  • Ensuring a clear policy is in place detailing eligibility requirements, approval processes and retention clauses such as co-contributions, claw backs etc.
  1. Select Effective Learning and Development Options
    When seeking to reduce costs, the obvious first step is to reduce the use of external providers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to reduce your commitment to learning and development.  The following options, if managed properly, may even result in a more comprehensive program that delivers more bang for your buck.

Some key inexpensive options are summarised below with benefits and things to consider:

L&D Options Benefits Considerations
On-the-Job Training · Fit for purpose

· Information tailored to individual

· Manage delivery – who and what?

· Have systems to minimise the perpetuation of “bad habits”

· Ensure adequate time scheduled for trainee and trainer

Internal Training Sessions · Development of presentations skills

· Fit for purpose

· Knowledge sharing

· Missed opportunities for networking

· Monitor content to ensure quality and currency

Embedded Knowledge Experts · Limit L&D outlay to key personnel

· Development of specialised knowledge and skills

· Structures in place to ensure retention of knowledge/ expertise
On-line learning · Flexibility of timing and location of L&D activity

· Reduced non-productive time

· Compensate for limited interaction with other participants

· Ensure strategic alignment of learning

Mentoring · Knowledge transfer and retention

· Enable talent development

· Application of appropriate selection criteria for participants
Higher duties / Secondment · Increased employee engagement through career development

· Supports succession planning

· Ensure management of employee expectations
Trainees and Apprentices · Mix of formal and on-the-job training

· Supports succession planning

· Subsidised employment costs

· Ensure a retention strategy is in place post-qualification

· Ensure the allocation of appropriate resources (including supervisory requirements) throughout training

  1. Maximising Available Financial Support
    Depending on individual circumstances, businesses and/ or individuals may qualify for either State or Federal Government incentives to supplement investment in apprenticeships, traineeships and training/ career development initiatives.  In some cases incentives are available from both levels of Government and may take the form of payments, allowances, reduced wage rates or taxation concessions.

Actively reviewing and managing learning and development within your business to maximise your return on investment has the potential to reap many benefits, including:

  • reduced costs;
  • career development;
  • knowledge retention; and
  • fit for purpose programs and structures.

But perhaps most importantly, an effective learning and development function will ensure that you have capable and engaged employees, best placed to drive the future success of your business.

Author: WCA – Warner Consulting Australia Pty Ltd, Alliance Advisor with ATL Network

Staying relevant … what more can you do?

Rolling Stones

We recently engaged in a conversation with a practitioner who highlighted the issue of ‘needing to stay relevant’ for his clients. The more we investigated, the more we discovered that this is a very real concern – the challenge to stay relevant.

There is clear concern in some quarters about the commoditisation of services:
– ‘I-Returns practically complete themselves’ … what more can you do?
– ‘Financial programs practically tell clients exactly what they need to do to fix their business problems’ … what more can you do?

This view of ‘relevancy’ is further explored by Gail Perry, Editor-in-Chief of USA CPA Practice Advisor Magazine in her editorial ‘New York Show Focuses on CPA Relevance’. In this article, whilst acknowledging the emergence of this issue, the author’s clear message was focused on embracing technology in your practice to aid what you do, with empathy, to help your clients see the ‘real picture’ within their business. By embracing leading edge tools, not only can you add excellent value to your clients and remain truly relevant, but as an aside, you also make your practice more attractive to the best talent.

When your nose is to the grindstone, perspective can be easily lost. When a client leaves you, which is followed by a staff member resigning, which follows a software glitch that causes days of lost productivity, which follows a conference that provides no new insights, which follows your receptionist calling in sick, which follows clients not paying on time, which follows a drama at home … perspective can be easily lost.

So back to the question: relevance … what more can you do?

Perhaps the very answer can be found in perspective … a clear perspective … a client focused perspective. Having engaged with thousands of accountants over the journey, perspective is everything.

It would be all too easy to suggest, of course, that the most successful practitioners focus on the needs of their clients, and this is why they are successful. The truth is, there are many reasons why they are successful. It is also true that the most successful practitioners, more often, focus on the total needs of their clients. Many successful practitioners look at their client’s needs beyond compliance; they look at their client’s business operation and how the business is performing today and where is it going tomorrow; they look at their client’s net wealth position; they plan, they forecast, they challenge and they respond to their client’s needs. All the while, using tools and technology to assist in delivering key outcomes for their clients.

An interesting conversation recently with one of Australian’s most profitable and successful accountants revealed he has one goal – to look after the best interests of his clients. Most accountants, of course, would say that this is their objective as well – nothing new here. The difference lies in the subtlety of delivered services and delivered outcomes. This particular practitioner is not focused on tax lodgement deadlines; he’s not focused on fee pressures; he’s not focused on clients paying bills on time. He is focused on helping his clients create wealth through their businesses and helps them build wealth outside of their businesses. This practitioner delivers value for his clients, day-in, day out, and is extremely busy. This approach has intuitively been his focus ever since he started in practice 30+ years ago. Today, this practitioner could not be any more relevant for the clients he serves.

So whilst it might seem a little trite, surely the question is not ‘how do we become more relevant’? Surely the question is, how can we better serve our clients? There is so much value accountants can bring to their clients, but it would seem some are holding back, to the detriment of their own practice and certainly to the detriment of their clients. For many, there is so much more that you can do.

Author: Colin Simkin, Co-Founder, ATL Network
Mobile: +61 417 435 212  |  Office: 1300 796 627
Email: colin.simkin@atlnetwork.com.au


Provide Virtual CFO Services to Clients

Taste steak


In today’s dynamic business environment, accountants in public practice, are ideally placed to offer CFO services to their clients. As trusted advisors, accountants typically have a good understanding of their clients’ businesses and can use their wealth of experience to “add value”.

The ever changing nature of the public accounting environment necessitates that practitioners continue to diversify and to reduce their dependence on compliance on routine tax and accounting work. By offering CFO services, accountants create the opportunity of introducing a new fee stream and at the same time, introducing new and challenging work for their staff. Typically, larger and more proactive clients will be receptive – remember, if they have only tasted sausages, they don’t know what steak tastes like! If you don’t offer these value adding services, perhaps one of your competitors will! Likewise, this service can also be offered to non-clients with the possibility of them becoming clients.

Many practitioners under-estimate their own personal skills set and experience, creating an uncertainty and lack of confidence about providing non-traditional services. Whilst recognising these issues, also realise that it is not difficult to develop related financial management skills.

To this end, we suggest that practitioners “practise what they preach” by first focussing on their own practices. By systematically adopting and working through the following steps, practitioners will, not only be gaining a better insight into their own firms, but will also be preparing themselves for working with their clients:

  • Develop a Strategic Plan
  • Develop a Business Plan
  • Develop a Succession Plan
  • Develop a “Three Way” Budget and Cash Flow Forecast including Profit and Loss, Balance Sheet and Cash Flow projections
  • Conduct a Business Health Assessment identifying problems and opportunities
  • Measure Return on Investment and set realistic target
  • Assess internal systems, costing and pricing

We encourage firms to consider the above opportunity and if considered worthy, to develop a plan, including dedicating time and internal resources to achieve a positive outcome.

Author: Geoff Storey CPA CA, Alliance Advisor with ATL Network

Golden opportunities await

Golden opportunity

Productivity and efficiency have improved dramatically with improvements in Information Technology moving in leaps and bounds. Less than a decade ago no one had heard of iPhones and now most of the population have one evening queuing in the city streets, sleeping overnight to buy the latest update. Astonishing! Crowd funding is gaining momentum as a real financing strategy for new projects – amazing. Is your practice on to this strategy for your clients?

We are finding more and more, firm’s new efficiency levels are presenting new challenges – what to do with idle resources. WOW – what a great problem. This is the time to focus on ‘higher value’ advisory service: financial planning, strategic planning, succession planning, CFO advisory, board advisory, etc. This is time to really focus on your client’s needs.

Leverage is a focus of many to maximise returns – unfortunately for many we are still learning what this actually means. Working smarter is about identifying niche markets and clients and leveraging up with systems, pricing and skilled staff. It can be done! David Maister (international professional services guru, author & speaker) is an obvious example of someone who has leveraged on price or value. He is a sole operator who I understand earns an income that most professionals would only dream of. On the other hand there are now many sole practitioners who have leveraged staff to 30 and more per partner, utilizing very tight systems and procedures and I suspect in the very near future this will become the norm.

Leverage of staff to partner is one of the key drivers and the most recent the Good, the Bad & the Ugly Report reveals that the top 25% of firms had leverage of just 8 people per partner. Oddly this hasn’t changed in many years suggesting that many firms are still bogged down in the quagmire of daily operations and haven’t yet grasped the big picture potential. There are enormous improvements on results to be obtained just through properly focussing on this one lever and many firms are already proving this.

A firm we recently worked with had productivity in the high 90%. How is this possible? The answer lies in significant write-ons and leverage from higher-value advisory services

For those who want to build a business of value, rather than a stream of personal income dependent upon hours and hard work, a shift in thought processes needs to take place. Unfortunately this is unlikely to come from within the firm – external stimulus is usually required. The potential for a new generation that is more entrepreneurial and prepared to invest in the future is really quite awesome!

Our marketplace is now flooded with consultants who claim to have instant solutions, software, tricks and treats and magic wands to improve results for accounting firms. Why has this happened? Perhaps the answer lies in a very large part simply because practitioners do not allocate enough time themselves to focus on good strategies instead they are spinning on their wheels with operational issues and often trying to deal with too many issues at once.

The demand for good practices currently exceeds supply. Many firms have branched out into new services especially financial planning and it will be interesting to observe the long term effects that this will have.

One of the most significant elements being missed by many practices is the focus on delivering technical services, rather than focusing on the total needs of the client. The result of this technical service approach is a very poor ‘all firm approach’ or ‘cross referral approach’ that continue to be poorly executed by many accounting firms. Firms across the country are missing significant opportunities to provide greater value to their clients and of course missing significant new revenue opportunities.

It is also most puzzling to observe in this same report mentioned above that growth of accounting firms is in the range of 3% – 6%. Once again, this is simply astonishing! Quite clearly firms in the main are not actively focused upon seeking new business and new services with proper plans – perhaps because they currently feel overworked and have not yet really come to grips with the concept of leverage and how to achieve it.

If your firm wants to embrace ‘change’ and ‘growth’, beyond current levels, we recommend our Advisory Thought Leadership Program.

Author: ATL Network.

Turning Relationships into Referrals

Coffee meetingI had a most enjoyable lunch with two lawyers yesterday. Here’s the second of two follow-up emails I sent them the next day (I have changed the names to protect the identity of those I’m writing to and about):

Hi John and Stuart.

Again, thank you for lunch yesterday. It was great catching up.

Here’s some follow up/additional info on things we discussed. (By the way, I think this is something everyone at your firm should take a look at.)

  1. Per our conversation, building relationships with referral sources is not a “one and done”. Let’s be clear on this: if you take someone to lunch/meet them for coffee one time and have a nice conversation followed up by a thank you note, you might get a referral. But you’re not likely to get a stream of referrals over time. You’re not likely to be remembered for the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years. You’re not building the connection, the friendship, the relationship.

The first meeting is just the first meeting. It’s essential that the first meeting leads to a second meeting, and to a third meeting, and a fourth, and a fifth, and so on for the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years. In other words, your first meeting is the beginning of a long relationship. You’re looking to stay connected to your referral source FOREVER. That way the referrals will keep coming year in, year out, FOREVER. And so to FOREVER that happen, it’s important to create and stick to a ‘rigid follow-up and stay-in-touch system’ so you don’t drift away from your contact.

I recommend a 90-day cycle that repeats over and over again. Here’s a plan that works (feel free to tweak it to suit your specific situation):

Day 1: Buy your contact lunch or coffee.

Day 2: Send a follow-up note.

Day 30: Send a note on something pertinent. Look for something helpful, interesting or relevant you can forward to your contact. Ideally, you identified an issue where you can be of assistance and you’ll communicate on that topic. See my email to Mike in point 3 below which talks about looking for opportunities to pay it forward.

Day 60: Send another note similar to the previous one. Go ahead and propose some dates for another get-together around day 90.

Day 75: If you don’t yet have a lunch or coffee planned, then go ahead and schedule something now. Place a call if necessary and get the next lunch/coffee in your diary.

Day 90: Buy your contact lunch or coffee.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Eventually, your relationships will become less structured and more casual, but until that happens stick to a 90 day cycle like the one I have described here.

This is the way to grow and maintain your relationship/s. You want to stay in touch and you want to stay top-of-mind. Ideally, you’re having additional interactions with your contacts. Maybe you’re running into them at networking and industry events, out at restaurants and coffee shops or in other places. Maybe you’re working on something that came up at the first meeting. Maybe you play a regular round of golf together. Maybe you plan dinner with your spouses. Along the way, your contact is getting your monthly newsletter, you’re inviting them to your seminars and parties and you send them a birthday card. — All of this kind of activity will place you prominently on your contacts radar screen. Hopefully, you’re able to send thank-you notes for your referrals. Hopefully, you’re finding ways to make your relationship mutually beneficial. In my email to Daniel in point 2 below, I talk about the many ways you can keep the ledger balanced with your referral source.

The first meeting just ended. The rest of your networking relationship/friendship is ahead of you. Use the system above to build and grow and nurture and take care of your relationships with referral sources. Be patient and let things evolve and the referrals will come — then you’ll be having many more good revenue days.

  1. I mentioned Daniel (name substituted to protect the innocent) the accountant who asked “how do I manage my business relationships with two law firms. Here’s the email I sent him in response to his question:

Hi Daniel.

Thanks for your email asking “how is the best way to manage business relationships with a couple of law firms?” And you went on to say “opportunities to refer to a lawyer don’t come through weekly”.

Here’s my response first to your question and second to your comment about a lack of opportunities to refer………

First up, let me say you’re not Robinson Crusoe with this referrals “thing”. I ‘m frequently asked, “How can I maintain lots of relationships with lawyers/accountants/financial planners/finance brokers, etc. when I can only refer to a few or just one or two?” “How can I ask them for referrals when I can’t refer to them?

Daniel, every professional who is actively building up their referral source network faces this same challenge—-like you, they don’t have enough referrals to hand out to everyone. When you’re trying cultivate multiple referral sources, you can’t possibly reciprocate with a referral every time. Nor can you proactively feed all your referral sources with a regular flow of referrals—-and it’s especially challenging when your referral sources are in the same profession as each other.

Ultimately, networking relationships are reciprocal. There’s a quid pro quo. You give to me and I give to you. If these relationships aren’t win-win, if they aren’t a two-way street, if they aren’t mutually beneficial they WILL sour and end.

So the question is, “what can you give?” or “what can you give back?” when you can’t give referrals so that you can fulfill the need to make your referral source relationships reciprocal?

Answer: Plenty! There are many ways you can pay referral sources back for making a referral You don’t always need to respond to a referral with a referral. And you don’t necessarily have to give referrals to a potential referral source in order to turn them into an active one.

My article (accompanying this email) entitled “Inexpensive, Creative Ways To Build Business Relationships” provides a toolbox of ideas for not only keeping the ledger balanced in your networking relationships, but also proactively nurturing those relationships to generate more referrals for your firm.

In a nutshell, you need to actively manage your referral sources by staying in regular personal touch to see what they’re up to and what’s the latest with them. Personal phone calls, personal emails, personal text messages and the occasional  breakfast, lunch or drink after work with them are the ways to do this. It’s vital that you continually show that you’re interested in THEM and show that you care about THEM by maintaining regular personal contact.

And you need to look for opportunities to give value (or pay it forward), without expecting anything back in return.

* You introduce him/her to someone who can refer to him/her. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You invite him/her to your parties That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You donate to the charity s/he cares about. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You answer questions for him/her about an area you are an expert in. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You help his/her spouse/partner/kid by writing a letter of recommendation/introduction. That’s value That’s paying it forward.

* You give him/her ways/ideas to profit more, produce more, sell more in their business. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You teach him/her a few marketing ideas or help them do a better job with their current marketing efforts. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You remember his/her birthday and send a card. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You set him/her up for a speaking engagement. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

You may not be in a position to send him/her business, but can nurture the relationship with something else of value.

* You go to the funeral when his/her mother passes. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You visit him/her in hospital> That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You ask him/her to give you a tour of their place of work so you can better understand their business That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You send him/her back comments about a piece in their newsletter. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

You’ve got to do something if you want to be remembered.

* You invite him/her to a networking event with you where s/he might enjoy meeting desirable prospects and referral sources. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* I repeat, you buy him/her breakfast or lunch. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You refer him/her to reliable service providers and vendors (e.g., copywriters, printers, internet experts, business consultants, etc.) That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You offer to provide a free service to their clients. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

There’s no reason to limit your relationship to trading business. Saying “I hope to send you something” means nothing. If you can’t send business the other way, try something else.

* You add him/her to your referral list on your website. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You see if any of your LinkedIn connections could be of value to him/her and make the connection for them. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You write a recommendation of him/her on LinkedIn. (That’s incredibly powerful and no it’s not the same as an Endorsement).That’s value. That’s paying it forward. (That’s incredibly powerful and no it’s not the same as an Endorsement).

* You nominate him/her for recognition and awards. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

If you want to turn your relationships into referrals you’ve got to keep reminding your contacts that you exist—and not with a sales pitch or a brochure featuring your products or services, but with VALUE.

* You connect with him/her on LinkedIn. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You “like”, “share” and “comment” on his/her LinkedIn updates. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You use his/her hashtag and handle (example:@gonetworking). That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

* You comment on and share his/her blog posts. That’s value. That’s paying it forward.

As you can see, there are so many ways of giving and giving back to your referral sources as you build and maintain your relationships with them. Again, I invite you to read my article attached, “Inexpensive, Creative Ways To Build Business Relationships”  where you will find a whole host of other approaches to making your networking relationships mutually beneficial.

More food for thought……………..

* Be up front and honest in your networking relationships. If don’t think you can send business to your networking associates, explain to them why.. Then ask them what else they want and help them get it.

* Maybe you CAN refer business their way. You just need help in recognising or uncovering the right opportunities. Ask your referral sources questions like, “What are some typical indicators that show there might be a need for your services?” “What are a few questions I could ask my clients to confirm whether there really is a need if I uncover one of those indicators?” “How can I recognise a good business opportunity for you?”

* When opportunities to refer to a lawyer, financial planner or other service provider come up, always give at least two names. Your clients are entitled to choose people they work with and they might not share your opinion about who would be good for them. You also cover your assets a bit by giving two or more names ― if your client ends up disliking the person s/he chooses s/he knows s/he had other options. There’s another reason why I like to give my clients two or three options — no one can say that I’m benefiting (financially or otherwise) by referring only to the one person or firm. It’s a credibility thing for me ― and for you too, I might suggest.

* Let the client make the contact, but give a heads-up if you can. Your client, not you should decide whether to contact someone about this matter. That said, I always ask the client if s/he wants me to call the person I’m referring him/her to, to let them know my client might be calling, while assuring my client I won’t be discussing his/her matter with people whose names I’ve given. Giving your referral source/s a heads-up does two things―it lets them know that you’re thinking of them, even if your client doesn’t call, and it can ease your client’s concern about calling someone s/he doesn’t know.

Some further reading…………….Check out my article attached, “Building Referral Partnerships”. It’s full of real-world advice and approaches on how to build, grow and manage referral source relationships.

Daniel, I hope this helps.

Speak soon.

  1. I also mentioned another accountant in Mike who wanted to know how to ‘ace’ his first up coffee meeting with an insurance broker and potential referral source in Jonathan (again, I have changed the names) Here’s the email I sent to Mike:

Hi Mike.

Yesterday I was thinking about the meeting (hopefully the first of many, many more over the coming years) you’re going to have with Jonathan. I want to share a few things with you that will ensure this first meeting is a good one — both for you and Jonathan.

  1. Before the meeting, do some research on Jonathan. Look him up on LinkedIn—see if you have things in common and if you share common LinkedIn connections. Review his company website and make a note of a couple of things you’d like to learn about the business.
  2. Spend your time together asking questions. Try not to talk too much. The more Jonathan talks, the more he will like you. That’s just human nature at work. Keep him talking by being interested and leaning about his world. If you find yourself talking too much, wrap it up with a good question and get back to listening. Think of this is meeting as the first of dozens of more meetings during the life of what could become a 5, 10 or 20 year relationship. Certainly, you’re in a hurry to build your clientele — you want more business — I know that. Realistically, however, this is a long-term project and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to talk about your needs and objectives IF you hit it off with Jonathan and take the relationship to the next level. Give trust time to blossom. This is not the time to sell or ask for business. This is the time to connect.The referrals will come. I promise.

2.5. If you want to be good at networking, building relationships, business development and getting referrals, be good at listening. Think about it: who do you like more, the guy who talked the whole time or the guy who asked you good questions and was interested in your answers.

  1. Come to this meeting well prepared to ask Jonathan about his interests at work and outside the office:

* What gets him excited about what he does?

* What drives him crazy?

* How did he first get interested in the work he does?

* What services/products does his company provide?

* What are his typical client problems?

* Who are his favorite types of clients?

* What makes the ideal referral for his business?

* Who are his best referrals sources?

* What are the key frustrations in his business?

Mike, it’s likely that Jonathan is going to want to know these things about you too so be prepared with your answers — but keep them short and get back to listening with a good question.

4 Some things you should be listening for:

* What is the spouse’s name? Figure out how long they’ve been married.

* What are the names and ages of the kids?

* What’s the work history?

* Where did he grow up?

* What did his parents do? Are they living?

* What are his interests outside his work?

* What are the big issues in his life?

* What are his worries, concerns and anxieties?

* What are his goals, objectives and needs?

Mike, you need to capture these things and write them down. You’re going to have many, many more meetings with Jonathan. You don’t want to repeat the first meeting over and over again at every meeting for the next 20 years. I always take notes when I’m in these types of meetings and so should you.

  1. As the conversation progresses, you need to look for opportunities to pay it forward, look for opportunities to help. The surest, fastest way to build any relationship is to help the person. Revisit my article “Inexpensive, Creative Ways Tom Build Business Relationships”and you’ll be reminded of 50 plus ways you can pay it forward and help your contacts.
  2. Remember, this first meeting is just the first meeting. It is essential that the first meeting leads to a second and to a third, a fourth, a fifth and so on. Eventually, your relationship will start to blossom with Jonathan referring business your way. Remember, this is a long-term project — and if you handle it right the payoff in terms of new clients for your practice will be BIG.

6.5. If this meeting takes place at your office, plan the next one at Jonathan’s office. Don’t forget to bring the muffins.

Good luck with Jonathan. I’ll be in touch.

John/Stuart, I hope this helps.

Author: Ron Gibson, Alliance Advisor with ATL Network

Employee engagement isn’t an issue in hard times…or is it?


Tough times call for tough measures, and employee engagement and well-being may be considered ‘soft’ topics.  However, if you have been forced to reduce staffing to minimum levels, service delivery may be severely impacted if you lose anyone else.  In ‘tough times’, productivity and profits are crucial, and the emotional buy-in and commitment by your employees, to your business objectives, becomes even more of a priority.

It is no surprise that employees who experience a sense of belonging, purpose and integration within their workplace, are more likely to be motivated and produce quality work for your business.

Research has proven that highly engaged employees are less likely to be affected by change and, in times of uncertainty, engagement can serve as an anchor.


So how do I engage employees …with no spare cash?

Effectively engaging your employee does not have to cost you a cent:

  1. Demonstrate and Encourage Sound Leadership

Nothing matters more than good leadership.  We develop connections with people and our managers/supervisors are an important part of the equation.  Consider who you have leading your teams – do they… Inspire? Communicate the vision? Provide effective feedback? Lead by example? If you answered No to some of these questions it might be time to develop who you have at the helm.

  1. Deliver Recognition and Feedback

Recognition does not have to be in the form of monetary rewards.  Your employees are well aware of the market downturn, with the majority grateful for their job and not expecting the bonuses or salary increases they may have received in the past.  However, you can demonstrate you value your employees by being generous with your praise for quality work or noticing additional hours worked.  Look out for employees who go the extra mile and provide recognition and feedback where it is due.

  1. Provide Interesting Work

In today’s market, training and development budgets are almost non-existent. Develop your employees by challenging them with new work and responsibilities outside of their current role?  If you have made some roles redundant, offer remaining staff the opportunity to be trained to learn and take on some of these duties?  Presented in a positive way, this can be extremely empowering for an employee, validating trust and their position in the business as well as enabling you to observe their capability, and future potential.

Author: Warner Consulting Australia Pty Ltd, Alliance Advisor with ATL Network

Better Questions, Better Networking Conversations

Better questions

A question I get asked a lot at my business development courses is this: “When I go to networking events, how do I approach and talk to someone I don’t know?”

MAJOR CLUE: “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” — Voltaire said that.

Good questions are tremendously important. They are far more than just a means of getting information. They are a means of engaging and connecting with people in a more meaningful way. They’re a means of building trust. They are a means of making you look very smart and very different from your rivals. And they are a means of advancing relationships ― relationships that can lead to business and other riches.

You can get all of that done by asking the right kind of questions. Powerful stuff!

Back to that question or the common variation of it, “When I go to networking events, how do I approach someone I don’t know and what are some good questions I can ask them?”

Note that the following is specific to going up to and engaging new people in a business networking environment.

After approaching someone and finding out their name…

Hold it a sec. Let’s back up a bit.

When I say ‘someone’, I mean someone standing alone, rather someone standing in a group of three or more. You see, people standing alone will be happy to talk to you and you don’t have to butt in and interrupt a conversation.

I usually steer clear of ‘pairs’ as well. Why? Because in most cases three’s a crowd. Two people having a ‘deep and meaningful’ usually won’t thank you for interrupting them.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t go up to people in groups of  two or three or more. I’m just saying that they are more difficult to approach.

So, here’s the way I approach someone on their own.

From a distance, I catch the person’s eye and hit ‘em with a friendly smile. Then I saunter up to them and say, “Hello. How’s your day going?” That’s my go-to opener in any situation and it never fails.

Depending on the circumstances, here are some other openers I use:

“Hey. How are you. How you doing?”

“Hi there. How’s it going tonight?”

“Hi. Are you enjoying yourself?” (Unless they look uncomfortable.)

“Hi. My name’s Ron. Ron Gibson.” or simply “Hi. I’m Ron.”

“Hi. Please may I join you? or “Please may I introduce myself?”

Nothing too clever here ― and no-one has ever run away from me.

I have a strong handshake. Not too strong, but strong enough to show that I’m keen to meet the person.

See my e-book Making The Most of Your Business Networking Conversations for a host more openers to add to your repertoire.

So after I say my name and they tell me their name, I do an ice-breaker. Something like, “So where have you come from today?” or “So what’s your connection here? How do you fit in with this group?” or “So how long have you been coming to these meetings?”

When it comes to ice-breakers, I particularly like using “What’s your connection here?” or “What’s your connection with the host?” (substitute the host’s name). It’s a good early question to get the conversation rolling. It can also throw up mutual acquaintances and interests and that gives my new contact and me something to build rapport on.

CLUE: The idea is to grab something s/he says and keep rolling with it.

As the conversation warms up a bit, I always ask people where they grew up. “Are you from around this area? Where did you grow up?” This is one of the most endearing and engaging questions to ask because everyone is willing to talk about it. It also gives you  personal insight as to what type of person you’re talking to. There’s a big difference between growing up in a small country town and a big city ― or growing up in Brisbane versus Melbourne.

The next thing I want to know is how they got started in their career or in their business. “How did you come to be a chef/project manager at X (or whatever)?” “How did you get started in your business?” This is also revealing because it’s not just what they say ― it’s their tone, their passion (or lack of it).

I like to know “How’s business?” You can almost tell a person’s response by how quickly they answer you. If they have to think about it, there’s usually a problem or two. Maybe even one that you can help resolve.

Once you have information about where they grew up, how they got started in their career or business and the state of their business then you can begin to develop a meaningful and engaging dialogue that will help you click with one another.

There at many more questions you can ask when you’re meeting new people in a networking environment. The following are some of my favorites. They work like a treat. Use them. They’ll work like a treat for you too.

  • So what do you like to do for fun when you’re not working?” Deeper connections are often formed through finding commonalities that aren’t work related.
  • You got kids?” It’s only natural to want to know if you’ve got kids of your own. It’s a great way to carry a conversation deeper?
  • What’s going well for you?” Variation: “What’s going on in your business lately? Anything new and exciting?” Invite them to talk about positive things that they’re feeling good about. They’ll like you for that!
  • So what brings you here today/tonight?” Everyone has a reason for being there. Their answer, will lead you easily into the next question to ask. It might throw up commonalities and perhaps even potential opportunities as well.
  • As a follow up or an alternative to the previous question, I like to know “What would make this evening/today/this conference valuable for you?”

When I’m meeting people, a part of my brain is thinking what can I offer this person; what one piece of information or idea can I share with this person; what favour can I do for them; how can I help this person. I recommend that you adopt a similar mindset. This is what makes networking work for you. My motto is give a bit more than you take. I’m a giver by nature and I find that when I give more than I take I receive more than I expect.

  • What did you do today/this morning?” or “What have you got lined up for the day?” Better than “What do you do?”, these questions give the person a choice of telling you about their job or not. Whatever they tell you grab it and run with it.

Note: With all the company downsizing, rightsizing and closures happening these days, the ‘what do you do question’ can be downright uncomfortable for a person without a job. In addition to this, there are some people who just don’t like being asked what they do. They believe there’s a whole lot more to a person than his or her job.

Variations of “What did you do today?” are “What did you do on the weekend?” ― if it’s a Monday morning and “What are your plans for the weekend?” or “What are you looking forward to this weekend” ― if it’s a Friday afternoon.

HERE’S YOUR GOAL: Try to find commonalities with your new contact. Personal things in common or natural affinities such as you both have a passion for tennis – or your kids both play basketball in the same league – or you both went to the same university – or you both grew in in in a country town – or you both love dogs – or perhaps you both service the same type of client with non-competing services ― makes it easier to establish rapport

and trade stories. And eventually, you may finish up in a discussion about this person’s business issues or needs because a bit of trust has be established.

The exact questions you ask will depend on the circumstances and what you already know about the person. But questions that have always worked well for me when I’m meeting new people include:

  • “What are the big challenges you see in your industry right now?” Substitute the name of their industry or sector. Notice I ask them about the challenges they see in their industry generally, rather than in their business specifically. That doesn’t cause the person to feel vulnerable or threatened. But most times they’ll answer by telling you about other own specific challenges because they are the ones they know most about. A variation of this question is: “As you think about the future of your industry, what worries you the most?”

This question can reveal so much about a person’s business and their current needs. You might uncover something you can help them with or someone you know can help them with.

  • “Are you working on anything interesting right now?” Generally, people enjoy talking about their latest projects and initiatives.
  • “Do you have any big goals or ambitions for your business over the next year or so?” It’s much easier for a person to talk about an ambition or a goal than a problem. Again, you might be able to help the person achieve what they want to do.

If the conversation goes well you can suggest meeting for coffee “to continue this”. Now’s the time to ask for their business card. This sets you up for the follow-up.

I hope you find this helpful. If you’d like to dig into a bit more detail just drop drop me an email and I’d be happy to discuss over a coffee or the phone ― whatever works best  for you.

Until next time.

Author: Ron Gibson, Alliance Advisor with ATL Network

Ron runs a Web-based Business Growth Masterclass for Professional Advisors. Next Program is scheduled 6th July. More information: CLICK HERE

How can I do what you ask when I don’t know what you mean?

Dont Understand

It always intrigues me how little attention we pay to the words we use and how this can have such a significant impact on performance and relationships.

I recently facilitated a series of training workshops on problem-solving with the team of a two-partner accounting practice in suburban Melbourne. We talked about how the managing partner wanted to see higher levels of teamwork in the practice. As I like to work on real problems in the business, rather than theoretical case studies, this was an opportunity to get our ‘teeth’ into something ‘real’. The team were keen because it was meaningful to them. And they had another agenda: they wanted to show the partner that they already worked as an effective team.

But they were not sure how to start. I suggested starting with getting a deeper understanding of the problem from the person who flagged the problem. They were a little perplexed by this; after all, everyone knows what ‘teamwork’ means.

However, they agreed to ‘interview’ the managing partner. The key word that came back from these interviews was ‘proactivity’ – dealing with problems as soon as they arise, seeing what needs to be done, especially for clients, and doing it irrespective whose role it was. It was about not ‘stepping over or around’ problems but taking responsibility for them. They then asked him for some specific examples, which helped clarify his meaning further.

Everyone expressed surprise when we got together to discuss the results of the partner interview. “We would never have seen teamwork as being about proactivity” one participant said. “We would have tackled the problem in a completely different way,” said another. This would not have satisfied the managing partner. More than likely it would have increased his frustration – both with them and with me, as the facilitator.

One of the key challenges facing leaders in engaging their team is turning intangible problems into tangible ones. This is what we did, in this case, by interviewing the partner. Without clarifying the nature of a problem it is impossible for people to understand what is expected.

We all think we agree on what teamwork means, but when we investigate the specifics, we can find that no such agreement exists. And it is the specifics – the devil is in the detail – that often makes the difference in implementation.

In my experience, this lack of precision in communication causes some of the most significant problems in implementing strategy. And once the implementation gets onto the wrong trajectory, it is hard to get it back on track.

Strategic planning workshops are notable for developing general concepts with little detail or substance. You will regularly hear words like ‘teamwork’, ‘responsibility’, ‘accountability’ and ‘trust’ but little exploration of what these terms actually mean to the participants.

Whenever you are stuck at an impasse, ask yourself two questions:

  • What does the word or concept, that we are discussing, mean?
  • What would be happening and what would we notice, different from today, if we had this?

This provides a solid foundation for the next question – how will we know (measure) that we have this? It is often said that, what you can’t measure you can’t manage.

When we ask these questions, we arrive at a much clearer idea of what is expected and how we should implement the strategy.

How many intangible slogans, phrases and concepts stand in the way of your organisation consistently implementing its strategy?

About the author: Warwick Cavell, an Alliance Advisor with ATL Network, is a thought leader in communicating for results and strategy implementation. For over 25 years, he has helped leaders improve business performance by changing the way people communicate and work to solve problems – both internally and with their clients. He is a highly respected facilitator, coach, speaker and trainer, and author of regular blogs.

Building Referral Partnerships

win win

As with all aspects of networking, a thoughtful approach to follow-up one-on-one meetings will significantly increase your success from meeting new people at group events.

Note that the following is specific to networking with new contacts for the purposes of building a strategic referral partnership. While there are elements that can be used with an old friend or new potential client, the focus of this article is to qualify new acquaintances for referral partnership purposes and then start the relationship on the right footing.

Making the Connection

Asking questions when meeting someone new is a good way to make friends. Asking about the person’s business, inquiring into his or her interests and talking about their loved ones builds rapport. And if you find common interests or natural affinities with the person ― favorite teams, kids, attended the same university or maybe you both have a passion for tennis ― you’ll elevate the conversation and move the relationship forward. You’re off to a good start.

Are they a potential referral partner?

Now you want to ask some questions to qualify (or disqualify) your new contact as someone with whom you should invest your networking time. Revealing questions to ask are:

  • How long have you been in business?
  • What do you look for in a strategic partner for your business?
  • What can you tell me about your networking activities?
  • What can you tell me about the types of people you usually help?
  • Whom do you currently partner with to give and get referrals?

The idea behind asking these questions is to gain an understanding of your contact’s ability to act as a ‘giver’ (of referrals) and possibly as a long term referral partner for you. If you find that the individual is ‘newer’ to the networking, is clearly out only for himself or herself or already has an established partner in your industry you may not want to invest much time, if any, connecting further with this individual.

One very good question to ask a new contact at a networking event is What should I be listening for to know if someone is a good referral for you?  In fact, this is an important question because it accomplishes a few critical things. First, it’s a sign of generosity that you’ve shown interest in helping someone else. Second, it’s a very professional question that is rarely asked by even the most experienced networkers. Third, it shows genuine interest in helping someone to find good referrals, which builds trust. While accomplishing all of these things it doesn’t commit you to taking immediate action. Remember, you asked “What should I be listening for”, which demonstrates interest without making an actual commitment to provide a referral.

MAJOR INSIGHT: Should your new contact ask you back the same question that would be a good sign that they see networking as a two-way street.

The Next Step    

If you feel that there’s a potential referral partnership to be had it will make sense to suggest a follow-up one-on-one networking meeting, say over coffee or a bite to eat. Before ending the conversation, you might say something like, I’ve  enjoyed meeting you. I’d love to get to know more about you and your business. Would you be open to a conversation about how we might mutually support each other’s business? Odds are your new networking contact will agree to this.

Networking tip. One of the best ways to end a conversation when you’re at a networking event is to be up front with the other person and say, I want to talk to some people here before they leave. Please excuse me.

Make your one-on-one meeting count 

Since time is money in business, we must be careful about those we choose to meet. In your call or email to arrange a meeting, I always recommend that you requalify a new potential referral partner. Ask for the contact’s agreement that the purpose of meeting one-on-one is to see if there’s a ‘fit’.

Isn’t that what this is all about anyway? You’re looking for a win-win relationship and need to establish a ‘fit’ as the goal for your meeting. You just say, I’m looking for a win-win relationship. From my perspective, the purpose of us meeting is for us to determine if there’s a ‘fit’ to work together. Does that sound good to you? In my experience, people respond well to the word ‘fit’.

When you actually meet with your contact start with some small talk. Have you always lived (or worked) around here? As you both warm up a bit, ask How did you get started in this business?

Be prepared with other questions that night help further qualify the contact as a strategic partner or prospective client. I’ve had many meetings that started out as a potential strategic partner meeting, but soon turned into a prospective client meeting due to my questions. There are also questions that might uncover the types of leads the contact has in his or her network that might be fruitful connections for you, including:

  • With whom do you network to find new business?
  • Where do you find you get the best networking results?
  • What are some of the networking methods you use to advance your business?
  • What referral sources are best for you?
  • Who are some of your best strategic partners?
  • What industries or ‘verticals’ (groups of people within a certain industry) do you serve?
  • What size companies do you typically work with?
  • Who at the client companies buys your services?
  • Can you describe your clients? Who is an ideal client for you?
  • What makes you or your company unique?
  • Who’s your competition?
  • What are some of the challenges your company faces every day?
  • How does the economy affect your business?
  • What are your expectations from your best strategic partners?
  • Where do you see yourself or your company in 5 years?
  • Can you tell me why you love what you do?
  • How can I bring you/your skills/services up in conversations with my clients?
  • Is there anything more you’d like to tell me about you/your firm that might help me refer business your way?
  • Have you referred any of your clients to people in my field in the past?
  • How can you see me providing value to your clients?
  • What can I do to help you refer clients to me?
  • What can I do to earn referrals from you?
  • If one of your clients asked you to recommend a good (your skill/service) is there someone you trust that you’d recommend to them?
  • I’m very interested in developing win-win relationships with other professionals who are mindful of two-way business. Do you see any barriers that would prevent us from working together in this way?

While there are hundreds of questions you can ask, try to zero in on three to five that make sense for you and the person you’re meeting with. Your ability to listen, ask questions and dig deeper will dramatically improve your success in these one-on-one networking meetings.

If there IS a ‘fit’…..

At the end of the meeting if both of you see that there’s a clear fit for you to help each other, suggest you try taking a small step forward together, such as making an easy connection for one another or inviting one another to attend an upcoming event. Then ask your contact, How would you feel about that? Again, in my experience people respond well to a suggestion like that.

The reason this is so effective is because it advances and emphasizes the quid pro quo of the ultimate goal in meeting: connections. Think about what your new contact might be seeking from you. Most likely it’s the same thing you’re after: a positive connection that benefits both parties. By agreeing to start small you’re not investing too much of yourself and not receiving so much that you might walk away with a sense of obligation to the contact. The goal of the ‘baby step’ is to test the connection without over- or under- committing, much like tasting a wine before buying the whole bottle.

What if there ISN’T a ‘fit’?

If the meeting isn’t going well and you realise that there’s not a fit, don’t hesitate to speak up and gain the contact’s agreement to move on and not work together. Remember, not everyone will be a good fit for you, and that’s okay. If prospects for a mutually beneficial, two-way business relationship aren’t looking good you might say, In lining up this meeting we agreed that the purpose was to see if there was a fit to work together. Based on our conversation so far, it doesn’t appear there is a good fit. Take another 30 seconds to explain why there might not be a good fit and help the contact understand. If you’re completely uncomfortable bringing this up to someone, just let the meeting run its course over the hour and simply move on.

It’s not always black or white.

With some people, it can take years to develop the type of trust and relationship that makes the person comfortable working with you. Sometimes being in the ‘number two’ position pays off when the person’s current referral relationship falls away. You’ll want to be there and come into your contact’s mind when someone else drops the ball. In which case, you’ll want to keep the connection ‘alive’. Plan a follow-up contact with this person. Put them on your calendar to contact them again in four to six weeks. Take note of any special events they mentioned and call around these times to ask how the event went. From time to time, send a note on something pertinent. Look for something helpful, interesting or relevant that you can forward to your contact. Ideally, you identified an issue where you can be of assistance and you’ll communicate on that topic.

Networking Is Not a One and Done

Remember that one meeting does not make a referral partner. It’s essential that the first meeting lead to a second and to a third, a fourth, a fifth and on and on over the long haul. That’s how productive strategic referral partnerships are built and maintained.

And by the way, you’ll want to implement a system to manage your relationships and stick to the system.

I hope you find this article helpful. If you’d like to review some of the main points and dig into a bit more detail just drop me an email and I’d be happy to discuss over a coffee.

Some last words…..

The golden rule in making referral partnerships work for you is your partners need business too. They need referrals to quality prospects, just like you do.

If you fail to generate opportunities for your partners, their commitment to referring clients to you will fall and the relationship will dissolve.

If you can’t refer business to your referral partner, help find him/her someone who can.

Author: Ron Gibson, Alliance Advisor with ATL Network

Ron runs a Web-based Business Growth Masterclass for Professional Advisors. Next Program is scheduled 6th July. More information: CLICK HERE


Left Behind

Procrastination is your worst enemy. Accounting practitioners face a crisis if they don’t make significant changes.

A recent survey revealed that less than a third of practitioners reported having a strategic vision and plan. Of those that did have a plan approximately 50% shared it with managers and staff.

When asked why a plan hasn’t been prepared, the most frequent responses were:

  1. “We don’t have time – we’re too busy!”Client demands inevitably take priority, even though a large proportion of these clients are non-profitable (see my blog on the 140/20 Rule), to the detriment of your own firm.
  2. “We can’t get partners to agree on a vision.” Without a process to do this properly it is likely that individual partners and even staff will have their own personal vision wherein ‘pillars’ are developed with lists of clients rather than any sort of business model.
  3. “We really don’t know how to complete a plan.” I do see plenty of evidence of this where firms attempt to do some sort of planning themselves at a ’Retreat’ but inevitably they become talk fests with no serious actions determined.

Firms, across the profession, that are unable to retain quality staff are unlikely to attract them and today’s best talent expect a digital environment, a clear vision, a change-ready organisation with fast decision-making at the leadership and management levels. Successful firms are adaptable, learn quickly and move with a sense of urgency. Results are directly impacted by employee experiences. Experiences impact their beliefs. Beliefs impact their actions and their actions impact your firm results.


Your skilled, experienced people want to know where the firm is going and whether they will personally be able to play a significant role and grow professionally. There are plenty of choices for them in this fast changing world and reliable economist, Phil Ruthven, was quoted as follows:

“For those fearing the disappearance of jobs, don’t. Over the past five years, Australia created six times more jobs than it lost, and it is well placed to do the same over the next five years. And, yes, the new jobs are in new industries. So the message is don’t just stand there, do something!”

….and they will. The war for talent is just beginning! Young accountants have grown up with an abundance mentality, rather than a scarcity mentality. A vision, mission and core values are integral to a firm’s strategic plan. Potential employees simply do not want to work for firms that do not align with their own core values and beliefs. Partners often insist that they have a vision, mission and core values, but is this really true?

  1. Do partners agree and live up to the core values?Imagine a situation where two second-tier accounting firms that were merging wanted to set aside a day to discuss and identify core values. Imagine if every single partner (a very large group) wanted to list their own specific comments which resulted in pages of ‘values’ for their new merged firm. Would you conclude this process was way overdone and would probably never be implemented? Unfortunately, this was a real situation. Unfortunately, this did happen. And yes, unfortunately the ‘values’ were never implemented. The firm demerged not long after.
  2. Do your employees know the core values and are they held accountable?
  3. Does your firm share your business plan with your staff and key clients?


Of all the reasons given above the most revealing is that partners can’t agree. Arriving at a shared, agreed-upon business plan requires a lot of planning, thinking and allocation of resources to a limited number of prioritised strategies – usually no more than three. Your first attempt might only be 80-90 percent complete. This will not limit your success. Over time the task becomes easier, the planning gets better and the achievements escalate. In our experience it always helps too to have an independent part-time facilitator to keep everyone accountable and on track.


We hear this a lot. Many practitioners are prepared to allocate time to developing strategies but never follow through. With the right processes and commitment of all partners, a plan can be prepared in as little as one to three days (contact us for an outline of a process and, if you wish, facilitation of the process). Remember it should be about progress and not perfection. We use a range of ‘tools’ and processes to engage partners and staff and implement action.

Simplicity is the key and one-page plans and many of the simple tools referred to above ensure a far better outcome.


We are convinced that facilitating the planning process within your own firm is a monumental task. Over great many years we have facilitated in the development of hundreds of plans. Engaging an external facilitator helps to expedite the internal process and provide valuable external expertise. Too often practitioners are convinced of their own ability to attend to this. A great facilitator ensures that strategic action is followed through with implementation and accountability.

ATL Network’s Strategic Planning Process is built on the core tenets of Strategy – Growth – Implementation – Accountability.

Authors: Vale David Connell and Colin Simkin

Advisory Thought Leadership Program