Developing A Disaster Plan

Disaster planning is based around 2 activities:

1. Critical Information Assessment, recording and preserving

Secure data back up
Each business has its own critical data sources though some, such as customer inventory and supplier lists, will be common to most businesses. Without them how long could a business carry on? Data such as this will need to be recorded, backed up regularly, kept virus free, and be stored in a second location off-site.

Systems redundancy
Redundancy costs money of course; if risk is high and costs low, just do it! On the other hand low risk, high cost systems might be left aside. The real danger is in ignoring the medium risk, medium cost features.

Other means of information recording
Other information on record can also make recovery easier such as a set of photographs of the business premises against which damage can be assessed.

2. The plan for disaster recovery

Following a disaster it is imperative that the business owner be able to:

Stay focused and get critical business processes back online
After a disaster the priority for businesses is to get critical processes back online.

Address any issues directly effecting customer service
The business owner needs to be free to focus on customers, suppliers and employees. The later should not be disregarded – they too may have suffered in the disaster or have been effected personally by the fallout from the disaster.

Leave other issues to a support team
Support people, such as the business owner’s accountant, should deal with peripheral issues such as finance.

To ensure they are able to deal with these priorities the disaster plan should include:

  • A Directory of essential recovery services
  • A Detailed plan for notifying business associates and team
  • Designated contacts to start dealing with the legalities of claims and tax matters

These provisions will allow an immediate swing into action.

Business Information System Reviews

Of all possible disasters the most likely these days will be loss of information housed on a computer system. Accountants are uniquely qualified and situated to help business owners conduct business computer use reviews to ensure that adequate IT security plans exist and are followed.

Reviews typically cover:

Security Planning and Management.
An initial assessment of the risks to hardware and data leading to decisions on what policies and controls are needed.

Software Protection
Systems need to be in place to protect both applications and system software from modification and unauthorized access.

Access Level Determination
Establishing different access levels for different personnel depending on their need to access information ensures against unauthorized access and deletion or alteration of data. Setting up an organizational structure and associated polices in regard to the segregation of duties also helps pinpoint the source of damaging input.

Redundancy and Backup
Provisions to ensure that when unexpected events occur, critical operations continue without undue interruption and vital and sensitive data is protected.

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Can You See Your Firms Vision?

The word ‘vision’ is part of our contemporary business language, yet not every accountant can readily articulate just what their vision for their practice is.

It’s not just a marketing plan, although these plans have to be based on an appreciation of a vision for the firm. The irony is that a vision is something that never exists in the physical sense – it simply can’t be seen with the eyes.

A vision is a product of the imagination. It can be reduced to writing but that’s only a summary of something much more vital.

One way of defining vision is: “What the practice will be in three years’ time”. It’s obviously not a part of the here and now but rather something that is going to happen in the future. Here are the elements of the vision for a firm:

• What it will be like at a designated time in the future
• What its structure will be at that point in time
• What its culture will be at that point in time
• What forces will make it be like that
• What the drivers for those forces are (or will be)

How important is it for an accountancy practice to have a vision? Absolutely essential! A firm is unlikely to grow unless it knows what it wants to be and how it’s going to get that way. And without growth, in this fast-moving competitive era a firm will actually be going backwards.

It’s a real shame that so many partners in accounting firms don’t seem capable of looking ahead – to see what might be, rather than only what exists right now. That attitude only ensures that things will happen by accident, and those aren’t necessarily going to be good things.

So what is it that can create a vision and enable accountants to conceptualize a future for their enterprises? There are at least three ‘drivers’ that do this.

An investment of energy

Visions are created only after a significant investment of energy. It takes energy to do the research, the thinking and to spend the many hours of hard work to articulate the vision for a practice.

An accumulation of knowledge

A vision isn’t created in isolation. The creator of a vision has to know about the market, the principles of business and how to run one, human behaviour, leadership, finance and a host of other things that need to be learned.

It’s only the background knowledge that enables a visionary to construct a future out of the past and present.

The power of thought

The human mind is an amazing and powerful thing. It is the engine that creates the vision, the intellectual tool that enables a person to consider a vast body of knowledge and sort out what can and should be from that which is impossible or unwanted.

A vision is a prediction of the future and can only be produced by thought. The mind can create many possibilities but only one can be chosen to be the vision towards which the business is launched.

Just having a vision isn’t enough to make it happen. Once created the vision must be achieved by the use of resources, and one of the most powerful resources integral to achieving a vision is the team in the firm.

To be truly effective a vision must be shared with and accepted by the members of the team. It must be clearly communicated and become part of the culture of the practice. Unless this is accomplished it’s not likely to be realized.

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Talking To Strangers

Business networking is the process of establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with other business people and potential clients and/or customers. For many business people that may not sound like their experience of networking, which is often equated with meet-and-greet functions where it’s a race to exchange business cards with as many ‘opportunities’ as possible. Identifying and cultivating leads is indeed one of the functions of networking, but by no means the only one.

People who claim to get something out of networking will give you a different slant on how it works and what it is all about. Networking for them involves meeting people in a wide range of formal and informal forums, people who could be of help to them in some situations and to whom they could be of help in others. In other words, networking should be seen as building reciprocally beneficial relationships. And the opportunities networking provides can be of many types:

• Learning from the experiences of others and sharing new ideas on whatever is of interest
• Receiving regular news bulletins and attending events that keep you up to date in what’s happening in your line of business
• Participating in or contributing to surveys or research in your field or business sector, and
• Meeting prospects, competitors, suppliers and service providers who could provide the opportunity for mutually beneficial deals

Networking is an investment, not a nuisance

By putting in the time to build your network you save time when you need to get things done. Well networked people don’t have to waste time firing off random emails or making cold calls for advice and assistance to people they don’t know, buying leads or industry lists, or hunting through dozens of resumes for the right candidate. They know who to contact or they have a contact who will know. And being in a relationship with that contact they can probably expect a speedy response – requests from acquaintances get dealt with sooner than requests from strangers.

Building a network of good relations with a wide variety of business associates can really be a big productivity improver.

What’s a good network for me?

When you think of a network as a group of people who can offer you a mutually beneficial relationship the options for what to join expand beyond the chamber of commerce and the trade show or professional organization.

To keep your commitment manageable and focused though, when considering a network to join or networking events to attend you will need to think of your primary requirements, e.g. market information, training and development opportunities, expert advice, or leads. Aim to balance your needs with the level of participation and involvement you are able to commit to.

A primary contact is likely to be your trade or professional association and after that you can ask for recommendations from your business advisors, e.g. your bank manager, lawyer or accountant, for networking groups/organizations matching your business requirements.

Be an active participant in your networks

Networks are established for collective benefit and are most successful and effective where there is give and take by the members. However, since not everybody has the same amount of time available and yet may be just as keen to learn and share information, different forums may be useful to different people.

If you can’t spare the time to attend functions and events you might focus on finding a network hosted on the Internet. Similarly, if you do not think you are likely to be able to proactively pass information on or help someone else in return for advice then stick to joining a more passive network that supplies newsletters and bulletins and hosts online debates rather than joining an events-based one.

Where you are involved in meetings-based groups you will be expected to actively share your experience by talking to the other members as well as passively learning from hearing about theirs. When you attend debates and discussion groups don’t hesitate to contribute your ideas and experiences or even deliver a talk on some aspect of business you feel particularly confident with.

A network’s strength in any particular area or service depends on how actively its partners exchange information with each other and reciprocate when they receive a request for assistance. If you receive advice from a network partner be prepared to offer your own help in the future. To improve sales remember to regularly pass on recommendations for other member’s businesses to your customers – your network partners should do the same for you. And if you have been pleased with a particular supplier let your fellow network members know so they also have an opportunity to try them out.

Networking is a great way to get to know new business professionals in both your own line of work and in ones related to what you do. The results? A high quality network of diverse business people who can provide answers, insights and leads.

copyright Bullseye Business Solutions. Article originally published in Grow Your Business newsletter June issue 2007

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5 Tips On Lead Management

A lead is really just raw material waiting to be turned into something of value – a customer. Achieving this requires careful management, from the moment the lead is acquired until the sale is made and a new customer joins the database.

Modern lead management should be a combination of people, software and processes that work together to acquire, manage and convert leads into sales. Lead management isn’t just having a team of salespeople that prospects and sells, it’s about having a systematic process for ensuring leads are dealt with in the best way to turn them into customers.

1. Qualify leads: to avoid wasting time on tire kickers or missing out on a hot lead you need a system to qualify the leads that come in. It might be as simple as a checklist of the ideal customer or the ‘feel’ of the person who took the inquiry, but it needs to be made so that response priorities and the amount of time and effort to invest in nurturing the lead can be assigned.

2. Ensure good leads are responded to in a timely manner. Like fruit left too long, leads spoil. Surveys show a surprisingly high number of SMEs either are very slow in responding to a lead or even fail to respond at all. That can be for a variety of reasons (don’t check their email frequently, have no one responsible for dealing with them and so on), all of them resulting in lost opportunity and bad reputation. Have a back-up plan that kicks in when the primary individual responsible for contacting leads is not available.

3. Respond to leads appropriately: if you have qualified a lead as ‘hot’ you can move to the sale quickly. If the lead is just ‘warm’ then more time is required to supply information and build their confidence in your ability to supply just what is wanted. Too much pressure could cool the opportunity.

4. Develop a system to get leads to the right sales channel: a particular lead may stand the best chance of turning into a sale depending on whether it goes to an individual sales person, the territory manager, a reseller, or a distributor. Don’t risk it getting passed around and going stale.

5. Make each person who has contact with a lead responsible for updating the customer database: it should be possible to call up the lead’s record any time and have an up-to-date snapshot of where things are up to. This is critical since it’s the only way you can accurately measure the quality of leads and decide your next move with them. In the longer term this data will allow you to assess the effectiveness of marketing programs and the ROI you achieve.

Copyright Bullseye Business Solutions. Article originally published in Grow Your Business newsletter July issue 2007

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What Drives Us To Perform?

Hint: it’s not threats and rewards!

The evidence of more than four decades of robust, global scientific research on human motivation shows categorically that there is a serious mismatch between what science knows motivates people, and what business does.

Dan Pink, successful business and technology writer reveals in his fascinating book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Usthat science has identified three intrinsic human motivators:

Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives.
Mastery:The desire to get better at something that matters.
Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Ideas about successful management practices are not set in stone. Management, points out Dan, is an invention after all, and the scientific evidence shows us that it is based on erroneous information.

The gravy train has clearly derailed in the global economic collapse, so what better time for you to seek out new management solutions to building a profitable business?

What the evidence shows is that:
• When the work is largely mechanical and compliance in nature, then the carrot-and-stick style of management has some effect in improving performance.
• Using a reward /punishment approach in most cases destroys creativity and problem solving ability – performance is actually worse. To put in another way, hundreds of scientific studies over 40 years consistently show that where there is any cognitive reasoning required to do the task well then the presence of rewards or threats has a negative impact.
• The secret to high performance is to tap into the intrinsic human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

Let’s look at one well known case which contrasts the two different approaches.

Microsoft decided the market was ready for the online encyclopedia. They employed the right people with the right skills and offered them incentives to develop Encarta, This is the traditional management model. Some years later along came Wikipedia – put together for free, by people who volunteer their input for the love of it because they feel it has value. Game, set, match.

Think about your own business and what you can do to change your approach. Pay people adequately and fairly, that’s a must. Then focus on the nature of the task. If it is merely mechanical, rewards and punishment might still have a place. Otherwise come up with strategies that encourage people think freely and autonomously and contribute in meaningful ways.

One SME digital agency we know gets its team members to take turns hosting regular meetings where they have to present a talk on some new concept, product, activity or idea not necessarily related to their work. Although they normally must account for every 15 minutes, time out to prepare the presentation is built in to their work schedules. They get to freely explore anything at all that interest them and the company reckons that the cross-fertilization of ideas has resulted some of their best campaigns.

Forget about figuring out how to offer juicier carrots and poke with sharper sticks. Work with what really motivates people and watch productivity go up, engagement go up and employee churn fall.

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Where Did The Accounting Profession Begin?

A lot of people that history calls ‘accountants’ were really auditors, stewards and bookkeepers in ancient societies. Even though we have identified examples of double-entry accounting going back nearly a thousand years, as a profession, accountants have only existed since the nineteenth century.

Earlier number crunchers toiling away with their quill pens by lamplight in drafty monasteries and castles usually plied their skills to keep track of a wealthy employer’s inventories and funds. They mostly lacked formal training and many combined their roles with other duties such as serving as scribes or household secretaries.

When we look for the world’s first true ‘modern’ accountant we find that Scotland is where the first example of a chartered accountant can be found. Unlike his predecessors, this accountant had defined skills and worked independently for several clients. Scotland is also the home of the oldest society of chartered accountants.

Italy is often seen as the place where modern accounting began, and it’s true that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Italy was extremely important in developing accounting methods. But as yet there was no official acknowledgement of the qualifications of those who performed in accounting roles.

The first official recognition for accountants came not from Italy but from England. In 1854 the Society of Accountants in Edinburgh was granted a royal charter by Queen Victoria, thereby making accounting a recognized profession for the first time anywhere in the world.

The Society of Accountants in Glasgow was also granted a royal charter five months afterwards. Here are some excerpts from the petition that the Society of Accountants in Glasgow submitted to Queen Victoria when seeking their charter:

“That the profession of an Accountant has long existed in Scotland as a distinct profession of great respectability;
– “that originally the number of those practicing it was few but that, for many years back, the number has been rapidly increasing, and the profession in Glasgow now embraces a numerous as well as highly respectable body of persons that the business of an Accountant requires, for the proper prosecution of it, considerable and varied attainments;
– “that it is not confined to the department of the Actuary, which forms indeed only a branch of it, but that, while it comprehends all matters connected with arithmetical calculation, or involving investigation into figures, it also ranges over a much wider field, in which a considerable acquaintance with the general principles of law, and a knowledge in particular of the Law of Scotland, is quite indispensable;
– “that Accountants are frequently employed by Courts of Law to aid those Courts in their investigation of matters of Accounting, which involve, to a greater or less extent, points of law of more or less difficulty; that they act under such remits very much as the Masters in Chancery are understood to act in England, and that it is obvious that to the due performance of a profession such as this a liberal education is essential.”

What these accountants had defined was a distinct and highly qualified profession incorporating a specific body of knowledge and a firm relationship with the law of the land. This is a lot more than just keeping track of a wealthy merchant’s stores.

The first professional society of accounting in the United States was the American Association of Public Accountants (AAPA). It received its charter from the state of New York in 1887.

The first Certified Public Accountant (CPA) law in the U.S. was passed in New York in 1896 and required accountants to pass an examination to become certified. The examination had a little to do with accounting and was mostly focused on “The 3 Rs” – reading, writing and arithmetic.

Interestingly at that time there were no specific educational requirements to become a CPA since most accountants received their training through an apprenticeship and not by formal education.

By 1912 thirty-three American states had CPA laws and by 1921 all 48 states had passed them.

This article was originally published in the February 2004 edition of ONEderings ezine.

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Transitioning Between Generations

The family business is often the basis of a family’s wealth. It generates the funds that feed and clothe two or three generations concurrently, and can also be something that is a source of pride and to which all family members have a deep emotional attachment.

When the owner thinks about retiring or is unable to continue managing the business for some other reason it is only natural that another family member would be their first choice of successor. Although it is certainly possible to transfer ownership from one family member to another it’s not as simple as it may seem at first and requires planning to ensure it happens smoothly.

Unfortunately the majority of business ownership transfers aren’t well-planned; more than half of all businesses transferred to the second generation fail in the first three years after the new owner takes over, and fewer than one out of five of those that do survive will make it into the third generation. What these failures can mean to a family might be all the difference between wealth and poverty.

One of the most important considerations is the impact of a transfer of ownership on the non-family members in the business. The outgoing owner has for some time been the leader of the business and there are usually personal relationships in place that need to be taken into account. An abrupt change of ownership can irreparably damage these important linkages.

There are numerous other issues related to a transfer of ownership – from legal and taxation issues to the fundamental need to transfer knowledge about running the business, and they will all be easier to deal with if the transfer happens gradually in an orderly way over a period of time rather than simply ‘happening’.

Set the date ahead of time

The beginning of the process requires a date to be set for the transfer of ownership. This is a ‘working’ date and need not be absolute, although it will be the date around which transfer plans are made.

It could be the owner’s 65th birthday, or the date an anniversary is reached, such as the owner’s fortieth year at the head of the enterprise. The date should allow a period of years rather than months for the transfer to take place.

Choosing a successor

The same principles should be applied as if the successor were being chosen from a group of applicants for the post, even if all members of the group are related. Unfortunately the dynamics of a family often mean that the wrong person is chosen to succeed an outgoing owner at the helm of the family business, and that can also mean the end of the business.

Be honest when analysing the strengths and weaknesses of family members as potential successors. Separate issues of family loyalties and emotional attachments from the selection process and base the choice on a candidate’s business acumen and management abilities.

Some of the questions that might need resolution are:

– How committed is this person to the business itself?
– Do they have the management skills required?
– Is their business experience sufficient to run the enterprise?
– Will they do more than just administer the business; can they develop it?
– Are they really the best person for the job or should someone outside the family be employed by the family to run the business?

Preparing the successor to take over

When the successor has been chosen they must be objectively analyzed to identify areas of weakness or lack of knowledge so these deficiencies can be rectified in time for them to assume control of the enterprise. This might take years to accomplish, which is another reason to set the owner’s departure date well ahead of time.

If a specific educational pathway is required this might require three or four years of study, in which case details like who pays for the education and who will pay for the costs of things like accommodation and meals needs to be determined. Coaching may be required as an adjunct to formal study, and these costs may be met by the business.

It could also be a wise idea for the designated successor to work in the business for a period of time after all their educational and upskilling needs have been met, to give them ‘hands-on’ experience and to familiarize them with the day-to-day responsibilities of the role.

Owner’s realization of value from the business

The outgoing owner of the business will probably want to fund their retirement from the transfer of the business, just as they would if they were to sell it to someone outside the family. The manner in which this can be done without affecting the cash position of the business should be worked out well before the owner’s departure.

Set up a family ‘board’

If there are several members of the family involved with the business it can be helpful to set up a family board that meets regularly and shares information about the transition while it is being planned. This can smooth over any disappointments or feelings of being disadvantaged that can always arise within families choosing a person to head the family business.

It’s recommended that records be taken at all meetings and circulated shortly after each meeting so that no disputes can arise at a later date about what was said or decided.

Taxation and estate planning

The departure of the owner and handover of the business to the next generation will have taxation implications for all those involved. Because the business usually forms part of the owner’s estate there will also be estate planning considerations.

These areas are usually highly complex and need the attention of specialists with local experience and a good knowledge of all applicable legislation. Advice should be obtained during the process of planning the succession.

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Something To Celebrate

As times change so does the way in which we note special occasions. We now have team members instead of ‘personnel’, and celebrations instead of what used to be unimaginatively called ‘office functions’.

Some of the benefits of celebrations are:

• They bring individuals together and create a community of people within the company.
• They remove barriers between management and team members, allowing everyone to socialize without hierarchical considerations.
• They can establish a connection between the history of the firm and the people who are now part of the team.
• They enable the firm’s values and vision to be communicated to members of the team in an informal way.
• They can be a safety valve where team members can let off steam and relax interpersonal conflicts.
• They create a forum that links pleasure with work.

When you have something to celebrate always consider sharing it with others in the organization. Celebrations can be good team-builders as well as make a big contribution to building a winning culture in your firm.

The reasons for celebrating are many. They include birthdays (even the company’s), reaching revenue targets, welcoming new members and saying farewell to retiring ones.

When a team member gets married or has a baby it’s an occasion for celebration. Milestones like ten years of service or promotions are also good subjects.

This doesn’t mean that the number of celebrations should be overdone. A special occasion must be seen by those participating as being truly special or its meaning will be lost.

Give some thought to just which events are worthy of celebration and note them on a calendar. You should allow a reasonable amount of time between dates, accepting that a few surprises are always going to happen.

Consider appointing a Director of Celebrations from the more outgoing team members. Someone who enjoys planning and is a good organizer is required for this role.

This is also better in that celebrations will be seen by the team as coming from within rather than something ‘the boss dreamed up’.

All celebrations won’t be the same because some events are more important than others. Some might be worthy of coffee and donuts while others deserve a dinner for everyone on the team. Try to involve partners in at least one occasion each year.

Some events should be paid for by the firm as a reward while others can be covered by everyone attending. The guidelines here can be flexible but if the firm has scored a new client or reached a revenue target it’s wise to have the business pick up the cost.

Whenever possible publicize celebrations well in advance so the team can make whatever arrangements are necessary to participate without hassles. An internal newsletter is very useful for this purpose. Another avenue of communications is a bulletin board placed where everyone can easily see it.

Remember that if a celebration takes place during business hours someone will always have to be ‘on call’ to answer the telephone so it might be necessary to rotate this role between everyone on the team so one person doesn’t get stuck with it all the time.

Celebrations don’t have to be hugely expensive occasions. It helps to designate a corner of the office where there’s a bit of space as a place for the occasional presentation of a birthday card or other low-key celebratory event. Nobody objects to ten or fifteen minutes away from their desks at such moments.

Even if a small business can’t afford to take everyone out to lunch you can present the person being honored with a nice card (signed by all the team members) and a gift certificate for a night out.

Celebrations are a way of saying ‘thank you’, a way of recognizing achievement, and just a way of getting the team together when something special has happened. You’ll enjoy them as much as your team will.

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