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How to Build a Value Creation Mindset

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Before you have your own firm, you spend time working for someone else. They'll likely talk to you about creating value for your clients, but you also need to think about how you're creating value for your employer. This will help with both career success and personal development -- and it'll likely be something your firm leader keeps in mind when succession planning, too.

Jul 29th 2022
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You may not think of it this way, but you spend a lot of time evaluating the value of items and services. Whether you shop at traditional brick-and-mortar retail stores or online, you’re selecting items and determining if they’re worth the price on a weekly—if not daily—basis. Some items may be put back on the shelf or deleted from your virtual shopping cart because you’ve determined they won’t provide a value that justifies the cost. Stated another way, you’re unwilling to give more than you believe you’re getting in return.

While we make these kinds of decisions all the time, we often don’t realize that the employer-employee relationship follows a very similar process. When you get hired by a firm or company, its leaders are making an initial judgment about your value. While many factors enter that assessment (including your education and experience and the current talent pool), the employer is essentially evaluating whether the value you’ll create for the organization matches the compensation and other costs it’ll incur by hiring you. Your employer continues to assess your value during periodic performance reviews, leading to a raise, a demotion or pay cut, a furlough, or termination.

It’s critically important to understand this fundamental economic reality because it’s not unique to the accounting profession. If you want to be successful, get up every day thinking about how you’ll create value for your employer. Employees who create value on a sustained basis are rewarded with additional compensation, increased responsibility, promotions, and other opportunities.

Unfortunately, a lot of accounting professionals don’t possess—or at least don’t exhibit—a value creation mindset. Too often, in fact, they have it backwards. They expect their employer to do things for them first, as in, “Give me a raise and I’ll show you what I can do for you,” or, “After I get promoted, I’ll demonstrate how I can perform at a high level.”

A great way to develop a value creation mindset is to think like a business owner. Challenge yourself to evaluate how you would handle a situation or what you might do differently if it were your business and you were going to be directly impacted by the outcome. Chances are, you’d be laser-focused on being as productive as possible every day if you were self-employed. It should be no different when you’re working for someone else. By the way, this is also an excellent principle to follow when making decisions about business expenses that’ll be reimbursed by your employer, as in, “Would I be choosing this hotel if it were my own money I was spending?”

Here are just a few ways to create value for your employer:

  • Deliver exceptional service to your clients.
  • Identify opportunities to grow top-line revenue.
  • Assess how a rapidly evolving technology landscape will affect the business.
  • Mentor, motivate, and inspire your fellow employees.
  • Find ways for the business to operate more efficiently.

Regarding the last point, don’t hesitate to raise your hand and offer your employer a suggestion for how to improve operations. It’s a great way to add value and distinguish yourself. Too often, new or relatively inexperienced employees are hesitant to do this. This could be because they lack confidence or, perhaps, they’re not thinking like an owner. They may not appreciate that their fresh set of eyes will often spot opportunities to enhance practices that are due for an overhaul. They may also not fully appreciate that there are certain things they may know more about than others who have more tenure with the organization. Here’s an insider tip: It thrilled me when our younger professionals at KPMG would share ideas or suggestions. Often, they were good ones we’d seek to implement. But even when they weren’t, I’d show gratitude and encourage the ideas to keep coming!

Here are three concrete ways to build a value creation mindset:

1. Challenge the Status Quo

Too many people accept the ways things are done without thinking critically about whether they can be done better or more efficiently. Get in the habit of challenging and questioning the status quo. This doesn’t mean being hypercritical, but it does mean that you approach each task with an open mind and an awareness of the possibility for improvement. When you do identify an issue or problem that needs to be corrected, try to figure out how to address the matter and fix the situation. Leaders help solve problems as opposed to complaining about them! Act like a leader and you’ll be proactively managing your career in a fashion that helps you achieve success.

2. Provide Feedback

Two of the biggest assets we possess are our technical skills and fresh eyes. The combination can be extremely powerful if you’re willing to take the time to offer feedback. Look beyond the numbers and the basics of the tasks you’re performing to see the bigger picture. Again, think like an owner. A couple of examples:

You’re a junior auditor assigned to review a company’s accounts payable process. One of your specific tasks is to develop a flowchart and document the client’s procedures. You’ll also confirm your understanding of existing workflows by interviewing their personnel. As you walk through their processes, ask yourself: Is there anything that can be done better or differently? What controls can be streamlined or enhanced? Can the processes be made more efficient? Is the organization using the data and information generated by these processes in a strategic fashion? There are many opportunities to add value and position yourself as a strategic business advisor if you adopt this mindset.

You’re assigned to prepare the individual federal and state tax returns of a high-net-worth individual. As you work through the return, you notice several tax planning opportunities that, if properly implemented, will enable them to save money in the coming year. Do you make the time to schedule a meeting with the client to explain the opportunities? The correct answer is a resounding, yes! That’s added value!

3. Continually Develop Yourself

Most organizations have a formal annual evaluation process to provide feedback to employees on their performance and establish professional development goals. Some more progressive organizations do it twice a year. My view is this is way too infrequent to be of value. In a fast-moving business world, you need to be at your best every day. To perform at a high level, you need frequent feedback and development. High-performing organizations are getting better at building more frequent feedback loops into formal HR processes, but most aren’t there yet. There’s a simple solution to this: Regularly ask for feedback! Ask your direct supervisor. Ask your clients. Ask your colleagues. Most will be willing to be candid and can help you course correct and seek professional development opportunities sooner rather than later.

Each day presents opportunities to add (or subtract) value. Be mindful of this reality because, over the long term, your ability to add value will be the key determinant of your success. The more value you add or create, the more successful you’ll be! Whether you work in public accounting, corporate finance, government, or nonprofit, having a value creation mindset will contribute to your success and help to position CPAs as the most trusted and strategic business advisors.

This article originally appeared in the Illinois CPA Society's Insight Magazine. It can be found here.