Rick Telberg
Rick Telberg

For 2011: Flexibility Trumps Efficiency

Values, not structures, drive effective organizations. And three more lessons from a mogul who knows how to thrive in chaos. What do you think CPAs will need to thrive in 2011? Send your comments, ideas, questions, rants or raves to Rick Telberg.

January 6, 2011
by Rick Telberg/On Finance

For accountants and finance managers, the New Year 2011 dawns on one of the most uncertain and treacherous business environments in memory.

To paraphrase the immortal Bette Davis: Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

This new climate calls for a few new rules of the road. That's why we were happy to interview Alan Lewis, chairman of the Grand Circle Foundation, a philanthropy dedicated to developing nations. He made his fortune in the travel industry, one rough-and-tumble business if ever there was one.

By applying the lessons Lewis learned in growing a worldwide business while other companies around him folded under the onslaught of technological change, accountants and finance managers might glean some new and useful strategies for approaching the year ahead.

Start with the notion that "change is the new constant" and you're halfway there. But how do you build a culture — inculcate a way of thinking throughout an entire organization — that can adapt and thrive in chaos?

Lewis starts with five hard-earned lessons:

  1. Values, not structures, drive effective organizations.
  2. Flexibility trumps efficiency.
  3. Mission and vision create inspiration.
  4. Investments in people and learning create advantage.
  5. Relentless measurement of excellence is essential.

Each of the five lessons will seem intuitively apparent to most accountants and finance managers. To be sure, each bears remembering. But given the chance to talk about the lessons he learned, Lewis focuses on values first.

"Driving a company based on a set of values that are important to owners, leaders and employees will help with performance and profitability no matter the company or industry," Lewis says.

The idea extends to hiring. "We used to hire people — as most other companies do — based on skills," Lewis says. "but many of the people we hired were not open in their communication, able or willing to take risks or able to move quickly — values that are important to us."

Lewis says his philosophy works as well in his company's finance function as in the company in general. "In our case, having a strong corporate culture and inculcating a social mission into our business plan have raised our bottom line and helped us thrive during times when our competitors have struggled or gone out of business," he says.

Most finance managers and accountants might agree with Lewis when he says "People are your No. 1 profit engine. Treat your people well and they will buoy your business. I firmly believe that any firm or company that follows such a model will have a long-term advantage over its competition."

Maybe he's right. It's hard to argue with success.

COMMENTS: What do you think CPAs will need to thrive in 2011? Send your comments, ideas, questions, rants or raves to Rick Telberg.

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Rick Telberg is president and chief executive of Bay Street Group LLC, advisors in marketing, management and strategy.

Copyright 2010 CPA Trendlines/BSG LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. First published by the AICPA.

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