Smart? So What? It Ain't Enough Anymore

Merely "smart" doesn't cut it in the Post-Information Age. Accountants and financial managers must do more. Here's what you need to know to get started.

May 15, 2008
by Rick Telberg/On Careers

Smart doesn't count for much anymore. Everybody's smart. To Google is to know. In 29 seconds you can find more than you need to know about IRS Form 2106-EZ, 67 kinds of sex your mother never told you about or an unusual bladder function of the common housefly.

But who really needs to know about IRS Form 2106-EZ?

People with un-reimbursed business expenses, that's who. But that's easy. You can look it up faster than you can think it up. In a certain sense, everybody knows it.

But not everybody knows that the tax client who just sat down at your desk could use a little advice about the difference between what his company pays for mileage and what the mileage actually costs. In other words, the World Wide Web may have all the answers, but it doesn't have all the questions.

What we're talking about here, in broadly strategic terms, is the end of the Information Age. You think you're smart just because you can juggle 6,234 e-mails, 10,123 pop-ups, 147 phone calls and 32 interruptions a day. You think you're still living in the post-Industrial, knowledge-worker-driven Information Age.

I have news for you: The Information Age is, like, so 10 minutes ago, man! Today, you're living in the Recommendation Age.

Think about it: When everyone can gain access to the same data, the same information, from many of the same or equivalent sources and do it simultaneously, the information has lost its value.

So what matters today? Knowledge, experience and, ultimately, wisdom. This is what you bring to the table as a true professional. You know the right questions to ask, the right data to mine and the right answers to specific situations. You now control not just the inputs to the problem, but the output. You give advice. You control events, a course of action, a plan. You mold minds. In fact, you really get paid to make up someone else's mind for him or her.

Welcome to the Recommendation Age. You're not alone. You'll see signs of it all around you. In society-at-large, people make decisions on which HMO to choose based on who has the most charming celebrity spokesperson. In politics, voters rely on proxies to ferret out "facts" and opinions; and all too often, sadly, let others decide who's elected. In economics, mundane, repetitive tasks have been shipped off to boiler rooms, and the leaders of the corporation are the ones with creativity, persuasive abilities, social skills, vision and leadership.

It's pleasantly, wickedly ironical that while "smart" may lie in the answers, "wisdom" resides in the questions. And when clients come to you for advice, they don't really come looking for answers. They come looking for questions. If they need to know how a housefly manages to land upside down on a ceiling, they can look it up.

What clients really want is a professional who's wise enough to ask whether their company's mileage reimbursement has kept up with the price of gasoline. It's an obvious question, really, once you've thought of it, but clients often don't. It's not their job.

Sure, you feel enlightened to understand the connection between fly bladders and accountancy, but you must admit that this information looks like the correct answer to the wrong question.

The correct question is:  How does the astute accountant or financial manager use his or her professional wisdom — as opposed to mere
smarts — to attract and retain clients, improve organizations and build value?

And the answer is:

  • Entice potential clients and co-workers with questions they haven't thought of. Let them come to you for the answers.
  • Reinforce your relationship with them by asking the unasked, that is, by demonstrating that they need you to be asking these questions and, of course, answering them.
  • Plan your meetings around the questions you will ask, not the information you have.
  • Keep track of the questions they can't answer. You're the one who will have answers. The burden's on you, not them.
  • Look for the missing links — the connections between things that most people don't see — Hurricane Katrina and the price of gas in Bangor, Maine, for example. Therein lies your wisdom.
  • Listen to their questions. The questions may reveal not only what clients need to know but what clients don't know they don't know. In other words, think of their questions as a kind of answer.
  • Their most important questions are the ones seeking recommendation. Clients are really seeking your professional wisdom and judgment, the insight that lets you find the right bit of information in the obscure gigabyte that's available.
And when they ask about those 67 kinds of sex, better tell them to go Google it themselves.

COMMENTS: Rants, raves, idle thoughts or questions? Contact Rick Telberg.

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