Many in the accounting profession would like to follow their peers who have already made the leap into providing higher-level advisory services to their clients. You may be surprised to discover that according to scientific research, becoming a trusted advisor actually involves a different way of thinking — of using your brain. And the good news is that you can train your brain to think like an advisor.
Medical science and some high-tech equipment known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) and electroencephalograms have greatly enhanced our understanding of how the human brain processes sensory input and makes decisions. These insights have groundbreaking implications for entrepreneurs in general and also those of us in the accounting profession who wish to make the shift from compliance to advisory in the near future.
Neuroscientists have also made great strides in the quest to determine how we can translate these brain insights into workable strategies for boosting individual and organizational effectiveness. Along the way, they have also uncovered surprising correlations between certain patterns of brain functioning (and capability) and the ability to lead and influence others (which are vital skills for all would-be advisors).
Research has proven that the brains of advisors are actually wired differently than those of managers, accountants, or bookkeepers who perform compliance-type tasks. For example, advisors tend to embrace problems and challenges very swiftly and are much more likely to postpone worry and only deal with implications if and when they do occur.
A similar study found that when participants performed exploratory tasks (i.e., looking for new ways to achieve a goal), the ones who used both the left and right sides of their pre-frontal cortex — the region of the brain associated with executive functions — were far more effective. In fact, these neural integrators displayed a far greater capacity to meld right and left side capabilities (blending expressive and creative functions seamlessly with the more rigid, left side cognitive functions) and were more inclined to display decision-making that harnessed both innovation and experimentation.
Conversely, the participants who were more single-mindedly focused on financials and critical thinking (i.e., the stereotypical accountant and bookkeeper), tended to favor the left side of the pre-frontal cortex (the side preoccupied with cognitive behavior, decision-making, language and numbers, and problem solving).
The good news for all those accounting pros with the goal of becoming a trusted advisor is that brain science and neuroplasticity have demonstrated that the brain continues to learn, expand, and develop throughout life, which means it is never too late to rewire your brain for success as an advisor.
Here are four areas of competence that you can develop to materially boost your success as a trusted advisor to your clients.
1) Laser-focused Attention
Making the shift to advisory requires an enormous amount of discipline and concentration, as well as the ability to step back and clearly distinguish the forest from the trees. On any given day, there could be 100 or more pressing concerns, client challenges, or opportunities vying for your time and attention. The best advisors stay focused and are not easily sidetracked by bright shiny objects, drama, fear of missing out, or distractions dressed up as emergencies.
Learning to focus your attention like a laser — with varying degrees of intensity, position, direction, and range — is critical for success. However, in order to focus, illuminate, and cut through, your laser needs to be maintained and serviced. The following strategies can help you to hone and enhance your attention:
- Cultivate mental downtime to allow novel solutions and insights to be contemplated and explored fully.
- Good nutrition and ample sleep will also foster better performance and decision-making.
- A technology-free zone at home will allow your mind a chance to rest and recalibrate.
2) Mental and Emotional Agility
Being able to draw upon all your internal resources is crucial to enhancing your performance, confidence, resilience, and innovation. Developing the agility and flexibility to weather the storms of advisory is vital to success. This includes both mental and emotional aspects — learning how to regulate, direct, and leverage your thoughts and emotions. Even though we would like to think we are rational decision-makers, neuroscience has proven that decisions are primarily driven by the hasty, automatic, survival-based mechanism of the brain, with heavy influence from emotions, survival instinct, and visual cues.
As such, it is vital to acknowledge and listen to the signals that trigger the primitive part of your brain that decides and acts. Here are some tips you can use to stay connected to both the rational and intuitive aspects of your mind:
- Understand and acknowledge the meaning and purpose behind your work and assist your clients to do the same.
- Become aware of the clients and tasks that drain your physical energy throughout the day.
- Embrace challenges, setbacks, and failures as a natural and valuable part of your journey as an advisor.
- Formally check in with your gut instinct and emotional drivers as equal and valuable partners in the decision-making process.
- Practice the art of shortening your decision-making cycle — document the cost/impact of not making (or delaying decisions).
- Document when you choose to use intuition because the data does not support your gut instinct (and measure how often these decisions are correct).
3) Strategic Precision
Neuroscience has proven that we have hundreds of subconscious biases that automatically influence our decision-making. These biases and the beliefs, values, and assumptions you hold at a deeply unconscious level influence and drive your behavior as an advisor far more strongly than rational thought.
Success in advisory requires the ability to step back, challenge your own biases or assumptions, and change your course of action based on rapidly changing circumstances. Strategic precision is achieved when you can step back from your brain’s natural default position (based on those beliefs and assumptions) and consistently make good decisions that help to propel your clients forward.
A study from Stanford University underlines the importance of a growth mindset. Essentially, individuals who believe they have unlimited capacity to learn throughout their lifetime outperform those who believe that their intelligence is fixed. What this means is that you can actually learn how to mitigate subconscious biases and assumptions by rewiring the brain patterns that lead to undesired automatic responses when advising your clients.
Here are some great tips that you can use to reduce automatic behaviors that derail your effectiveness as an advisor and learn to manage the inner voice that blocks healthy risk-taking and growth:
- Develop a network of trusted advisors and mentors you can turn to who have diverse perspectives and experience.
- Ask for feedback from colleagues on your strengths and weaknesses regarding decision-making, leadership, risk-taking and innovation, so you can consciously create a plan to grow and develop.
- Practice meditation — brain science has proven that meditation enhances connectivity between both the right and left sides of the pre-frontal cortex, which is essential to success.
- Get familiar with your own default patterns of behavior and formalize an internal alarm bell system that alerts you when you need to stop, review, and reset before taking action.
Learning how to develop and foster collaboration with your clients is crucial as you make the shift to advisory. Humans are social beings. In fact, brain functioning and neuroplasticity are enhanced by healthy social relationships. Learning how to foster greater accountability, build compassion, and show empathy will increase your ability to engage in healthy risk-taking and support your clients to move forward.
- Create a strong sense of “we” and “team” by creating rituals and rewards that support collaboration with your clients.
- Embed the norm of constructive dissent by letting clients voice their opinions first in meetings and encourage them to challenge your thinking.
- Reinforce the value of experimentation and risk-taking by rewarding those who “fail fast” and are open to learning from their mistakes.
- Exercise compassion and encourage clients to strive for a healthy work-life balance.
Neural integration (connecting different parts of your brain) and neuroplasticity (lifelong learning) increases your growth potential, fosters innovation, helps you manage uncertainty and complexity, and will improve the quality of your relationships.
Accountants and bookkeepers looking to expand into advisory can consciously optimize their brain-mind connection for extraordinary performance, growth, and agile decision-making. Fortunately, all of the capabilities and soft skills that are crucial for your success as an advisor can be learned and mastered with the right training, consistent effort, and a solid plan.