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Success, the great writer Henry David Thoreau once observed, "usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it." This sentiment continues to resonate for me in twenty-first century business, where the challenges -- and the opportunities -- are far greater than in Thoreau's day.

Be Your Best: What It Takes to Succeed Today

Success, the great writer Henry David Thoreau once observed, “usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” This sentiment continues to resonate for me in twenty-first century business, where the challenges — and the opportunities — are far greater than in Thoreau’s day. Its message is clear: Developing and using our core skills and attributes wisely, rather than allowing personal ambition to drive our agenda, is what propels us forward.

Success, in short, comes when we truly strive to be our best.

Being our best, though, is not simply a matter of mastering skills and work assignments. Rather, it lies in focusing and directing our abilities to consistently add value to the organization. Being our best also implies a perpetual state of self-improvement: Who among us could not be better tomorrow if we set our mind to it?

Although it takes a complex, multi-faceted commitment to aim for lifelong excellence, I believe these seven strategies are especially timely in today's environment:

Set personal goals. The organizations for which we work continuously set goals and targets, both short- and long-term. Shouldn’t we do the same for ourselves? Goals help us establish a vision of what we want to achieve in a given time frame, a direction in which to move, and a way to benchmark progress. Given the daily distractions of business, it is almost impossible to move ahead without them. The best personal goals are specific, and require us to reach a bit: “I will take a leadership role on a cross-department task force within two years” rather than “I’ll get involved in something that will help me know what's happening elsewhere in the company.” Have goals for the short, intermediate, and long term, and update them periodically.

Internalize the organization's mission and your role in it. Tasks and responsibilities never exist in a vacuum. It is critical to understand clearly the company's vision — where it is heading and how it plans to achieve its objectives. Effective employees understand that their role is to maximize the impact of their skills on that broader vision. Every interaction with a customer, supplier, or colleague, every decision about how to use their time and talent, is guided by the organization's mission.

Engage in the mentoring process. Early in your career, find a potential mentor with whom you feel comfortable, and use that person freely as a resource. Formal channels of authority run an organization, but they are rarely adequate to provide a junior employee with all the formal and informal knowledge they need to perform effectively. Having a mentor gives you another valuable perspective — in addition to your supervisors' — on how things work within your industry and organization. As you advance, become a mentor to someone younger. Giving back is not only personally rewarding; it is regarded favorably by management, and will single you out as someone with leadership potential.

Share with others. Our time, our talent, our knowledge: these are the resources we use every day at our desks. When we offer them to a wider network beyond our department, we and the organization gain. The employer benefits because you are leveraging your strengths more broadly; we become more widely known in the company, acquire a better understanding of the entire company’s operations, and become identified as someone willing to “go the extra mile.” Whether it is informally, by helping a struggling co-worker or pitching in during an emergency, or formally by serving on committees, sharing will return strong dividends over time. It is noticed and valued.

Be adaptable. It almost goes without saying, but sometimes it is difficult to remember during the daily give-and-take of business. All of business, and life, is in a state of constant change these days. Maintaining and displaying a flexible attitude, and being mentally supple enough to adapt readily to new situations, are key traits management examines in evaluating talent. We cannot simply demonstrate adaptability on a macro level — adding new skills and staying on top of developments in our field. We must do it on the micro level as well — responding positively when called on to change our work schedule or assignments. In the old days, “comfort zones” were acceptable. Today we must proactively alert management that we are eager to stretch beyond our usual boundaries and ways of thinking.

Learn continuously. Just as organizations engage in continuous improvement processes, so must we as individuals. Taking new courses, adding on new assignments periodically, and achieving additional certification — like finally attaining that CMA or CFM credential — are imperatives today, not frills. Lifelong learning consists of at least three elements: updating professional skills and techniques, keeping pace with overarching trends and emerging processes in all of business and in our own industry, and grasping the challenges facing our own organization. We must pursue each of these avenues on a consistent basis, and it is often our own responsibility to make sure that we do.

Communicate effectively. The work that accountants or financial managers perform often ripples powerfully throughout an organization. This frequently puts accountants in the challenging role of explaining technical aspects of their profession to others who lack their knowledge. Unfortunately, few accounting courses or training programs emphasize communication skills adequately. In a time when the ability to communicate effectively is critical to success, it is up to every financial manager and accountant to master the basic skills: listening, explaining, influencing, and negotiating. Formal courses, online learning, and self-study are among the avenues to do so.

If this sounds like a daunting list, remember that being one's best is a never-ending process. Another Henry put it this way: “Each success only buys an admission ticket to a more difficult problem,” Henry Kissinger once said.

KIM WALLIN is currently serving as Chair of the Institute of Management Accountants in 2003-04. She is president of her own accounting firm, DK Wallin, Ltd., based in Las Vegas, founded in 1984.

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