Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Trusting What We Are Told

In the July 12 issue of Fortune magazine, I read an interview with Paul Harris the Harvard professor who has written a controversial new book, Trusting What You’re Told.

Harris says most of what kids know, they learn from others. He believes that rather than seeing kids as “scientists in the crib” learning from observation and research, they actually learn more from the “testimony” of “informants.”

Think about your own childhood. If it was like mine, you learned so much from what adults and friends “told” you. Harris goes against what happens in today’s classrooms; instead, it demands verbally acute teachers as well as patient parents. Per Harris, children left to be hands-on experimenters is too narrow of a vision.

Harris: Children get their information from teachers, parents and experts. They’ll learn to trust some more than others. But I’m not just offering a portrait of young children. We’re all stuck with the fact that the amount of knowledge we can gather for ourselves is minuscule compared with the amount we gain by listening to experts, whether it’s how to invest or what to do if we have a cancer.

An issue – Pre-school teachers are mostly selected for their ability to be “nurturers” rather than for verbal or intellectual abilities. The student-teacher ration needs to be much lower.

Does questioning become less important as children age? Harris: No. It extends to elementary school and even high school. I don’t know about your children, but mine complain that often when they’ve asked questions in school, there’s not been time to deal with them. It’s the curriculum that dictates the pace of learning.

Why did I tell you all this? Because, hopefully, as you live your life inside an accounting firm, you learn from me and other “experts.” I learn a whole lot by reading (and I share that with all of my readers). I like to say “I read so you don’t have to.” While I learn from reading, I must admit that most of what I have learned over my many years in the accounting firm world, I have learned from listening to others; people more experienced in CPA firm management. Isn’t that why you belong to CPA associations, so you can learn from others?

Turn the focus to YOU. People hire you because you are an expert in taxation, accounting, auditing, bookkeeping, financial affairs, etc. They listen to you and learn.

Who else listens and learns from you? Yes, your staff members! Most one and two-year people tell me, “I didn’t learn any of this in college!” It’s about on-the-job training. It’s about individual counseling. It’s about mentoring others.

Accountants are known, for the most part, for being introverts yet so many people are relying on you to talk to them, to verbally convey your knowledge and experience about financial affairs.

Reading this interview shed some light for me on the fact that communication is the root of many problems inside accounting firms.

Don’t make it difficult, keep it simple and talk to your people and your clients. So what if your formal mentoring program isn’t working 100%, are you taking individuals to lunch and simply answering their questions? My advice is to take more individuals to lunch and answer questions – verbally convey your wisdom. Clients will gladly pay for it and your people will prosper.

Contact me if you need ideas for improving communication within your accounting firm.


  • "It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge."
  • Albert Einstein

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