Lately, I’ve been reading and thinking about an American icon that is in a serious state of flux and trying to figure out what we can learn from them. For almost 100 years Kodak WAS the film industry and now the company is in bankruptcy and trying to plan their next phase with only about a quarter of their past workforce.  Several recent articles and blogs have outlined some of the problems Kodak couldn’t seem to overcome.  There are lessons to be learned for all sorts of Kodak Instamaticorganizations, but particularly well-established companies, firms or professions that may be too risk averse, or frankly too successful, in the short-term to set strategies that will keep them at their strongest for the long-term.  While Kodak is famous for visual images, it seems their lack of listening skills may have led to their fall from the top.

Listening to employees.  There is often not enough pressure to find solutions to the needs your customers will have later.  In his Harvard Business Review Blog (HBR), Scott Anthony relays that an engineer at Kodak invented a prototype of a digital camera in 1975.  When he showed it to management, the reaction was, “That’s cute – but don’t tell anyone about it.”  Today, that sounds hard to believe, but in 1975 Kodak was busy making money from film and any disruption to that business model didn’t seem like an opportunity, but just a drain on resources.

For CPAs … are your auditors coming back from a client engagement with information that will help you solve that client’s next business problem?  Are you taking the time to listen and think strategically?  Are you, as a CPA who is a CFO or Controller, managing opportunities and communicating problem-solving strategies?  Are you taking advantage of expressing what you can do through the CGMA credential?

Listening to customers.  Are you really solving their problems or continuing to push solutions to problems you already know how to fix?  Kodak was too busy looking at profits from customers to listen to what they might want down the road. By the time they were willing to listen, they couldn’t meet the demands of customers and those demands were already being fulfilled by dozens of smaller competitors.

For CPAs, this means finding ways to make clients or internal customers’ lives easier.  When a client starts complaining about the new paperwork they have to fill out because they are a vendor for a company that now cares about something called “sustainability,” does that make you wonder what your role can be in solving that clients’ problem?  CPAs in all facets of work can’t wait until competitors find ways to meet business reporting needs.  If you’re not willing to do it, it doesn’t mean someone else won’t step in.

NOT listening to fear.  Kodak didn’t have a crystal ball and it’s hard to fault such a wildly successful company for having fear of fracturing what worked for almost a century, but their complete focus on core competencies left them vulnerable.  While doing what you do best is essential, the 80/20 rule should be applied to planning.  Spending 80 percent of time on core competencies and 20 percent of time on strategic thinking that scares you a little is a way toward long-term viability.

Embrace the fear and put some effort behind the ideas that could pay you back later.  Get your staff involved in decisions and listen to what they have to say even if it scares you a little. Make sure that you are vigilant – 20 percent of the time.  Think about sustainability.  Think about CGMA.  Set yourself up to capitalize on new opportunities and provide new value.