I’ve spent 22 years as an airline pilot, seeking perfection by diligently working through predefined lists of tasks and actions, identifying any threats that might compromise the safety of the flight, and mitigating them. Today, I’m a marketer and entrepreneur, which means the balance of power between perfectionism and creativity has swung the other way. Strangely enough, it’s the world of our clients where these two worlds meet. After all, being a tax advisor or an accountant serving people with great wealth requires both airline perfectionism and creative entrepreneurship. How to combine the two? That’s a question worth answering.
In the world of airlines, Standard Operating Procedures are used when everything is going well and as expected. The cutely named “Non-Normal Procedures” steer you through events which aren’t going well and where safety is, or could be compromised. It’s exceptionally rare that the crew of an aircraft find themselves in a situation where they need to get creative because what they’re facing is new and hasn’t been trained for. A perfect example of this is the landing of US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River.
Thankfully, for most pilots, most of the time (and without wanting to overly simplify what is an incredibly demanding and complex profession), perfection is diligently following the script and complying with the law.
In the world of marketers and entrepreneurs, different rules apply. This quote by Seth Godin says it all: “Doing it well now is much better than doing it perfectly later.” If you said these words in a cockpit, they’d fire you on the spot (and rightfully so).
The “Seth Godin mindset” enables marketers and entrepreneurs to quickly share their ideas with their customers, to observe their reaction, listen to what they say, and to consider “mistakes” as golden learning opportunities to improve their product or service. In their work, perfectionism is often the kiss of death.
The unforgiving world of taxes
The world I’m working in now at Taxteq is with tax advisors and accountant serving people with great wealth. Tax is complicated and unforgiving. The consequences of missing a deadline by a single day can be massively disproportionate, catastrophic in fact. The same is true of getting a sequence wrong, or not being able to locate contemporaneous documentation.
Taxteq’s Senior Advisor, Paul Aplin OBE, gives an example:
“SEIS and EIS shares cannot for example be issued on the same day if both EIS and SEIS shareholder groups are to get their tax relief – issuing SEIS shares on day 1 and EIS shares on day 2 is fine however - getting this wrong could mean one group of shareholders not getting the tax relief they had expected to cushion the risk of their investment.”
The level of detail that HMRC will require of clients is extraordinary. I was astonished to learn that during a domicile enquiry it’s not enough to simply provide documents and a list of dates of travel - HMRC are looking to establish what is in someone's mind, and how can they evidence that. It’s personal and intrusive.
In this scenario, an aviation-style “black box” recorder for both of these situations would be pretty handy. Airline perfectionism wins!
…versus the creative world of taxes
All of the above is about compliance. Compliance is about understanding the rules and reporting requirements and ensuring that they are met. This is where perfection is required.
The other side is all about planning. Planning is about setting a future course that again requires a good understanding of the rules, but that knowledge is used to plan future transactions to achieve a particular effect. Planning is not about avoidance: it’s about saying “if we do things this way the effect will be X; if we do things that way the effect will be Y”.
Here, airline perfectionism stands in the way. Here, creativity and communication skills are needed first and foremost
Advisors also have to think outside the box, and to dig deep into understanding what their clients' needs and intentions are. This means they have to get to know their client, simply by coming over for a cup of coffee or going out to lunch. After all, if a tax investigation should occur, you need to understand and know how to paint a picture of your client’s life. It’s common for the client to not appreciate the significance of a piece of information or action and it falls to the advisor to develop a trusting relationship through communication and human connection to surface the facts that are needed to paint the picture.
When you look at it from this perspective, Seth Godin’s “Doing it well now is much better than doing it perfectly later” is actually a great idea.
And there’s a third requirement for creativity, in simply running your firm. What are your mission, vision, values, what is your brand tone of voice, what’s your promise, where do you position yourself in the market, what do you specialise in, how do you connect with people, and share what you do, for them to be inspired and to want to work with you? And most importantly: how will they trust you?
Finding a balance
Having read all this, what can you perfect in an imperfect world, particularly the moving target that is legislation? And how can you find a way to also be creative and in some cases, to be a friend?
As regulation becomes more complex, with governments under increasing pressure to recover unpaid taxes and to detect fraud, the role of the accountant is becoming ever more one of an advisor and a protector. Sure, financial and domicile record keeping should be done with airline perfectionism, but more and more, the role of tax advisors and accountants is becoming a people-centred profession and this needs time, creativity and great people skills.
You need to know your client well enough to know what kind of information you will need them to identify and share. This should be done long before any investigation and it should be an easy and efficient process that will encourage you and your client to gather documents and data together so that you and your client can become as prepared as possible.
This will free both of you up to have conversations, to plan and strategise more effectively, safe in the knowledge that what you need is already there.
Should there be an investigation, you can be more confident in saying that there’s nothing to see here, that you can quickly answer the investigators questions quickly and efficiently, and for the enquiry to be drawn to a close more quickly.
In my opinion, balancing perfectionism and creativity can be done by automating as much as you can automate, for example by finding a way to store and share documentation fast and in a safe manner. This gives tax advisors and accountants more time and headspace to do what machines can’t - to be human.
Tim Huelin is CEO and Co-founder of Taxteq, the home of residence and domicile record keeping software for HNWIs, their advisors and family offices. He is an entrepreneur, marketer and board member, and enjoyed a twenty-two year career as an airline pilot. From there came the inspiration of bringing data and information together into an aviation-style Black Box for Business - which became Taxteq. He is a proud alumni of Seth Godin’s altMBA, a 30-day online workshop that selects leaders from around the world to come together, to level up and to take their ideas into the world in ways that enable change to happen.