I am writing this as the tax extension deadline is a week away. Tax returns I delegated to my team are starting to boomerang back to my desk. Some issues are beyond the comprehension of everyone but me. This confuses me. How can I be so much smarter than everyone else? What makes me so special?
The first issue perplexing me is the Indispensable Man theory. It goes like this: I want to earn more money but I am unable to close the money accounts. As you can see it does not work. Avoiding the tough cases holds people back in their career. If the boss does the work you can’t claim credit for the project.
The second issue is that the Indispensable Man is only an illusion. There is no tiny bag of pixie dust hanging at my side I can use to fix any problem showing up. Okay, maybe I do. It’s called an absolute confidence I can figure anything out and get it done. I am not asked to perform brain surgery (and if I was I could do it given enough time to research the subject and consult with other professionals); I am asked to perform a task in my field of study. All the resources available to me are available to all tax professionals. Nothing special in my bag of tricks.
Once I started writing this blog the emails started pouring in. As you might expect, a large number were from people wanting personalized help, something I don’t have time for. Another common refrain comes from other tax professionals. They either want to know how to grow their practice or they work for a firm and want to strike out on their own, but are afraid to make the leap, worried they have no one to turn to with the tough cases.
It is true, when the tough cases come in and you are the boss, you are the final line of defense. It isn’t that bad! If a country boy, raised shoveling manure on a farm, can step into the captain’s chair and excel, so can you. There is no secret. Really! The only problem for the Go-To Guy is time. Handling all the tough cases with limited time is a problem.
Michael Jordan made basketball look easy. It looked easy because he was so good at it. Experts in all fields are the same. They make it look easy because they practice their trade every day, even during their free time. Jordan was once asked what he did after practice. He responded, “Shoot buckets.” What Jordan did to unwind after practice was practice some more! And he was the best and paid accordingly. He really was the Indispensable Man. When the money shot was needed the ball was tossed his way.
Creating the Illusion
Of the few emails I respond to, none have returned telling me they made the leap. None returned telling me they opened their own practice; none said they made the move for the premium paycheck. When I started my practice thirty years ago I have shelves of research materials. My business forked over thousands of dollars every year for the resource. It is so much easier today with the internet. I can research Tax Court cases for free with search algorithms better than I ever had when working through thousands of pages of folio leaf paper.
Michael Jordan and I have something in common. We both practice after practice. I read after I finish working and much of what I read is business or tax related. After a while it becomes second nature. It isn’t hard. The only issue is time. The clock sometimes runs out before the game-winning shot leaves the fingertips.
In the office a common question is: How did you do that? Simple. I opened Google. I read instructions and articles on the subject. When I finish I then research things that made me curious, expanding from the original issues.
It all looks easy from the outside. I ask the client questions and then plug the numbers. How did I know where the numbers go? Experience plays a large roll. Jordan did not start at the top; he worked at it. My experience gets me to the correct research material faster. Without experience I would still get there, only slower. I glance over the left shoulder at the clock when that happens. It keeps ticking.
What is the Indispensable Man Worth?
When I talk on the phone with accountants looking for inside knowledge I have on rising to the top I can hear their voice resign as I tell them the only path to get there. It’s disappointing. For some reason they think it is really hard. It isn’t. It does take time and effort. Thinking is involved.
Once the phone call is over I wonder how much the caller will lose over a lifetime with their defeatist attitude. You don’t have to run your own firm to be an Indispensable Man. Owning a business is hard work with plenty of worries. The problems never stop and all problems end on your desk. Running a business means you will do things unrelated to your field of work. Business management is a whole different set of skills required to learn.
Working for the man can be a pleasant experience. Some employers and managers are wing nuts. I get it. But if you rise to the level of Indispensable Man the rules change! For you. Employers/managers can talk smart and treat employees like shit when they are easily replaced. Finding good employees is hard, but a normal part of running a business. As hard as it is to find good employees, I still keep finding them.
Indispensables are irreplaceable. Once you rise into this category you make the rules. Your share of the honey pot of cash goes up because you bring in extraordinary revenue and profits for the company. You become a quasi partner without all the headaches of ownership.
The best part is you get to chose who you work with. Indispensable people inside a firm are limited by time. We already said that. The Indispensable Man decides who he serves within reason. They still have to be tough accounts. But they are not tough for you. You just need time to get the job done and for the research necessary.
Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?
We look for heroes to light the way. To reach the heights of indispensable the road gets narrow. There are no cowboys to ride in to the rescue; you are the cowboy. The feeling is like no other when you realize the buck does stop at your desk. The lead doctor in surgery is looked to by the rest of the team for direction. As the Indispensable Man they now look to you for guidance and direction.
The first step is scariest. I admit I had it easy. I was so stupid when I was younger I just jumped in with both feet and started my practice unaware of the consequences. Ignorance is a great way to avoid fear. My ignorance has waned over the years and fear is an emotion I have to keep under control.
It takes getting used to making decisions affecting the lives of others. The guy at the top must make the decision. Inaction is a decision, one you probably will not like.
The tax/accounting industry is in dire need of people willing to step into the Indispensable Man’s shoes. Few take the call, instead choosing the path of a data processor. You can’t complain if you get paid like a data processor if that is what you are. Lofty goals take work. Once you prove your worth the paycheck follows. The farmer who stands by his field and says, “Lord, give me a crop and then I’ll plant” will be sorely disappointed. The consequences will have a reverberating lifelong affect.
Building the Muscle
Overworking a muscle is prescription for several days of pain and soreness. I was fortunate to naturally know where I needed to go. The day I opened my practice I didn’t invite the biggest and worst cases. Instead, I take a handful of serious cases, with material new to me, each year. I grow steadily. Oh, I bite off more than I can chew now and again. The muscles get sore. That isn’t always a bad thing.
Muscle mass is built by stressing the muscle, actually causing micro tears in the muscle fibers. The healing process grows the muscles bigger and stronger for the next workout. You increase protein intake as you work to build muscle mass. Building blocks coupled with stress equals growth.
The same applies to your profession. Research and study is your protein intake while the tough case one level above your pay grade is the stressor causing the muscle to grow. The more valuable you are the more people will want you. That is the moment you call the shots. You pick and choose who you work with. You have limited time and are experienced, and by past performance, the person to get the job done. The best of the best make the big money because they take the cases paying the big money.
If you are happy as a data processor, happy with a safety net of an Indispensable Man, then you have to accept your position. The Indispensable Man is not giving up his paycheck to a data processor when he is doing the heavy lifting.
Or, you can start on the road to excellence. You can start the journey to being one of the elite, one of the best. The one person everyone goes to the get the job done right.
Thursday 13th of October 2016
Keith. Isn't there sort of a middle ground here that could be a sweet spot for some of us? As you mentioned, a certain leap of faith is necessary to step out and start your own tax practice. You have to take that very first step towards becoming the indispensible man. But do we really need to be the Michael Jordan of tax in order to run a successful part time seasonal tax practice that generates enough income to cover a mustachian $24k of living expenses? You obviously very much enjoy being The Man and taking on the toughest tax issues. But as you've admitted here and in other posts, being The Man can lead to biting off more than you can chew and creating unecessary headaches, drama, and stress. Isn't it ok to admit to a prospectice client, "I'm sorry, we are not willing or able to effectively address your tax needs, you should should call Keith instead"? Taking on a tough case here and there is definitely beneficial for developing as a professional. But, it seems there could be a lot of value in saying no to the majority of them.
Thursday 13th of October 2016
You are right, Scott. I accept about 1 in 120 clients who want to do business with my firm. I say no to the other 119. This year alone I turned away over 12,000. I always wish I could help more. Challenges focus my attention so I accept a limited number of them. This blog has provided a new type of client requiring more time to finish correctly. It is a skill I am still adjusting to. There is some apprehension as I know if this blog really grows it will take over my work/tax life while actually working with clients will decline. You are also right about earning more than I need. I spend closer to $30k a year and my income greatly exceeds that. It's not about money; money is only the scorecard. What I crave is making a difference in the life of people around me. A positive difference.You can run a smaller tax practice and be just as happy. My issue is a personality problem.