How to Get Out of the Box

Accountants.
We live inside the box.
We love the box.
We made an entire system just to keep track of the boxes.

My first real job was as a compliance tax auditor. In my mind it was like being an FBI agent without the running and guns. I was filled with energy and passion! I was going to right the world’s wrongs. I was not concerned with the box. There was no box. I would not be living in anyone’s box.

Ten years later, I had been properly placed in the box. Understanding my bureau’s policies, procedures and culture enabled me to learn the craft in full detail. They helped me to become really good; but after several years of experience those policies were keeping me from exploring how to make the industry and myself better. Those outdated ideas were keeping me from my original excitement and passion.

I made a career change to a firm that equated energy and passion with opportunity! This change required me to take a hard look at my goals and un-learn the outdated attitudes that kept me in the box. I successfully transitioned from a great bureaucrat to an innovative leader by living by these six concepts.

1. Recognize & Ditch the Scarcity Mindset

We all have resilience, but at times life and work feels too demanding. When things start going in this direction you may hear yourself say or think restrictive things such as “always,” “never” and “I can’t.” My personal favorites are “This will never end.” and “I can’t do anything about it.” This is the scarcity mindset. It tricks you into believing that you don’t have the resources and creativity necessary to overcome a challenge.

Watch and listen for these words! When I hear myself using them, I launch a debate with myself. I do it out loud just to further illustrate how ridiculous this mindset is. I challenge myself to defend the negative thoughts and then to argue in favor of a more positive position. Once the debate has transpired, I know I can’t hang on to that scarcity mindset.

2. Limit Your Focus to Three or Less Challenges

To avoid becoming overwhelmed I limit myself to solving only three or fewer challenges each week. I start by listing all of the items that are pressing. I have a mini-panic attack. I pick the three most important and then I erase all the others. I give myself permission to let them go and proceed without worry or guilt. Narrowing your focus and letting go of stress and guilt are essential to maintaining creativity.

3. Brainstorm Early in the Week

I reclaimed Monday mornings for myself. I look forward to cracking open a nice morning Red Bull. My team and my clients don’t want to talk to me yet. It is the perfect time. I wipe my giant blackboard clean. I list my plethora of challenges. I pick three and start brainstorming. I love drawing arrows and listing all the potential reasons for the problem. Then I draw bubbles listing all the possible solutions. It is a delightful and fun process to kick off the week.

Sometimes I come up with gold-standard solutions. Sometimes I come up with nothing; but I never consider it time wasted. By starting my week with an intent to be creative, I find that I respond to all subsequent problems with a more positive and open mindset.

4. Make it Ridiculous

My favorite part of the brainstorming session is to challenge myself to be too far outside the box. I once suggested to our president that we start a separate real estate company that targeted people with tax liens. If we could convince them to sell the property with a lien, then our clients could get paid for the back taxes at the closing!

I know the moral and ethical ambiguity of my idea. It was just a creative idea that led to a conversation about the pros and cons of tax liens and what some better alternatives might be. Crazy ideas are great because even when they aren’t appropriate they open the door for creative, more appropriate solutions.

5. Read and Connect with Everyone and Everything

With business on a tight budget, I feel pressured to tie the money and time I spend to a directly related business activity. Is there benefit to attending a management conference when I’m in the tax industry? Is there benefit to reading fiction books instead of self-help business books? Is it worth company time to network with professionals that will never be clients? Should I join a professional organization that has no direct benefit to my company?

The answer is yes! I met an Excel guru at that management conference and taught my team a tip that saved hours of data work. That fiction book gave me a great idea for hosting a meeting that our clients loved. The guy I had dinner with gave me information about a new auditing software. That lady at the bar gave me the backstory on an attorney I’ve been struggling with.

Inspiration comes from everything. If a topic or person interests you at all, there is good chance that you can incorporate the gains from that relationship into business success. And remember, you offer them fresh perspectives as well!

6. Get Creativity from Your Team

The best thing you can do as a manager is to inspire and support creativity from your team. My ideas are just the contributions of one person. If I invest creativity in developing my team, I can turn the contributions of one into the contributions of all. We call this “force multiply” in my firm.

My job is to create a safe space for learning, growing and taking risks. I am here to provide the tools and support necessary to get great ideas out of everyone. Although it takes patience, I don’t answer their questions. I lead them down a path to figure it out on their own. Sometimes I send out challenges to see who can come up with the most ridiculous solution for a problem plaguing us all. I let my team set important agendas and speak on topics. I always offer positive encouragement for ideas – even the bad ones. When you empower yourself and your team to be creative, you will find that your business culture won’t allow you to stay in an old, antiquated box.

Carrie Stephenson
Carrie Stephenson is an indirect tax specialist and audit firm manager. She combines her experience in the field of auditing with her interest in personal growth in order to serve as an “audit mom” for her team. Carrie is passionate about bringing fresh perspective and creativity to problem solving both at home and in the office.

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