Earlier this fall, I was delighted when Corey Butler, Communications Coordinator for the Minnesota Society of CPAs contacted me to write an article for their Footnote magazine.
Corey asked if I could share ideas with their readers on creative ways to shed some of that stress that builds during busy season. I have found that CPA firms are very active and creative when it comes to showing their appreciation and helping their teams make it through the busiest time of the year.
I like to say, “the good old days are now” because when I began my career in public accounting, we received one “goody bag” from a local bank (it contained headache medicine, mints, gum and the like) and we were treated to lunch at the country club on April 16th. Of course, we made progress! I was so proud as the firm grew and expanded over the years and became the “cool” CPA firm to work for in our market. Like many firms, we realized the value of retaining top talent.
Thanks to many of my clients and friends for contributing to the article by sharing their activities with me. Also thanks, to Carolyn LaViolette, Communications Manager at MNCPA for sending me some copies of the magazine.
Communication suffers greatly inside most busy accounting firms. Your people want AND NEED more communication from the partner(s).
Some hotel customer service programs recommend a brief, 15-minute stand-up meeting when the shift changes so that all employees know what’s going on at the hotel for their upcoming shift.
Why not try it? Smaller firms, have the managing partner do the communicating first thing in the morning and invite every person. Larger firms, do it by department, by office, by niche service line. Firm administrators, try a brief stand-up meeting with your administrative assistants just as the day is beginning. Firm administrators in larger firms, also have a daily or weekly stand-up meeting with your support professionals (marketing director, HR director, tech staff, bookkeeper/controller, etc.).
Some firms focus on new client opportunities during their stand-up meeting. Inform them of networking opportunities going on in the local business community, give them quick tips on how to properly shake hands, how to start a conversation at a networking event, etc.
Here’s an example:
Talk to your people about client service and instruct them to ALWAYS, when departing from a client encounter, whether in their workplace or at a charity event, ASK: “How are we doing? Are we taking good care of you?”
Build team spirit, knowledge and add some fun. Most of all….. enhance communication.
Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.
There, I said it. They are conducted the way they have been conducted for 30 (or more) years.
Lack of or poor communication is one of the biggest inside CPA firms. It comes out on top in most of the many surveys I have done as a consultant over the years. To many partners in CPA firms, this means they need to have more meetings – wrong!
There are so many great ways to communicate. Use the social media tools inside your firm. I urge managing partners to set-up a PRIVATE Twitter account just for people inside their firm and keep people posted on management and practice growth activities by simple tweets.
I believe that regularly scheduled update meetings are fine. Keep them brief and informational. These meetings are not a place to debate topics. It’s just what’s it’s called, an update on current happenings inside the firm. Sure you can do those with social media, too, but I want all of your people, as a group, to see each other and the firm partners face-to-face at least once a month.
Now for the important project focused, learning focused, problem-solving meetings. Why not try the Amazon method. Here’s how they do it at Amazon. I read about this in a post by Bijan Sabet. You can Google it and find lots of other information about the Amazon meetings.
There are no PowerPoint or keynote presentations. Everything is written out in a six-page memo that often contains an appendix with supporting data. The memo does not have charts or pictures. It has text.
The memo is presented at the beginning of the meeting. The attendees do not see it in advance. The meeting begins with EVERYONE silently reading the memo for 15-20 minutes. Then everyone has the same information and the meeting begins.
This method forces the presenter (or meeting chair) to do the work in advance instead of winging it in the meeting. It forces the meeting participants to pay attention to the material.
I certainly don’t believe this would work with every CPA firm internal meeting. But perhaps it will make you stop and think before you interrupt someone before you have heard the whole story. And, for project themed meetings (improving your mentoring program, streamlining workflow, considering a new software project, etc.) it might be something you should definitely TRY. Remember what I keep telling you – WTTMSW (from Tom Peters):
Whoever Tries The Most Stuff Wins
We have study hall at the beginning of our meetings.
In my opinion, CPAs let themselves be bullied by their clients. Not all CPAs, but many CPAs.
Clients make unreasonable demands.
Clients do not respond to our requests.
Clients don’t pay you on time or at all.
Clients believe you should go above and beyond for no additional fees.
Clients are rude to your administrative team members.
Clients are not ready when you have clearly communicated the engagement start date.
I’m sure you can add more.
These situations often result from lack of communication up front. CPAs shy away from talking openly and honestly about fees. Many CPAs give the client a range of what fees to expect. The CPA expects the highest fee in the range and the client expects the lowest fee in the range. I have even heard of CPAs who dodge client calls if they perceive it will be a complaint about fees.
What you do for your clients is very, very valuable. You have spent years perfecting your skills and investing in your education, both in time and money. Just because you know the answer immediately, off the top of your head, doesn’t mean you should just give it away.
Upfront communication is so important in these situations. Just because you have an audience with a potential client that you want very badly doesn’t mean you allow them to bully you for years to come.
Consider using a joint CPA/Client Commitment Statement as part of your upfront communication with potential clients. It should state what the client can expect from you and your firm and what you, and the firm, expect from the client. Use the document as a discussion tool and verbally talk through it with your new or potential clients.
State the rules upfront – you will be happier and so will your client. They will know what to expect and that is comforting to most people. Set boundaries and stick with them. This post was inspired by a post by Seth Godin.
I share a joint commitment statement with my clients. If you want to see a sample, let me know.
Individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.
As we enter into this last week-end of the year, perhaps you – like me – take time to reflect on the past year and on things that have much more meaning than the day-to-day drama (or comedy) that plays out inside your accounting firm.
After the sad events in Newtown this month, many people were searching for a way to talk about such tragedies with children. A group called 170 Million for Public Broadcasting posted the following words from a voice that many Americans grew-up with, Fred Rogers:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers–so many caring people in the world.
Watch the following one minute video on talking to children about tragic events in the news.
Now, think about your work life. What a great lesson you can take from Mr. Rogers and actually become “a helper” inside your firm. It seems we always have those, often very successful individuals inside the firm, who seem to fit the title “taker” rather than “helper.”
In 2013, cultivate, educate and reward more helpers. Develop an environment where your valued team members – young ones and more experienced ones – are comfortable talking about issues – any issues.
Part of the communication puzzle inside your CPA firm is the fact that your people watch the partners – all the partners. They make assumptions about their actions and comments. Those assumptions might be completely wrong. In 2013, develop ways to make it easy for your people to ask questions and obtain answers.
When an issue, concern, or rumor arises, address it immediately. As Mr. Rogers advises, “Ask what they know about it. Their fantasies are often far from the actual truth.”
There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.
In my conversations with various groups of people who work in public accounting firms, I hear all kinds of stories.
Inside some firms they still use the Baby Boomer method of training new hires. I am talking about the way Baby Boomers were trained. It goes something like this….. a Baby Boomer joined a CPA firm in the late 70s or in the 80s. On his second or third day a partner (another “he”) walked up to his desk, dropped a legal size, thick file on the desk and casually said, “Follow what’s in this file and do what we did last year.”
Funny thing is, the Baby Boomers did just that and basically learned from trial and error. Maybe I should describe it as “try to do the work, receive extensive review notes addressing all your errors and then try again.” – – repeat, repeat, repeat.
What has evolved is that we have partners and managers who grew-up in public accounting this way and now they are attempting to manage Millennials who respond differently.
I find most of it is just poor communication. It is compounded by the fact that for years CPAs have spent lots of money on technical training for the people who are now partners and managers and very little on providing education on how to manage, coach and mentor people.
What can you do about this? Find out what your people think. Begin now to build an environment that builds trust between managers/partners and the team. Many experts tell us that to begin building this culture of trust you should begin with the people who know most – the ones being managed – and only then seek feedback from the leaders downward.
Here are some of the disturbing excuses (stories) I hear from people working in firms:
The partners refuse to do an upward survey – they don’t care what the people think.
Our partners are afraid of what will be said.
Our partners really don’t want to change so they don’t see the need for an upward survey.
Our managers really got upset when we once discussed asking for upward feedback about them and the partners backed off.
I firmly believe that we get better by a constant stream of helpful information from the people who are part of our accounting firm team. That is why I am pleased to be co-founder of a new survey company, along with Gary Adamson of Adamson Advisory, formed to help CPA firms with the PEOPLE side of the business. Take a look at SurveyCPA and consider if it is time for the PEOPLE managing your PEOPLE to obtain some feedback that can help them improve their performance.
A telephone survey says that 51 percent of college students drink until they pass out at least once a month. The other 49 percent didn't answer the phone.
How many times have you heard one of your newly hired interns or entry-level accountants remark that what they are being asked to do in the work environment is not something they learned in school? The typical remark that I heard from new grads was, “Boy, they didn’t teach us this in college!”
Because people learn so much more from other people than they do from reading and experimenting on their own, maybe it is time for you to work with your partners to develop a culture of answering questions. So, if you as a leader are going to answer questions, YOU have to create the opportunity for your new employees (and even experienced employees) to ask questions.
Dan Rothstein is the cofounder of the Right Question Institute, a Cambridge-based nonprofit that exists to promote an idea he’s been nursing for more than a decade (that asking good questions is a life skill far more important than we realize). He believes that learning how to ask questions should be considered as critical as learning how to read, write and do basic math. He thinks the ability to use questions strategically can make people smarter and better at their jobs.
The skill of asking questions is not deliberately taught, we assume that anyone can do it. I think this describes a lot of what really goes on inside accounting firms. Communication suffers because so many people do not listen, so many people do not ask questions and so many experienced, skilled, experts in tax and auditing/accounting don’t talk about what they know and open themselves up for questions from others. They might be quite skilled at asking questions and answering questions when it comes to clients, but don’t practice that same skill with their team members.
Younger accountants inside CPA firms are afraid to ask questions because they might appear dumb to their peers (and bosses). Older accountants are afraid to ask questions because it just might create some form of confrontation. Remember when I talk about “the partner nod?” They nod their heads in silence rather than speak up and say what’s really on their minds or to ask pertinent questions so they better understand.
I love the team members in firms who speak up and ask the “dumb” question. Most firms have one of these, maybe two (because so many others are afraid of looking dumb).
My advice to experienced firm leaders and young new hires? Get over it. Ask questions.
The key to wisdom is knowing all the right questions.
It’s summer. Hopefully, inside your CPA firm, people are more relaxed. Many might be away from the office for vacation and continuing education sessions. It’s only natural that you might not be communicating with your team (and with your clients) as much as you do during the first four months of the year.
In the spring, Accountemps released a survey that documented that lack of communication is the TOP management mistake. I hate to say it (not really), but I told you so!
Need some summer reading? Look at the right-side of this blog page at the categories. Click on Communication and scan through all of the blog posts I’ve done that involve communication in CPA firms.
Almost every time I survey a firm’s team members prior to a partner retreat, communication is at the root of most of the problems. Almost every time I get a call from a managing partner who wants to talk about their firm and some challenges they are facing, it involves communication.
Per the Accountemps survey, CFOs were asked, “What one mistake do companies make most in managing their employees?” The response:
Lack of communication between staff and management – 41%
Lack of recognition and praise – 28%
Lack of training, development and other educational opportunities – 11%
Lack of flexibility in work schedules – 8%
Lack of authority given to employees – 6%
Don’t know/No answer – 6%
Many CPA firm team members feel like they are kept in the dark. This causes them to wonder, worry and fret when they see a lot of closed-door activity among the partner group. Partners, when you close your door, the team thinks that you are talking about them. Staff members, when the partners close their door it usually means that they need to talk on the phone to a client or simply need some uninterrupted time.
Proactive communication with your people can take so much of the mystery out of an accounting firm culture. Look at the top two responses, above. Team members simply want to be kept in the loop and feel appreciated.
Firm leaders (see today’s quote below), you can do it! – It’s easy, it’s cheap and it’s also fun.
By the way, this also applies to your clients. Don’t drop the communication ball during the summer months.
The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.
Yesterday was a special day for me. I had the honor to speak at the first ever Tennessee Society Women’s Career Summit. The room was filled with females who want to make a difference – for themselves, for their employers and for the people they supervise.
I also had the great honor of hearing Joan Cronan, the Women’s Athletic Director at the University of Tennessee for the last 29 years, do an opening keynote presentation that was truly motivating and moving.
When she was 12 years old, she was told by the little league coach that she could not play because she was a girl. She could be bat girl, water girl, team manager but she could not compete on the field.
That story set the tone for her life. She relates, “It made me so mad! Since that day I have had a vision the I wanted to help women learn to compete.”
In the world of public accounting, that is what I want to stress for the many females who are still facing challenges. You must learn to compete. It comes through passion, hard work, and developing self-confidence.
Here are 3 tips from Ms. Cronan:
Competition: Be willing to face your competition, you must compete. It doesn’t have to be basketball or tennis. It can be tap dance, cheerleading, speaking or getting promoted. Set goals for yourself. I thank my competitors, because my friends won’t always tell me my weaknesses but my competitors will. If I had no competition, I might become lazy. Competition makes us all better.
Mentor/Coach: You need one or more than one. Find good ones and listen. Ask them to help you develop confidence – your must get it and use it!
Communication: Her pet peeve is people who do not say thank-you. How hard is it to say those simple two words that carry so much weight. Show your appreciation by communicating. Also, always be direct in your communication. If you are supervising others, it is your responsibility to tell them their weaknesses and help them get better.
Picture above: Joan Cronan, is that you with Rita?