15 Amazing Organizational Tactics to Manage a CPA Firm

Marc Rosenberg, CPA / Jul 1, 2019

Haven’t we all learned the hard way that the best way to solve a problem is not to let it arise in the first place? Great example:  Hire right the first time.  Jeremy Wortman, a leading expert in Talent Management, wrote in our book CPA Firm Staff: Managing Your #1 Asset that “firms should first identify the key personality traits of your firm’s best performers using scientifically validated assessment tools.  Then, match the recruit’s personality to the firm’s and let that guide your selection.”  Don’t make the mistake of winging it and hiring anyone who knows how to game the interview. Be planful, not haphazard, about hiring.

Goal setting. A goal without a plan is just a wish.  If you’re serious about a goal, put it in writing, create a game plan and establish accountability.  Goals are all about FOCUS.  Effective multi-tasking is a myth because it makes focusing difficult.  All goals should be SMART:  Specific.  Measurable.  Attainable.  Realistic.  Time-bounded (a deadline).  People who develop SMART goals in writing are always more successful at achieving the goals compared to having “goals in mind.”

Time management. Time is the scarcest of all resources.  Don’t squander it.  Pareto Principle:  20% of your time and resources should achieve 80% of the results.   Touch “it” once (mail, discussions, decisions, etc.), then move on.  Make decisions promptly; procrastination eats up valuable time and is terribly inefficient. Avoid clutter in your workday and work environment so you don’t waste time looking for things.  Yes, that means a reasonably clean desk.  You messy desk people – and you know who you are – don’t tell me you know where everything is!

Think big and keep it simple. Some call it KISS but I don’t like that term because it’s missing the “think big” part. Daniel Burnham, the architect of Chicago, said “make no small plans.”   Never lose sight of the big picture.  Resist accountants’ natural tendency to make things overly complicated and get buried in the details.

Stay out of the weeds so you can constantly FOCUS on the big picture. Delegate. A busy, complex organization like a multi-partner CPA firm cannot be properly managed if management spends too much time in the details.   An unburdened mind, free to focus on innovation and the future, is an absolute prerequisite for effective management. Management should never do admin because it can be done by someone earning a fraction of what a partner earns.

To-do lists. Indispensable to being organized.  Show me someone who doesn’t keep a to-do list and I’ll show you someone who forgets things.  During a day or a week, we are deluged with multiple issues that need to be attended to, some important, others less so.  A to-do list is the ONLY reliable way to keep track of to-dos and prioritize them.   Resist doing the easy to-do items first to “get them out of the way.”  Do the hard ones first.  Do the most important ones first.

Don’t be an island. Tony LaRussa, one of baseball’s all-time greatest managers, made use of a concept he called “co-signers.”  They were a group of players that were well-respected by teammates.  LaRussa used this group to bounce ideas and controversial decisions off during the season.  Do not mistake this for management by committee.  There was never any doubt that LaRussa was in charge and would assertively make the final decision.  But he didn’t want to make decisions in a vacuum.  This is a great model for a Managing Partner. Another is attending meetings and conferences where the MP is constantly sharing best practices with other MPs.  This should occur on a regular basis.

CPA Firm Management & Governance is a must-read for partners who want to run their firm like a real business.  The book addresses ►Best Practices for managing and structuring the leadership group ►decision-making ►voting ►how the Board functions ►the role and expectation of a partner ►the Managing Partner ►organization structures for various firm sizes ►job descriptions of key management positions ►partner accountability 

Managing a CPA firm is not an equal-opportunity activity. Pat Riley, the great basketball coach, said: “Shooting (the ball) is not an equal-opportunity activity.”  This was his way of saying that the best shooters should do most of the shooting and those less skilled at it should help the team in other ways like passing, rebounding and playing defense. The word “partnership” has created havoc in CPA firm management.  Many feel that being a partner gives them the inalienable right to have a say in all decisions.  That’s a recipe for disaster!  Firms need to let managers manage so that line partners can focus on clients and staff.

No tenure for partners. Another “right” that many partners feel entitled to is to be paid handsomely without earning it, sort of a permanent waiver on accountability.  The bewildering concept of tenure may be deeply rooted in academia but there is no room for partner tenure in CPA firms.  Performance-based compensation systems partially fix this.  The system should reward management (different from administration), bringing in business, delivering great service, super-pleasing clients and helping them grow, helping staff advance under partners’ tutelage and living and breathing the firm’s core values.  No free passes on these traits.

Lombardi time. Vince Lombardi was a legendary football coach, a tough taskmaster who was enormously successful.  If he called a team meeting at noon and someone arrived at twelve, he ripped into that player, saying “you came at noon – you’re late! You should have been here at 11:45.”  Hence, “Lombardi time.”  Meeting deadlines – some would say beating deadlines – and being punctual applies to everything and everyone in the firm.    Staff.  Clients.  Strategic planning. Goals.  If you wait until you have failed to achieve a goal to try to fix it, it’s too late.  Progress to goals needs to be monitored along the way.  Corrective action needs to be taken before a goal is failed, not after.

Perfection is the enemy of good enough and good enough accomplishes the mission. Perfectionism is a lousy way to lead a life because success becomes impossible.  Now, you naysayers, don’t mistake “good enough” for being slapdash, low quality or doing the minimum.  Instead, it means achieving a goal, leaving no one unsatisfied.  If a task or goal is 95% completed, the effort to make it 100% often equals the effort to go from zero to 95%.  The result is not worth the effort.  Managing a CPA firm has a virtually unlimited number of things to do. Trying to be perfect only serves to unnecessarily limit what can be achieved.

Franchised procedures. We all know McDonalds.  Their Big Mac tastes the same at any of their thousands of restaurants across the country. Why?  Franchised procedures.  Yet another feature of many partnerships is that if a firm has seven partners, it collectively may have seven different ways of performing the exact same work process.  Very inefficient and extremely frustrating to the staff.  Franchised procedures simply mean that the firm has standardized basic processes and requires all partners to follow them, thus making for a much more efficiently managed firm.

Any organization – not just CPA firms – that aspires to achieve excellence needs benchmarks to compare themselves to.  It’s the best way to measure success and to determine if changes are needed.  I once asked a six-partner firm what they thought of their billing rates.  All six responded with either “right where they should be” or “on the high side.”  Imagine their reaction when I informed them that a half dozen firms of similar size in the firm’s city had rates exceeding their own by 30%.  Without benchmarking, they were clueless.

Respect. Robert Heinlein said: “The less respect older people receive the more certain they will demand it from anyone younger.” Partners must earn respect from their staff every day. No entitlement.  No pulling rank.  No waivers.

Technology. A list of critical organizational skills would be woefully incomplete without including technology.  Firms must put it to work for them.  I came across a wonderful saying recently, known as Amara’s law, that sends a powerful message to all organizations: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology change in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”  Don’t fall hopelessly in love with the inevitable hype that accompanies potential breakthroughs in technology.  But stay ahead of the curve, always thinking “how can we make our firm better with technology?”


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