CPA Firm Staff Development: Setting Expectations for Your Team

Kristen Rampe, CPA / Feb 3, 2020

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone you manage knew what you wanted them to do and executed it well with minimal instruction? I think so, too. And every once in a while, I’ve run across a direct report who could.  But let’s be real, probably fewer than 10% of the people we work with come equipped with a minor in Mind Reading.

Another 10% are likely in the wrong role or career altogether and can’t figure out how to do their work with any reasonable level of instruction and micro-managing. I’m sure you’ve met these people, too.

But what about the other 80%? The ones who need more guidance to act and work in a way that adds up to a strong positive contribution for the team?

Current Conversations

Listen in on this conversation between a senior manager at a CPA firm and his advisor:  

Senior Manager: “I’m struggling with an associate who thinks she’s performing well, the other managers I’ve talked with say she’s really not. They’ve started taking back work and giving it to other team members because she’s not up to par.”

Advisor: “What has she been told about her performance?”

Senior Manager: “I’ve asked her how she thinks she’s doing, and she says she’s fine, which isn’t right. She’s just not picking up on the cues everyone is giving her.”

Advisor: “Has she been given any formal feedback about her performance?”

Senior Manager: “We did our semi-annual reviews last month and we rated her ‘meets expectations.’”

And one between a partner and advisor (different firm):

Partner A: “We’re not sure how to change the dynamic in the partner group with Partner B. He’s really focused on working in his niche area, but doesn’t help us in leading the firm. Staff aren’t comfortable approaching him with questions.”

Advisor: “Have you talked as a partner group or executive committee about the role of a partner at your firm?”

Partner A: “Not explicitly, we all just sort of do our own thing.”


Download Our Worksheet on Role Clarity: Setting Expectations


Surprised, Not Surprised

If you’re like me, you might have found those conversations both surprising and not surprising.

Something’s amiss here, not the least of which is open and honest communication about historical performance. But also, an obvious lack of expectation-setting. In continuing the first conversation, I uncovered the associate’s struggle to finish work in what managers felt was a reasonable amount of time. But she wasn’t given any time-budget parameters because the department as a whole “didn’t want people to feel pressured to meet a budget.”

While there certainly are downsides to over-pressuring team members to meet budgets (under-reporting of hours comes to mind), the downside of not providing any guidance is that some people don’t have an understanding of how long work should take.

In this scenario, the team member didn’t know how much time she should spend on certain engagements or parts of engagements, so she took as much as she wanted. Then managers were  upset that these uncommunicated expectations weren’t being met.

So, what to do?

Setting Expectations: Questions to Ask Yourself

As great as it would be, Mind Reading 101 was probably not part of your team’s accounting degree curriculum. Considering that, here are some questions to ask yourself when working with a new team member or someone needing extra support to perform at their best: Download Worksheet.

What are your next steps from here? Try implementing some of our suggestions with underperforming team members, and monitor their progress with the established expectations. You’ll find they appreciate the clarity you’ve brought to the situation, and respond with stronger job performance.

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