Thriving at Staff Management When Most CPA Firms Struggle – Part II

Our Chicago MP Roundtable recently spent a morning with the profession’s #1 expert on all things staff-related, Jennifer Wilson. Jen is perennially listed by Accounting Today as a Top 100 most influential person in the accounting profession and by INSIDE Public Accounting as one of the Top 10 most recommended consultants to CPA Firms.

Here are some key takeaways from her talk.  Read Part I here.

A major change is taking place regarding performance feedback.  The time-honored approach for CPA firms has been the annual performance appraisal.  But firms are finally addressing the built-in flaws of these appraisals – staff only get feedback once a year and the feedback is mostly historical instead of future-oriented.  Today, the movement is towards continuous feedback – feedback after every project and several “huddles” during the year to check in with the employee’s progress.  As much as possible, the huddles should be led by people with good people skills.

A big problem in the CPA profession is firms giving lip service to developing staff.  Partners and managers may say that developing staff is important, but they often fail to act on it.  Why?  They are too busy with client and other duties and it’s rarely discussed when partners talk about who should be promoted to partner.

Millennials can’t stand it when firms do things that don’t make sense.  If the firm is doing something ineffective or inefficient, young people don’t simply accept it (a common behavior of Baby Boomers).  Instead, they Google it, talk to their friends at other firms and fact-check everything the firm does.

Sound advice to Baby Boomers:  Stop telling your stories to millennials of what you did when you were their age.  Young people can’t wait for these stories to end.  It brands you as old school and irrelevant.

Two things that make staff not want to be a partner:  (1) Partners often make it look like their jobs are unpleasant.  They complain about being tired and super-busy, working long hours and non-stop issues to resolve with clients and staff.  Evidencing this is the fact that when the staff leave at night, the partners are still working.  (2) The partners are too secretive about what they earn.  Most staff think partners earn about half of what they actually earn.  Contrary to what some partners believe, money IS important to staff.  You don’t need to tell the staff what every partner earns, but you can give them averages and other benchmarks.

CPA Firm Staff:  Managing Your #1 Asset, includes major contributions from two experts in managing CPA firm staff:  Jennifer Wilson and Jeremy Wortman.  The book addresses ►talent management ►recruiting and retention ►flexibility ►importance of the boss ►mentoring ►leadership development ►advancement ►performance feedback

FLEXIBILITY IS NOT LESS WORK.  (Rosenberg: What a powerful statement!).  Despite what many Baby Boomer partners think, today’s staff is willing to work hard.  They just want options for when they work and where they work.  This is a major workplace motivator.

Flexibility is a two-way street:  Both the staff and the firm must be flexible to each other’s needs.  There must be communication both ways when flexibility doesn’t seem to be working so changes can be made.

With the increase in flexibility policies at firms, a common challenge has arisen:  When people work unusual schedules, it can be more difficult for clients to reach them.  The keys to resolving this:  (1)Train your clients, (2) clarify clients’ expectations on accessing you and most importantly, (3) train your staff to take ownership of their clients.

A great way for firms to remain small:  Partners constantly communicate to staff in various ways that they own the clients, not the firm.

Unlimited Paid Time Off (PTO).  These programs say to your staff:  “If you satisfy the clients’ needs, achieve your work and production goals, do quality work and meet deadlines, the firm doesn’t care when you take time off.

More on unlimited PTO:  (1) The biggest problem firms are finding is not that staff are taking too much time off, but not enough.  To address this, many firms are mandating that staff take at least two weeks off per year. (2) One of the best things about unlimited POTO is that it’s all about taking away rules.  (3) Blackout periods (times when staff must not be on vacation) are common at firms. (5) Firms implementing unlimited PTO may have a challenge if significant overtime banks were accumulated.  Many of these firms are telling their staff that they have to use the time off within one year or they lose it.

Unwise firm policy:  Convene a partner retreat that is attended mostly by people who will be gone in 5-10 years and failing to invite young people who will be the firm’s leaders in 5-10 years, to at least part of the retreat.

The AICPA is seeing an increase in CPA firm start-ups because technology has eased the barriers to entry.


One Response to “Thriving at Staff Management When Most CPA Firms Struggle – Part II”

  1. Colette Miller

    Love the movement to PTO. We have a long way to go in having traditional accountants learn to focus on RESULTS!

Comments are closed.