I had lunch Monday with one of my mentors at our usual spot (Chili’s). He’s in public accounting at a national firm and is on the frontlines of The Great Resignation. He was also on the battlefield during The Great Recession. Now, instead of having to let people go, he’s having to watch them leave.
He bought my fajitas (thank you), so I figured I’d do him a solid and make a list, as long as I could in a few hours, of thoughts to help create a better experience for his firm and people. He’s probably one of the smartest men I know, so I didn’t doubt he has already thought of most of them, and at a great firm that has thought of them too. I did it anyway.
The list was based on my better part of 25-ish years’ experience working in and around public accounting, being a partner, and most importantly, from coaching CPAs for more than a decade, with the past 5 years dedicated to being a Professional Certified Coach for CPAs. I spend a good portion of my workday coaching public accountants on performance and career, and the rest studying, reading, and researching ways to support them.
I’m sharing this list, in the hopes that it will make a difference for you, your firm, or your own experience. I’m sure you, or your firm, have thought of most of these too.
This isn’t advice (which is dangerous), just ideas, sometimes opinions, of ways to help improve the public accounting experience.
I believe The Great Resignation isn’t about retention. You can’t control turnover. If someone has experienced a transformative period in their life (which the Pandemic may have catalyzed) you may need to let them go and on to new beginnings.
It’s about reflection… “The Great Reflection”. A period of ownership, in which we acknowledge opportunities for excellence in our firms, and act on them. This list is about making your firm, through your leadership, a public accounting experience to stay for.
Here we go…
- Ask “What” five times when coaching your people. Toyota asked “Why” five times to uncover the cause-and-effect of a concern. Ask “What” questions of your team members to better understand their circumstances and roots of their concerns. Use questions like; “What is on your mind?”, “What would be better?”, or “What more can you tell me?”
- Conduct Stay Interviews, i.e. “What do you love about the firm?”, “What would you leave for?”, or “What thoughts have you already had about leaving?”.
- But don’t stop with the stay interview, use Job Crafting to act on what you’ve heard. Provide ways to craft a better experience with relationships, tasks, cognitive perspective, and flexibility.
- Public accounting firms tend to swing the pendulum from one extreme to the next. Instead, create a sustainable experience, rather than too much or too little. Enjoy sustainable and optimal performance levels. Peak performance leads to valleys that hold disengagement, burnout, or resignations.
- Hire project managers (non-CPAs) to support engagements/teams. They’re better at running projects and trained to create efficiencies that produce better realization.
- Encourage Partners to share personal stories and be vulnerable. It’s not easy for partners either, but they work hard to make it look like it is. It’s powerful to be vulnerable.
- Provide meals. Not every day, but certainly during busier times.
- Create awareness of Parkinson’s Law. Shorten engagements, meetings, and process to create efficiencies. Works expands to fill the time we allow for it, so be more intentional about how much time is needed, rather than how much is scheduled.
- Be quick with acknowledgement and victories. Create channels to share kudos and celebrations.
- Recognize your biases (“They’re a different generation”, “It’s just the Pandemic”, “We’re better than the competition”) and you might find a blind spot with opportunity to see clearly.
- You’ve probably seen the “Loot Crate” fad where companies send monthly packages to customers with products like food, wine, toys, etc. Create a “Loot Crate” from your firm for your people.
- Stop trying to solve problems and listen! More accurately, quiet the voice in your head that is trying to fix your team members and welcome the silence. HEAR your people.
- Get your arms wrapped tightly around scope creep. We are so quick to consider drops in realization and push change orders that we can overlook the impact to people.
- If you find your people with a YOLO (“you only live once”) mentality, do what you can to want them to choose their only life at your firm and with you. Make it fun!
- Be quick to identify lateral moves within your firm. Welcome and encourage them!
- Teach people to ask for help. Share stories of when you had to ask for help. Provide a process to ask for help. Train on it.
- Create a schedule of exercise routes, races, events, or activities for folks to join or share (when working remotely, or back at the office).
- Lean on the culture…I don’t know your culture but would assume you have some good values to support it. Act on those values now, more than ever. Culture is values in action…sometimes we forget the “act” part.
- Be the leader they can follow. Partners, I’m talking to you. Promote YOU and what you are doing in these difficult times. Talk about the journaling you prioritize, the meditation you practice, the yoga you do, the massages you enjoy; the ways you cope with stress and pressure… LOUDLY.
- Pay overtime! Yep, I said it.
- Relearn or teach old skills! Critical thinking. Problem-solving. Learning strategies. Communication. They seem basic…but they have evolved!
- Identify clear hybrid working models (each distinct, available, and encouraged). We each have needs, and one that is amped now is Certainty. Create certainty through clear schedules.
- Assign Accountability Partners. Folks that do more than mentor/coach but create accountability. They ask questions like: “What will you do?”, “When will you do it?”, or “How will I know?”
- Create silence, intentionally. Dedicate time to remove distractions and enjoy not seeing, typing, hearing, and talking. This will help with screen time addictions that we’re all trying to better manage.
- Find mercenaries. Hired contractors to support your firm during busier times. The gig economy is available. Contractors could be used to not just keep hours the same as expected in normal times, but closer to 40…yep, I said that too.
- Talk about mental health and normalize the conversation, possibly through training. Bring in mental health professionals to train your people.
- Train (or, retrain) active listening. It’s the key to empathy, stay interviews, coaching, mentoring, etc. It’s simple…but not easy. It’s an easy behavior, to “listen”, but hard to put forth the effort to actually HEAR.
- Give better feedback. Instead of focusing on what went wrong (the unavailable past), focus on what could go right next time (the available future). “Get the next one.”
- We’ve got PTO, sick days, and holidays. Make mental health days permanent. Provide them, encourage them, and don’t ask questions. Take one yourself!
- Field trips! Clients, communities, mountains, parks (to the extent you can/are safe).
- Study the hybrid models that are popping up. I’m sure someone at your firm is all over this, but there are new and better versions coming out weekly, if not daily. It’s an evolving concept.
- Train staff on negotiation…that way they can better ask for what they want/need.
- Don’t just have “Career Counseling” or whatever your firm calls it…have “Future Counseling” Show a path not just for their career with your firm (i.e. get to partner), but for them and their families to have an experience to stay for.
- Promote time management training. Not just “block time on your calendar” BS, but real stuff…a ’la being intentional, delegation, leverage, or eating frogs.
- Treat departing team members AMAZINGLY well. They may come back, become a client, or be a referral for your firm. Others are watching.
- Look at how technology is hurting/helping. There are likely gaps and opportunities.
- Pick days/times to outlaw meetings. Consolidate meetings on certain days, so that people can plan to be productive around them.
- I would imagine your firm has done a lot of work on workflow. THAT IS STALE. Don’t fall into a plan continuation bias. Times, technology, expectations, etc. have changed!
- Invest more in learning, and fun stuff (not technical), i.e., soft skills, communication, upskilling…even cooking! We each have a gap between where we are and want to be. Individually planned and tailored, identify the gaps and train them.
- Get rid of interruptions! Turn off alarms and alerts.
- You may think you’re being flexible with flexible time. That could be a blind spot. Consider what even MORE flexibility might look like. Realize that, like “work/life balance”, flexibility is a relative term.
- Find more ways to collaborate. Create connections, and opportunities for community success.
- Be more assertive. Fight for your people. Fight for what they want.
- Set an example of starting your day with something other than e-mail. Lower expectations for response time, and a “What’s the worst that can happen if I don’t check e-mail before 9:00?” approach to the opening hours of the day.
- Take a deeper dive in market studies on compensation, and recent ones. Rumor has it some firms are paying 20%-30% premiums for experienced professionals.
- Encourage giving! Time. Money. Advice. Dog-walks. Charities. Give!
- Drop clients (I’m sure you’ve already started). At the same time, slow down the client acceptance process too…. don’t onboard more “soon-to-be” dropped clients…but stay out and be seen in the market.
- Focus on partner performance…not in their client or administrative roles…but as leaders. I’ve found some partners tend to prefer a FIXED mindset. To get through these times, they need a GROWTH mindset. Encourage partners to develop better skills to manage in these times.
- Zoom/Teams free days.
- Sleep! Promote sleep! Read a book on sleep!
- Set minimums. A list of behaviors, actions, or events, that, no matter how crazy it is, you won’t give up on (sleep, date night, working out X times/week, reading with kids, drinking water, etc.).
- Give the news you would want to hear. Don’t talk about politics, pandemics, fires, etc. It’s of course real, but they get enough already. Share the GREAT news. Encourage watching Wheel of Fortune over biased news channels. Be a beacon of GREAT news.
- Promote less formal coaching/mentoring. Five minutes calls. Check-in texts. Drive-by acknowledgements. You don’t need to schedule a 30-minute meeting to coach.
- Hire mental health professionals to provide office hours dedicated to the people in your firm. Book them, keep it confidential, and provide them.
- Let people know that feeling overwhelmed is not a weakness. It’s also not something to be quiet about. They will learn by example, so set let them know you’re overwhelmed too, and what you (or they can) do about it.
- Calculate your CPA Years (like dog years) …take the number of years you’ve been in public accounting multiplied by 1.25. That’s how many years a normal person would have lived to work as much (-ish, on average 50 vs. 40 hours/week). Create empathy from this perspective (for yourself and your people).
- BE MORE PROACTIVE!! The key word is ACTIVE. If you hear something, don’t just say something, do something for somebody!
- Lock in busy season clients/hours now. Do the math and find mercenaries (contractors) and advertise them within the firm. Lock them in now, and for longer periods of time.
- Hire an internal recruiter (or contract with more if you already have them). As you know, talent is hard to find, whether it be full-time, part-time, or contract. Get help.
- Location! Location. Location? It doesn’t matter anymore. Seek out available staff nationally for work at your firm. One of the obvious lessons of the Pandemic: your people don’t have to be onsite. Don’t so soon forget.
- Performance = Potential – Interference. Identify what is interfering with your teams and preventing them from exploring their potential (which is undefined). Some interference is good (family, health, etc.) and some not so much (meetings-to-death, skill gaps, Candy Crush).
- COMMUNICATE what you are doing! Solicit ideas. Create a comment box for ways to support each other and each other’s mental health.
- Call out the elephant in the room. Create a process for the “Career Decision”. We’ve all thought about leaving public accounting, and they are doing it now. Don’t wait for the “Check-in” meeting to pop-up on your calendar. Embrace it and build a process for it.
- Define better expectations. Talk about hours, locations, delivery, and deadlines clearly. Repeat expectations back for clarity. You wouldn’t order “meat” at a restaurant, you’d be specific about type and temperature. Don’t expect your teams to succeed (or feel successful) without clear expectations.
- Stop with so much structure! Be spontaneous!
- Time management doesn’t mean what it used to. The goal used to be to allow time to work on that which wasn’t urgent, but important (see Eisenhower’s Matrix) …and intentional in doing so. Perhaps the assumptions of the matrix have changed. Perhaps there is now urgency to circumstances that were generally assumed to be non-urgent.
- Do more activities around learning. Get out of the classroom and into the field (or at least case studies, visits, etc.). Make it an engaging experience.
- We’re all suffering from decision fatigue. Find ways to make fewer decisions (or more early in the day than later).
- And most important (and yep, this is somewhat self-promoting). Focus on the coaches. Train them how to coach, so they can be the coach your people need. It’s a gap. Mentors advise. Coaches ask. You need to be capable in both skillsets.
That’s all I came up with for my friend and mentor. I have more, and you do too. What will you do now? It’s one thing to reflect, and another to act. My hope and intention is that some of the items on this list spark an idea or thought to help you create an experience your teams would stay for.
My name is Doug Slaybaugh. I coach CPAs on performance and career, and train CPAs to be better coaches for their people, the profession and the succession of their firms.
Now you owe me a fajita lunch at Chili’s.
To schedule lunch, or talk about coaching, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cheers!