Prepare for next tax season by looking in the rearview mirror

By Brandon Lagarde, CPA, J.D., LL.M. Brent Forbush, CPA

Editor: April Walker, CPA, CGMA

Tax professionals spend much time and effort on ways to improve the busy season experience. Much of that effort is focused on relieving the pressure and compression of the season. From massages to happy hours to taco bar Tuesdays — or even dress-up days — there is a constant search for the magic formula to get through tax season. All the pressure leads up to the big day, April 15. On that day, an almost audible sigh of relief can be heard from tax preparation professionals across the country. Oftentimes, the days following April 15 are overlooked while celebrations are had, vacations are taken, and catching up on sleep takes top priority. This is the time, though, when it is imperative to conduct a well-organized and well-planned tax season recap and debrief.

A successful post-busy season debrief requires three things: careful planning, a skilled facilitator, and post-meeting follow-through.

Planning the debrief

Planning for the post-busy season debrief should include key stakeholders from technical staff and support staff as well as management. A planning meeting should focus on three issues: how to structure the debrief, when and where to hold it, and who should be invited to participate.

How to structure the debrief

Although firm owners and managers often develop a sense of the good and bad of tax season, it is vital to seek feedback from all who participated. An efficient way to gather information from the team is to use a survey. An automated survey tool, such as Survey Monkey, helps provide anonymity for responses (although the true level of anonymity may vary depending on the firm's size). An online tool can also assist by providing the survey questions in advance and communicating the timing of the survey (when it will be available, when the survey will close, etc.). Generally, a survey should be used in tandem with a debrief meeting.

Try to circulate the survey questions in advance so that staff members can ponder them. According to Tony Alessandra's book The Platinum Rule (Warner Books, 1996), there are four basic personality types: relater, thinker, socializer, and director. Each is likely to approach a post-busy season survey differently.

  • Relaters: Incorporate others' feedback heard throughout the season into responses.
  • Thinkers: Analyze the season in order to share meticulous, well-thought-out feedback.
  • Socializers: Contemplate the growth of relationships during busy season.
  • Directors: Provide facts and data in short, concise sentences.

Roman Kepczyk, CPA/CITP, CGMA, of Right Networks suggests some great questions to ask in a post-busy season survey. Open-ended questions are the most effective in obtaining quality feedback. Focus on the "why" in order to dig into possible solutions. Here are some examples:

  • What went particularly well this busy season and why?
  • What was the best improvement from last year?
  • What change made from the prior year was the least effective?
  • What tax processes did not go well and why?
  • What technologies or applications hindered the process and why?
  • What should we do better or differently this extension season?
  • What areas did we have staffing shortfalls or need additional training?
  • What team member went "above and beyond" or did something special?
  • What clients were wonderful this year and why?
  • What client engagements were difficult and why?

At the debrief meeting itself, one way to successfully solicit feedback from larger groups is to incorporate roundtable breakout groups. While roundtables might seem most appropriate for big firms, firms of all sizes should consider roundtable brainstorming. Take specific areas, processes, software, technologies, or any other topic and assign one topic to a table. Then have staff move to a table covering the topic of their choosing. Discussion sessions should last 30-45 minutes. Participants can select topics that relate to their recent experience and where they can provide valuable insight.

Delegate two team members to remain at the table and lead the discussion — one who takes notes and one who makes sure the group remains focused on the assigned topic. It is often best to reverse these roles in the next session. Provide a short break with some refreshments between roundtable sessions and allow participants to select a new topic. At the end of the sessions, if possible, have the discussion leaders relate to the entire group two key insights learned from the roundtable discussion.

The social aspect of the busy-season debrief is also important. As part of the premeeting planning, consider assembling a committee that consists primarily of associates and administrative support staff with only a single member from the leadership team to plan an enjoyable, team-oriented activity. Crafts, service projects, speed networking, a "marshmallow challenge" (where small groups compete to build the tallest free-standing structure out of miscellaneous materials including sticks of spaghetti and one marshmallow), and other activities can help transform the debrief from another boring meeting into a team-building event.

When and where to hold the debrief

It is important to choose a prime location. Consider holding the meeting outside of the office as a "retreat." Explore various off-site venues that have the capacity for hosting an excellent busy-season debrief. Take account of remote employees and the importance of obtaining their feedback during the meeting. As discussed earlier, timing is critical to the meeting's success. If it is held too soon after busy season, staff may be too dazed from the last-minute crunch to maintain proper focus. If it is held too long after the end of busy season, important feedback points may be lost. Work to find the sweet spot, perhaps around the end of April.

Who should be invited

Small firms can most easily involve all areas and staff in the debrief. The size of the organization, however, should not deter a larger firm from inviting the entire office to a helpful, productive busy season recap.

Facilitating the meeting

Great recap events tend to have third-party facilitators and mechanisms for encouraging staff to provide valued feedback.

Third-party facilitators

Leadership coaches, team-building gurus, and professional human resource mediators and facilitators can be found in almost every corner of the country. In your search for a skilled facilitator, look outward for an expert who may not be intimately tied to the accounting profession but who has the necessary skills to steer the discussion away from complaints and the minutia of a process and to the root of an issue. The facilitator does not need expertise in accounting firm processes and technology, but he or she must be an expert in guiding a conversation, ensuring full participation, and making sure each team member feels heard and appreciated. Providing the results of the survey to the facilitator the day prior to the event gives him or her an opportunity to prepare to find those reticent or quiet groups and bring them into the discussion so they are assured of having a voice in the process.

Encouraging valued feedback

Ensuring team members feel heard and appreciated can be hard. Kepczyk points outs that open meetings can be taken over by dominant personalities. This "director" personality trait can shut out the input of other team members. A skilled facilitator can overcome this. It is also important to provide a platform where all voices can be heard and supported. A useful technique is management by sticky note, or MBSN. Provide a few silent moments to have participants write down their thoughts or suggestions on large oversize individual sticky notes (this allows the thinkers to organize their thoughts before sharing them).

Start with the least senior person (and, if possible, a relater followed by a thinker), and have them present one of their ideas. Continue to the next person and so on until everyone has presented a single idea. Start again at the beginning until all ideas have been expressed. As ideas are presented, arrange the sticky notes so that similar ideas and suggestions are together. Once all recommendations are on the board, provide each team member "dots" to vote for their top three most important recommendations or ideas. You will begin to clearly see the ideas that have immediate team buy-in and could have the most success at being implemented. Some of these ideas could very well come from your least senior people.

Post debrief follow-through

The debrief process is meaningless if nothing changes. The staff will notice this and treat the debrief with the same attention or inattention with which the firm treats the follow-through: with intensity and vigor or disregard and lackadaisicalness. The valued feedback obtained at the debrief meeting provides a road map to the firm's next steps forward. Once the two or three best ideas have been identified, assemble a team that is charged with following through on a single idea. A team could be led by the idea generator(s), or this position could be offered to another team member who is looking for an expanded role and a chance to effect change.

Ask a leadership team member to take on a mentor responsibility for the idea. (The mentor should not lead the change. Rather, placing him or her in the role of a mentor provides credence to the team and improves its ability to effect change.) Remember that the goals of the project must be "SMART" (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timebound) to help promote accountability and make it possible to report back to the group during the next debrief.

The tax season recap and debrief meeting can be one of the most impactful events held by the firm. Appropriate planning and attention to the details of the event is vital to achieving the desired outcome of continued improvement.

 

Contributors

Brandon Lagarde, CPA, J.D., LL.M., is a director with Postlethwaite & Netterville in Baton Rouge, La. He leads the firm's Tax Services Group. Brent Forbush, CPA, is a manager with Forbush and Associates in Reno, Nev. He oversees auditing and accounting and specializes in resolving financial issues facing small to medium-size businesses. Mr. Lagarde and Mr. Forbush are members of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee. April Walker, CPA, CGMA, is lead manager—Tax Practice & Ethics, Public Accounting for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. Ms. Walker is the staff liaison of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee. For more information about this column, contact thetaxadviser@aicpa.org.

 

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