During the whirlwind of the busy filing season, it is often hard to see the forest for the trees. Due to the need to "get it done" and move the returns out the door, CPAs struggle to take steps to strengthen their team and service offerings. But the opportunity remains. Soon the firm will be able to celebrate the completion of another busy season, and practitioners will have time to reflect on successes and struggles. This is often the best opportunity to change your focus from "completion" to "strategic."
It is easy to lose sight of the internal team when the focus is the client and getting work completed. In today's world, where finding good talent is very difficult, you must focus inwardly to keep your team happy.
Soon after the April 15 deadline passes is a good time to take a step back from this completion mentality and move toward the strategic vision. Review what transpired between Jan. 1 and April 15 from a holistic viewpoint. Most importantly, look inward and think about the firm's future. To help take this first step, it is important to have a tax season debrief and detail the good, the bad, and the ugly of the past busy season. Recommendations on best practices for this debrief can be found in Lagarde and Forbush, "Prepare for Next Tax Season by Looking in the Rearview Mirror," 51 The Tax Adviser 202 (March 2020).
The present column is the first of a two-part series that will discuss three key areas vital to a firm's health:
- Showing value;
- Adding value; and
- Bringing value.
This month's column focuses on matters of value internal to the firm — leadership, staff, technology, workflow, and process. The second column, in June 2022, will focus on the external facets of value — relationships and interactions with clients.Show value
Show that you value your team by considering employees' physical and mental health and job satisfaction, among other things. The best way to do this is to focus on them personally. Learn their personal stories and backgrounds. Create an environment where diverse backgrounds are encouraged to thrive. This shows that you value the entirety of the person of those who make up your team. Remember in this remote-working environment, building connection may be more difficult, but it is still very important.
Focus on activities that encompass the whole — the whole department, the whole team, the whole person. Below are a few ideas to show that you value your team by allowing them to be themselves and sharing their thoughts and opinions:
Focus on mental and physical well-being
Create a plan along with rewards to incentivize the team to take care of themselves year-round. Continue to check in on their well-being throughout the summer season. Provide self-care opportunities and promote mental and physical health on the internal communication platform (with examples from team members). One of our offices had a challenge during tax season to see who could walk the most steps over the season. With technology today, that was easy to monitor and fun to watch.
Continuous feedback loop
Create an opportunity for team members to provide meaningful and implemented feedback through anonymous polling and workplace surveys. These can be created within the firm's main communication tool, such as Microsoft Teams (to capture instant feedback from the team, check out Polly, an engagement app within Microsoft Teams). One of our offices uses PerformYard, a tech tool that allows managers to easily and quickly post comments and reviews that are ready for HR at annual review time. Also consider 360-degree feedback, allowing team members to provide input from all angles.
Plan critical brainstorming review sessions. In advance, invite team members to review or analyze a specific process, technology, software, or service currently in use. Have them bring at least one new idea to the table. Be sure to focus only on one or two topics. This will allow everyone to strategize and develop their thoughts beforehand, and make sure you hear something from everyone. Start around the room and have everyone share their best solution. Then continue around the room until all ideas are heard. Finally, prioritize the ideas among the group in order to select the top two or three ideas to investigate.
Plan to address technical weakness
Review key areas of technical weakness in the team and plan for ways to address these. Empower the team to identify blind spots that may not be noticeable and include them in formulating a plan to address them. Bringing in industry leaders or experts in certain areas or having team members present at "lunch and learns" is a great way to accomplish this.Add value
Adding value to the team is just like adding value for clients. Look for and identify pain points or areas of improvement from the employee point of view. Then quantify to the team what improvements can be made and what value that will add to employees and to the firm. In summary, adding value to your team means appropriately balancing capacity, addressing pain points, and engaging in strategic planning with your team. Here are some ways to accomplish that:
Review and calculate capacity
Determine needed capacity based on firm goals and make a plan to achieve that capacity. This could mean hiring part-time staff, replacing staff who have left the firm, or realigning expectations with current staff. Clear communication and stating expectations with the team at the outset will add value to the team. Work is needed in the off-season to purposely identify gaps and strengthen the team's understanding of the part they will play in the firm's strategic plan.
Identify and resolve bottlenecks
Removing bottlenecks in your processes will add a great deal of value. The issue most service firms have is that low-volume, high-variety jobs make it difficult to identify and resolve those bottlenecks. Many parts of workflow can be streamlined even with high-variety jobs.
Update workflows and technology
Timing is critical when considering ways to update workflows and tech stacks. This should be a continuous process where potential solutions are identified, investigated, and then implemented. One idea is to designate a group who will be "champions of change." This group should be small and nimble but with a diverse range of backgrounds, including administrative personnel. The group's goals will be to review, understand, and evaluate new and emerging technologies and solutions in order to present proposed updates to firm management.
Help the team be a team
The value of a team is that no person is an island. Create opportunities for the team to be a team. Consistent team gatherings (virtual or in person) during the off-season provide opportunities for the team to be more willing to rely on one another when the road gets tough. Activities could be virtual happy hours, Uber Eats picnics, escape rooms, scavenger hunts, golfing, spa day, flower/pottery/painting classes, wine tastings, gifts, or significant-other gifts. Remember the key is to invite freely and welcome openly, not force and demand attendance.
Include different levels in client meetings
Introducing the team to clients and inviting them to participate in planning meetings, exit meetings, and year-end meetings accomplishes several goals. Not only will it help the staff begin to see the whole picture of what being a trusted adviser is all about, but it will provide training at the same time. This helps employees to become more valuable not only to the client but to the firm as well.Bring value
Bring value by aligning firm management goals with employees' personal goals through empowerment, knowledge sharing, compensation structure, and incentives. Bringing value to the team means, in part, putting your money behind the words. Firms want their teams to be technical experts and to become master communicators, but they often forget those skills do not magically appear. By demonstrating with dollars that they want their team to not only succeed but to thrive, firms will find that team members return that value to the team many times over. Here are some ways to bring value to employees:
Support subject-matter expertise
Provide opportunities for staff to stretch themselves on complex projects or receive hands-on training and support from more experienced staff or partners in complex areas. Provide opportunities and resources that allow the staff to become subject-matter experts. Then have them share their expertise with others on the team or potentially by presenting to clients.
Challenge staff to develop and write summarized content on trending and/or emerging topics. These can be used for internal training, client newsletter articles, blog posts, or even external publication, depending on the topic and exposure wanted. This is an added value for both parties since it shows your firm's expertise and gives kudos to the team member.
Start a book club for employees. This can be done in a traditional way, where everyone reads the same book and discusses it, or different team members could share summarized content from books or articles they have read. Team members could share unknown pitfalls, traps, experiences, or client situations that are relevant to the book of the week to provide real-world context.
Midyear/end-of-year planning process
Review and revise procedures for the planning process. Update procedures on client contact for each stage. Review technology tools that will increase the speed of client collaboration and improve client communication.Exponential returns
If a firm focuses its midyear efforts in this manner, the expected increase in value should be returned exponentially by the firm's employees. Use the suggestions above and other creative ways to show that you value your team, look for process changes that can add value to their work experience, and lastly bring value to the firm by providing the team strong firm support in all their endeavors.
Now that the internal team is operating at a high level of efficiency, it is time to turn your attention to your team's interactions with clients. Coming in June 2022, this column will continue the discussion of value from a client perspective.
|Brent Forbush, CPA, CGMA, is the managing partner of Forbush and Associates in Sparks, Nev. Jeffrey Solomon, CPA, CVA, is the managing shareholder of Katz Nannis+Solomon in Waltham, Mass. 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 (TPMC). Mr. Forbush and Mr. Solomon are members of the TPMC. For more information about this column, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.