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Practice management is less about heroics than being human
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Know when to show your vulnerability


Lucy Cohen has tried all the latest management theories at her firm, but discovered that people sometimes respond better if you behave like a normal human.

13th Sep 2021
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Part of running your own practice is being a leader. And part of being a leader is motivating your team to deliver your business objectives. I’ve read all the books. I’ve been on all the courses. Most of them say the same thing – share your vision, let your team know how they fit into the bigger picture, get everyone pulling in the same direction for the BHAG (big hairy audacious goal). 

There are multiple stats from big companies like Netflix that show offering unlimited annual leave increases employee performance, or that creating an environment that empowers employees to take complete ownership of their time will bring your business the greatest returns.

As a company, we have wholeheartedly thrown ourselves into employee engagement. And honestly, it doesn’t always work. I’m starting to ponder whether most smaller businesses simply do not have the critical mass to make a lot of these suggestions work in a practical way. 

If you accept that, regardless of the size of the organisation, there will be some people who are more committed than others, then the productivity ratios in smaller teams can be hugely damaged by just a few individuals. Within with a team of 300 or so people, 10% of people phoning it in might not make such an impact.

Rising frustration

Maybe I’ve got it wrong somewhere along the way, but in the last few weeks I’ve got really frustrated.

We’ve done all that good stuff. We’ve ditched fixed hours for output-based work practices with the promise that if your work is done for the day – clock off and go and enjoy your life! Where changes are made, we’ve consulted with teams and let them take ownership so that they don’t feel that they’re being dictated to. I’ve got my senior management onto (fairly expensive) management programs that develop them and make them more effective leaders.

Pizza fridays, staff parties, competitions, bonuses, duvet days -  even a spirit day! I can put my hand on my heart and say we’ve done it all. 

So when, on a Thursday evening, I received a message from one of my incredibly hard working senior team that several staff had logged off without finishing the work required for the day, I lost it.

I know, I know. Not the most inspirational thing to do as a business leader, but you know what? I’m just a human too.

What we’re up against

And that’s when it struck me. In all of this engagement and coaxing people in the right direction, had we forgotten to show our human-ness? Would simply explaining that at times, we’re all up against it, be the thing that flips the switch?

I sat down with our most senior and longest-serving member of the team and had a good old fashioned heart-to-heart. During that conversation I shared a story of when my board had given me a bit of a rollicking. 


The switch went.

“You need to tell everyone that story”, she said.

I’ll admit I was a little confused. I asked why that would make any difference whatsoever.

She continued, “Because it just hadn’t fully occurred to me that you could be told off too.”

Without dwelling too much on the words “told off” (I prefer to think of my board as quite rightly, reigning me in and holding me accountable, but hey, potato/potato I guess), I started to see what she meant.

Of course, not every practice owner has a board. But we do all have people who we owe things to: the bank, our family, clients, friends.

We’ve all got bills to pay and promises to keep. Maybe we need to be a little more transparent with our staff about what our own responsibilities and concerns look like. We are all, at times, up against it. But what we don’t have is the ability to simply log off and decide that the outstanding work can wait. Well, I guess we could, but our clients wouldn’t stick around for long if we kept filing stuff late for them because we fancied shutting down at exactly 5pm.

Perhaps if we show a bit more vulnerability, we’d achieve more of a connection. Of course, each of us will need to decide to draw the line somewhere – is letting your team know that you’re reaching the limit on the company agreed overdraft likely to inspire harder work or a fear that they’re about to lose their jobs? Does your bookkeeper get excited about the idea of company growth or become anxious that their workload will simply increase disproportionately?

How to get through to people

And in that line of thinking – which is where my brain is leading me – how much do you truly need to get everyone on board with the company’s growth plans? Is that a good use of our energy, or should we simply be focussed on each person getting their job done? Does everyone need to care about the BHAG?

I’m sure that there will be a bunch of people about to tell me that no one wants to feel like a cog in a machine – but aren’t we all ultimately a cog in a machine anyway? Is it really necessary to dress it up as anything else?

Unsurprisingly I don’t have any solid answers here. However I’m going to start doing a couple of things in response to the last couple of frustrating weeks:

  1. Apply a few sets of blinkers to people. Let’s just focus on getting what needs doing, done.
  2. Open up a bit more about the pressures placed upon me. Maybe people will care, maybe people won’t. But I’m not a superhuman. If Iron Man can show a bit of vulnerability, then so can I.



Lucy Cohen will be speaking at AccountingWEB Live Expo on 1-2 December 2021 alongside such guests as Rebecca Benneyworth, Peter Rayney, Paul Aplin, Anita Monteith, Carl Reader, Steve Collings, Reza Hooda plus representatives from HMRC.  

AccountingWEB Live Expo takes place on 1-2 December 2021 at Coventry Build Society Arena, Coventry. Registration is now open. A full content programme will be announced in early October enabling you to register for specific sessions. Please visit the AccountingWEB Live Expo website for full details and to sign up to our newsletter.

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Replies (6)

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By Mr J Andrews
14th Sep 2021 09:40

Sending senior managers on expensive training, to aid their development and effectiveness ; plying staff with pizzas , parties , bonuses and God knows what , only to be TOLD tools had been downed for the day with an unfinished deadline. Wow - what a shambles.
Reading all the books , doing all the courses aren't just the answers Lucy. You really need to get hands on and muck in to find out what's really happening on the shop floor rather than await messages from one of the [ apparent ] concientious few as to the problem.

Thanks (1)
By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
14th Sep 2021 09:57

The trouble with:

"We’ve ditched fixed hours for output-based work practices with the promise that if your work is done for the day – clock off and go and enjoy your life!"

is the flip side of course of such a policy is- if you haven't finished you stay till midnight or your boss will give you a dressing down. This is really the policy, not skip off merrily at 4pm as you are done. Everyone knows if you do that, you will get more work so its not a very bright thing to do as an employee.

Its a bit like the "as much holiday as you like", the reality everyone is too scared to take a holiday. its much better to have proper holidays and make people take them.

You can dress it up how you like, but staff want to come in, do their job and go home. They only come to work to get paid and hopefully not be treated like animals in the time away from their family.

Thanks (2)
By Kieran Burns
14th Sep 2021 10:48

Hi Lucy
I think you have to draw a distinction between management styles and leadership. Your management style seem to want to keep people engaged, and content so they enjoy coming to work. However leadership requires direction, and sometimes arguments when people are performing badly, or inconsistently, and are providing excuses rather than results. This can happen because the relaxed management style is being exploited.

Leaders make decisions, even tough decisions that are not universally accepted and However are viewed as unpopular. However most staff even if they complain are happy to follow. This is because that is one less thing that they have to do in their equally busy lives, and they want the leader to drive the bus so that they can get off at their stop.

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By bobsto12
14th Sep 2021 10:49

Its long been documented that in all organizations some people are vastly more capable and productive than others often to a staggering degree. The high performers clearly should be showered with perks to keep them whilst the others need to be encouraged to up their game if they can.
Most organizations treat everyone the same wherever its love bombing or management by bollockings because its deemed "fair". I submit that that's a recipe for failure.

Thanks (1)
By PChapman
14th Sep 2021 11:42

Time to read the riot act me thinks!

Make it clear that they've taken the p1ss by not finishing
They have let you down, they have let the clients down!

Sure some will have genuine reasons for clocking off early - in which case expect them to handover the work or at the very least bring their line managers up to speed on where they are with it.

It's all about managing expectations; yours, theirs, the clients.

And being fair is about being equitable, not treating everyone the same! this picture,h_1351,w_2400,x_0... shows it better than a thousand words can.

Thanks (2)
By Ian McTernan CTA
14th Sep 2021 12:06

Most of them say the same thing – share your vision, let your team know how they fit into the bigger picture, get everyone pulling in the same direction for the BHAG (big hairy audacious goal).

Great if you're running a salesforce or rapidly expending start up tech company- but pretty irrelevant if you're running an accountancy firm.

Stop reading so many books etc and start working on what's best for you.

Most people are sheep (this is a fact of life many don't want to face) and want to be lead - so you need to give them strong direction, targets, goals and the tools to manage their own workload to the best of their ability.

Leadership is about spotting who can manage and who needs managing and to what level, and then applying that so you get the most out of everyone. You will have people deeply engaged in the firm and those who could care less- but you might find the ones who care less are more productive as they are concentrating on working rather than fluffing.

Getting everyone to believe in 'insert management speak sound bite here' is a waste of your and everyone else's energy. It can also be counter productive as some might resent it as they don't share directly in the profits.

At the end of the day most are there for a wage- unless you split all the profit between your employees?

So figure out the types of people you want to employ, who has what skills and then play to those strengths and aid those weaknesses.

And read less books/videos/etc

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