Accountants lack essential leadership skills
Finola McManus outlines how practice managers can become better leaders and make their firms more profitable by learning how to listen effectively.
I have conducted my own research over the last two years and spoken with both sole practitioners and partners in larger firms. There are some common themes emerging and I thought it valuable to share them here with you.
Common leadership and listening styles
Practitioners tend to come out with one or more of the following responses:
- 'I’ve been in practice for years and know what I’m talking about so no one can tell me anything I don't already know!'
- 'They just don't make them like me anymore and things aren't like they were in the old days.'
- 'I can't get my staff to understand to what’s required of them - they just don't seem to want to listen and expect too much of me.'
- 'I keep saying the same things over and over again and people still keep making the same mistakes over and over again so I give up.'
- 'I’ve tried being the friendly boss but it always backfires so now I don't bother.'
- 'My staff just do not understand me or where I’m coming from when I tell them what to do.'
- 'I don't have time to think about leadership - I just do what I do to get the job done and work out.'
- 'I don't really know what leadership and listening means, I just assume it comes naturally with the job I do day to day.'
- 'I’m the only one who does any real work around here and people should just do what I do.'
Does any of the above strike a chord with you?
What the above comments mean in reality and how they impact your practice
If you’re like me, then you trained as an accountant and had no formal training on leadership or running a firm as part of that training. It is important to realise that not all of these skills come instinctively and sometimes we need help in developing them. Remember:
- You’re never too old to learn and change. Accept it and learn to listen and realise where your weaknesses are.
- Nobody responds well to being 'talked at' the whole time. Listening will actually achieve more. Force yourself to learn to listen.
- Seek out and listen to what others have to say about how they deal with similar problems to you.
If your staff don't seem to understand you and are reluctant to get on board and motivated then the problem lies with you and your leadership style. If you don't really know what they think of you, how can you lead the firm in a way which will motivate them and get them working towards your goals?
You have to lead by example. If you could step back and look at yourself as a leader what would you see? Someone who looks stressed and grumpy and doesn't even say 'good morning' to the team? Are you looked upon as being a moody taskmaster? If this is you, how can you possibly inspire others?
A good leader doesn't have to be a friend. That is not the leader/team relationship and is not what people are looking for in a leader. By being so bogged down with day to day work, ask yourself are you really a leader or merely just a technician working for yourself?
A leader in business should only do what a leader can do. Do you know how much of your day is actually spent working 'in' the business as opposed to 'on' the business? All good leaders have a long-term plan and a strategy of how to achieve those goals. Have you?
If you find it difficult to listen, how do you know what opportunities you are missing out on where people are keen to acquire new skills, need more support in training, improve communication with clients etc. By not listening to what your team are trying to say, you could be losing out on extra profits and improved internal efficiencies and gross margins.
How many 'good team members' have left you in the last three years that you wanted to stay? If you had asked and listened to them sooner would they have been more likely to stay? How much has this cost you in recruitment fees and poor client service as a result of the changes in staff?
Who do you use to listen to you and your problems? Running a practice can be stressful and as a leader you need to download that stress to someone other than your own team.
By 'getting on with it' how will you ever escape the trap of being a technician working long hours and never being able to train your own team to do some of what you do and free up your time to work on what you really need to do as a leader?
Refining your role in the business
How much of your time is spent 'fire-fighting' as a result of working in the business all the time and never taking time out to really play the leader? Have you ever measured the true cost of this to your business?
How much of your role is really that of a leader and partner and how much is involved in you playing a manager or senior? This is not good business planning and the lost opportunities in winning new business and growth far outweigh the cost of you structuring your firm differently and implementing systems to help you focus on leadership issues.
The best leaders work towards their own strategy and retirement plan. They build a business that can be sold or can operate without too much of their own involvement. How far is this model from your own? What does this say about you as a leader?
Solutions to help you move forward
- Ask your team what they really think of you and the business. Until you know what the real problems are you cannot plan to act as a true leader and set your business strategy and goals. It always works best if a third party does this survey for you as your team will not feel comfortable opening up to you. Repeat the survey at least annually and measure results and progress each time. Remember to feedback those results to the team.
- Ask your clients what they think of you and the service you provide. A good leader will focus on this and then develop production systems to ensure excellent client service is delivered ongoing to keep these clients. By listening to clients leaders then know what they need to do which will also increase income streams and profitability too.
- Book time out in your diary to work on a business plan and what you need to do to achieve it.
- Book a half-hour team meeting every week to ask your team what their issues are and listen to what they say. Then, as a leader, you can provide solutions.
- Consider getting a mentor on board with whom you can meet regularly and use as a sounding board. Choose someone who actually knows your business and can give you hands on advice from their own similar experience.
- Write down what your role really should be as a leader. Compare it with what you actually spend your time doing now in an average week.
- Put systems in place to allow you to delegate much of the work you do which you do not need or want to do as a leader.
- Solve your lockup problem and the way you bill and collect money. Whilst this is not directly related to leadership it will give you cashflow to invest in new resources and recruitment which will free up your time.
- Don't be afraid to recruit an extra person at the right level. You know that you can bring in extra fees if your time is free to do so. This extra work will keep an extra person busy and the profit margin and efficiency will be greater by using your time in this way.
Remember, a partner is too expensive to be a member of the production team. You should not be fully chargeable.
Good leaders have a strong marketing and business development plan in place to grow their business.
If you have partners in your business, you must hold monthly partners meetings with a clearly set agenda and minutes. These meetings should focus on business strategy and systems development. If you find this difficult then use your business mentor to facilitate and attend these meetings.
In conclusion, I would suggest you remind yourself of why you went into practice in the first place and compare that with what you are doing now and whether you are happy. If there appears to be an expectation gap then you have the beginnings of what you need to do to be the leader you set out to be.
Finola McManus is a professional accountants' coach and founder of Practice Perfect, a consultancy service which offers targeted solutions to help practices grow. She is also a chartered accountant and former senior partner of her own firm.