Improving partner and staff accountability is essential in these economic times.
I think many partners associate accountability with increased
conflict and typically shy away from addressing the issues. As a result
most accountability discussions take place after the fact when there is
no possible chance of changing the results.
These conversations usually focus on fault and blame and in most
cases are not productive and in some instances have had a very negative
impact on partner and staff relationships. There is a very clear and
simple way to improve accountability at every level of your firm and all
you have to do is follow a proven process.
In Abraham Maslow’s book, Motivation and Personality, he discusses two types of behavior, “coping” and “expressive.”
Coping behavior is where an individual is reacting to the behavior of
others, while expressive behavior is doing what is important to you. He
further states that an individual cannot be motivated when they are
coping with another person’s behavior and will only be motivated when
they are in an expressive mode of behavior. Of course it is impossible
for us to avoid both of these behaviors every day of our lives, but what
we do want to focus on as effective leaders is to make sure our people
are in the expressive mode as often as possible, to improve their
In public accounting, the work and, in most cases, the feedback
concerning that work is given after the fact -review notes about the
job, annual performance reviews and, in many cases, discussions
concerning why a promotion or a raise is not going to happen because
some unknown expectation has not been met.
The one excuse given to most staff when they are not getting a
promotion is “You’re just not ready yet,” but in most cases they have
not been told what it takes to be ready. In effect we place most of our
employees, and sometimes even partners, in the coping mode much too
often. If you want your employees more accountable you have to have to
define success in advance of the task or period of time by using what I
call success plans.
Smart, younger individuals joining the accounting profession have
often been very successful in their educational pursuits and are not
used to failing. This typically is not the case in their first few years
of public accounting, as it’s not uncommon to feel a little inadequate
at the beginning of the profession.
I know I felt like I didn’t know much when I first joined the
profession and was reminded of it constantly by those above me. Everyone
wants to be successful but to do so they have to know how to achieve
that success in advance of their performance.
Our profession, in general, does a very poor job of communicating
performance expectations"according to a national survey of non-owner
accountants I conducted several years ago. A significant number of the
respondants replied that they did not know exactly what was required to
get a raise or get promoted, nor did they get the feedback they felt
they needed to be successful.
What is needed is a formalized process to communicate the
requirements for a specific task or position and how success will be
measured. If improved accountability is the goal all parties need to
know what is required in advance. Review notes and backward looking
evaluations might well have some influence on future performance but do
not have any impact on what has already taken place. There is a better
way to get to get your partners and staff to take ownership and agree to
THE CYCLE OF ACCOUNTABILITY, PERFORMANCE AND SUCCESS™
To begin the cycle of accountability, performance and success (CAPS™)
the person in the supervisory roll must clearly communicate the
ultimate goal and help develop a plan to achieve that goal. Whether the
task is doing a tax return, auditing cash, responsibility for an entire
client engagement or annual job performance the time needed to complete
the cycle will vary significantly but the CAPS™ process follows the same
often we try to shortcut the process and then are disappointed when we
don’t get the result we wanted because our expectations had not been
clearly communicated and success had not been clearly defined.
DIRECT AND SUPPORTIVE SUPERVISION
Staff accountants with less experience need more direct supervision
as they haven’t been exposed to the complexities of public accounting
before. Specific instructions concerning the steps to be performed, the
time expectations and frequent checking and feedback are needed to make
sure you get the result you want rather leaving it up to chance.
Supportive supervision techniques are used with those individuals
that have more experience. General instructions are given as to
expectations and we generally tell the experienced accountant that if
they have any questions to please let us know.
Using an inappropriate supervision technique can lead to not getting
the job completed timely or successfully or in some cases it can
demoralize your experienced staff. Inexperienced accountants getting
supportive supervision don’t know when they have a question and
experienced accountants will accuse you of micro managing if you use
direct supervision techniques with them. You should always consider the
individual and the task to be performed to determine which supervision
technique to use during the course of the project.
IMPROVE ACCOUNTABILITY IMMEDIATELY
Here’s how you can immediately improve accountability and performance in your firm:
- Communicate your expectations clearly
- Discuss the plan to accomplish the goal
- Make sure the plan is understood and agreed to and that success is defined
- Use direct or supportive coaching/supervision techniques appropriately
- Give timely feedback
- Celebrate success