We kicked off the season of Advent this past Sunday, which is a time of anticipation and preparing for Christmas. The initial gospel readings did not start out so well, however, as the stories were about people who were fraught with worry and anxiousness, weary about what was happening in the world. It made me think about all of the team members in firms across the country who are tired and weary, too. The fatigue is the result of a nearly two-year busy season with changing deadlines, the most rapid pace of new legislation we’ve ever seen, unprecedented turnover, capacity challenges and a global pandemic that isn’t slowing. Your people are worried and anxious about the next busy season, and many are wondering if they can do it again – or questioning if they should.
That’s where HOPE comes in. During our Advent season at church, we find the courage to hope as we come together to plan and prepare for Christmas. As a firm leader, you must bring your team hope for a different busy season in 2022, with action and real change. This requires setting aside your own fatigue, resignation and hopeless complaining. We must stop telling old war stories that garner badges of honor for “making it through another tough busy season” and instead make real changes in our business model so those war stories aren’t the experience of NextGen talent.
As one tax partner at a recent CPA association conference told my partner Jennifer and a room of his peers, “If we want our people to be loyal and stay, we have to honor them by staffing up to match our current workload. We’ve been working them under-resourced for years now. At this point, they probably don’t trust us to solve this problem.”
The top two things you can do to instill hope in your people are to creatively approach capacity planning for 2022 and to cull clients. We’ve been talking about both of these issues for years, probably decades, in this profession, but very few firms are taking real action, with risk and discipline to make true change. Yet, the firms that have made strides in these areas are seeing great benefits with increased morale and retention, higher productivity, and increased revenues and profits. Let’s explore how and why for each separately:
- Creatively approaching capacity planning –you probably can’t find people in the traditional roles, in your local geography from the same sources as you did five years ago. The CPA firm business model has changed, and you have to change with it. This means looking at your organization chart and staffing requirements through a new lens. If I were to start a new accounting and consulting firm today, I would create new roles that don’t exist today, use contractors and access other labor sources that we have not traditionally tapped into. I’ve written, taught and recorded many times about how to solve the capacity problem, and here are two must-dos for your 2022 busy season:
- Create a Client Service Representative (CSR) or an Engagement Coordinator role that does not need to be a CPA or have a technical accounting or consulting background to manage and communicate with the engagement team and clients to ensure everything is set up, information is in the queue, and details are being coordinated for upcoming engagements. This position is part of the project workflow and acts in a facilitator and expeditor capacity, removing precious, technical CPA talent from these tasks and focusing those people on the important work that requires their degrees and certifications. The CSR or Engagement Coordinator is a BILLABLE position as part of the overall engagement team, not an “admin” position that is considered overhead. You can read more about how to define these non-traditional hires here. Please hire at least one of these positions for each of your major service lines within the next forty-five days so they can be ready to support your team in mid-January!
- Outsource work by offshoring or using fractional employee outsourcers that can fill in the gaps during peak periods. There are many providers, such as Paro, out there offering this kind of work, but you have to act now as they are filling spots quickly for this upcoming busy season. Take advantage of the gig economy and those people who can fill in accounting, preparer, reviewer, and other roles where you have a gap. And, yes, you need to be open to these people being remote, which should be a no-brainer since we all learned how to work remotely and manage remote team members these past twenty-one months.
- Cull clients, which means actually firing them and telling them live or in writing (or both) that the business model has changed, and you will no longer be able to serve them. Stop paying lip service to the idea of culling clients and actually identify the clients that are not profitable, are not a values match (in other words, they’re mean or not fun to work with for other reasons), or cause churn with low dollar/low profit work during your busiest times of the year. My partner, Jennifer Wilson, wrote about this recently for the Journal of Accountancy; consider sharing her blog with your partners and mangers and go to work at culling clients. We know firms that did this at the end of 2019, pre-pandemic, and they were so grateful they did because they had the time to talk with their clients when the pandemic did hit and go deeper with their clients and assist with their many emerging needs. Firms that cull clients report increasing revenues and profits with more satisfying, make-a-difference, and profitable work. And their people become more hopeful because they see the firm making tough decisions and doing the “hard work” needed to right-size capacity. You will see immediate results – and relief – by employing this strategy that is so often talked about, yet so seldom done. Again, you have to act now to cull clients in December so they have time to find a new provider and so that you can schedule and plan the rest of your client engagements given this freed up capacity.
We implore you to implement these non-traditional hiring strategies and cull a good number of clients in the next thirty days. Doing so will breathe hope into your people, because they will see that you are taking the actions necessary to change the public accounting business model - starting with your firm.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that we also need to assign a “shepherd” to every single team member, including partners, in the firm. Your people are burnt, overwhelmed and reevaluating their priorities. We’ve all been hearing about the Great Resignation, and many if not most firms have been impacted by it. Your people need to feel cared for. Solving the capacity challenge and culling clients will convey care and concern because you heard their plea and acted - and assigning a shepherd who will nurture and advocate for each of your team members will help Velcro them to you.
The “shepherd’s” job is to know what is happening in that team member’s world by checking in with them at least weekly, but multiple times a week, to ask open-ended questions, listen to their answers, and follow up on what they share with you. Four simple questions every shepherd should ask each of their assigned team members are:
- How are you really?
- What work do you really enjoy that you’d like to do more of and why?
- What work is less enjoyable that you’d like to do less of and why?
- How can I help you?
Give your people the courage to hope as they look toward the New Year. Try new things. Make refinements as you learn. Shake up the old ways of thinking, organizing, staffing, and serving clients. Your team members will be reenergized and link arms with you to build a better, stronger firm that is also more fun and rewarding. You – and they – will be glad you did!