Work/life balance - the impossible dream?

By Steve McIntyre-Smith

I don't know how many readers might have fallen into some of the traps I used to when I was in public accounting, but here are a few scenarios to which I fell prey. Let's see how many of them might be familiar to you:

  1. It's 5:15 p.m. on a Wednesday. You promised you'd be home in time to have dinner with the family before going to your youngest child's piano recital. The phone rings, it's a client with a desperate need.

    Instead of saying, "I'll call you back tomorrow with an answer," you press on and work through their problem with them.

    Suddenly it's 7:30 p.m. and you arrive at the church hall just in time to see your budding family musician walk back to their seat after giving their performance.

    The atmosphere later that night isn't a pleasant one, and 'Dinner is in the Dog!'

  2. It's a Thursday before a long weekend and you and the family are due to go to the cottage on Friday morning to get a jump-start on the traffic heading north.

    A new client comes into the office with four years' financial statements and tax returns that desperately need attending to, otherwise the CRA (Canada Revenue Agency) are going to foreclose on their home.

    Your staff are all fully committed on other projects, so you pull an all-nighter and make a start on the first couple of years' financial statements.

    Before you realize it, it's Friday afternoon and you end up eventually joining the family at the cottage on Sunday morning.

  3. Or how about this one: It's Saturday morning in early April and you're due at an old friend's wedding at 2 p.m. You go in to the office, as would be the norm just to do "a couple of hours" and get carried away.

    You end up missing the entire wedding, grab a hamburger (which you eat in the car while driving) on the way to the reception and eventually turn up, without your wedding gift, half way through the evening reception around 9 p.m.

  4. What about the play-off tickets you have for the big hockey game? They drop the puck at 7 p.m., but you're not there. A staff member needed some guidance and mentoring around 5 p.m. - the staffer is struggling with the tax consequences of the 31 journal entries that came out of your review that afternoon - and three hours later you're both still at the office.

I could go on, but by now I'm sure you've spotted at least one of the types of issues that tend to be something of an occupational hazard.

The point is that we are often in a reactionary mode. Something happens and all bets are off for the rest of that day.

It's a part of the nature of the beast that is public accounting.

However, these days, our staff is looking for work/life balance, and as partners, we often do not set a good example.

Some of the above scenarios give the wrong type of message to today's team members.

Back in the day, the modus operandi was, "Our clients' needs come first, our families' needs second." But that simply doesn't work these days with the Gen Xers and Gen Yers that adorn our hallways.

Our staff is our biggest asset, and our biggest asset likes to go home at night.

In my recruiting work with many of public accounting's brightest talents, I still hear stories of 10-, 12-, or even 14-hour days (or more) at some firms.

I still hear of the raised eyebrow from one partner whose office opens out onto reception (purposely chosen so she can see who is coming and going and when) with the attitude of "What, going already? Lost interest, have we?"

Ladies and gentlemen, this is no longer an acceptable practice.

Sure we are all expected to work hard. Sure long hours are the norm in most firms during tax season, and yes we are still expected to earn our stripes. It's just the price has changed over recent years.

In fact, having a life outside of work has been proven to produce more relaxed staff; more relaxed (or rested) people are usually more productive during their working day.

If they're more productive, they should also be more profitable people for the firm.

The more profitable staff should be tomorrow's superstars, and they're not necessarily the ones who put in the longest hours.

Indeed, I have heard stories of staff playing solitaire on their computer for three hours, just so they're not the first to leave at night.

So how do we go about attaining the illusive work/life balance?

Well it's not easy, as old habits really do die hard. But it is possible.

As in most things, good leadership starts at the top. Partners have to be seen to be getting some form of balance in their lives.

If a partner is sometimes all packed up and ready to go home at five o'clock, that should send the message to the rest of the team that this is now an acceptable practice.

Indeed, I work with some firms that set chargeable hours targets for partners at 400 to 600 hours per year.

At $300 an hour, that's $120,000 to $180,000 in revenue generated from their time over the year. But what if they're value-billing for their work? They might be able to generate twice those amounts, just by pricing their services carefully and choosing which projects they work on wisely.

Here are some simple tips that might help you get back on track and work towards a better balance:

  • Always ask yourself, "What is the most valuable thing I could be doing right now, and is that what I'm actually doing?" If it isn't, delegate the task in hand to someone else and get a task with a higher value project.

  • When a client calls in a desperate state, ask yourself, "Is this Urgent or Important, or both?" Only drop everything if it's both. If it's urgent, someone else could do it. If it's important but not urgent, it can wait. These unimportant but urgent issues are often the ones that side-track us and lengthen our days unnecessarily.

  • Make sure you have great people behind you as a backup. Bench strength has been around a long time in professional sports, and it's coming to a public accounting firm near you!

  • Pick a certain day and try to arrange things so that every week, on that day, you are out at five. An OAF (out at five) day can then filter through the firm.

  • Avoid taking work home, or accessing your system from home, after dinner for example, on these days too, and devote the later afternoon and early evening to quality family time.

  • Get an outside interest that requires one or two evening's commitment every week.

    Think back to your younger days. What did you want to be when you grew up when you were a kid? Maybe there's an interest there that will excite you and breathe new life into you. As an example, I always wanted to be a rock star, so I took up the guitar in my late 20's.

    I used to play in a rock band that took quite a lot of time commitment from me, but it was something I just loved doing.

    Maybe there's something similar that you can do to help you have a reason to leave the office early from time to time.

  • Communicate throughout the office that you want people to have a life, that "all work and no play makes Jack (or Jackie) a dull boy (or girl)!"

  • Read. Read lots! There are hundreds, nay, thousands, of really great business books published every year. Try to read one good book a month, then build it up to one a week. Become a stranger to the biggest income suppressor ever created… the television.

  • When you get home, turn off the TV and, before getting back to your book, actually talk to your family. Talk about things you want to do and places you want to go at the weekends, and make plans to actually do them.

  • Hire great people with outgoing personalities and pre-existing outside interests and hobbies. This sometimes has a positive rub-off effect on other team members.

  • Create a firm soccer team, golf foursome, hockey team, or other sporting team that can help build team spirit within the firm and creates a competitive spirit. I created a five-a-side soccer team in my firm and we played clients, banks, law firms, and so on, great for team spirit but also great for business development!

  • Try closing the office at lunchtime on the Friday of a long weekend. Your staff will appreciate the extra time, and, if you make this a policy, the lost chargeable time will be recuperated over the year in additional effort, I promise you.

  • Set realistic chargeable hour targets for staff. Actually, it is better to set revenue goals over chargeable hours, as revenue is directly bankable. The hours we put into some projects are never fully recovered.

  • Make yourself get out of the office at least twice a week for lunch. Take a client, banker, lawyer, staff member to lunch and build better relationships.

  • Encourage staff to use all their vacation days. A well-rested team is a more productive team. That goes for you too. A partner should be taking six weeks a year off to keep fresh and energetic at work.

  • Promote people from within wherever possible. It's great for morale, it's your best succession plan possible, and it helps attract other ambitious people to the firm if you can demonstrate a track record of making people partners.

    So, there are a few tips to get you started. It's far from comprehensive, but initiating some of these ideas will surely set you down the path towards getting some work/life balance, and that can't be a bad thing. Can it?

    For those who want some suggested reading, here are a few great books that are essential reading for any serious practitioner, no matter what level you're at right now:

  • Good To Great, by Jim Collins

  • Build To Last, By Jerry I. Porras & Jim Collins

  • The E-Myth, by Michael Gerber

  • The Professional's Guide To Value Pricing, by Ron Baker, CPA

  • Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi

  • Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

  • How To Work A Room, by Susan RoAne

  • Why Entrepreneurs Should Eat Bananas, by Simon Tupman

  • First Among Equals, By Patrick J. McKenna & David H. Maister

    These should get you started.

    Oh, and by the way: NEVER read a good business book without either a tape recorder or a pen and paper in hand. It's amazing how many great ideas will jump into your mind about how you could improve something at the office when reading a good business book. Capture those ideas by recording them or writing them down so as not to loose them forever.

    About the author
    Steve McIntyre-Smith is President & CEO of
    MFA Group Inc. and can be reached at steve@mfagroup.com.

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