Managers can become better leaders by becoming better listeners

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By Finola McManus

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 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 does 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 in leadership or running a firm. It is important to realize 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 realize where your weaknesses are.
  • Nobody responds well to being talked at. 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.


Your team

If your staff doesn'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 really don't know what they think of you, how can you lead the firm in a way that will motivate them and get them working toward 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 if you really are a leader or merely 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 when people are keen to acquire new skills, need more support in training, improve communication with clients, etc. By not listening to what your team is trying to say, you could be losing out on extra profits, 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 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 firefighting 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 toward 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?

Following are 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 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 pass along 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 service is delivered to retain these clients. By listening to clients, leaders then know what they need to do, which also will increase income streams and profitability, too.
  • Book time out in your schedule to work on a business plan, and what you need to do to achieve it.
  • Book a half-hour 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 his or her 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 that you do not need or want to do as a leader.
  • Solve your lockup problem and the way you bill and collect money. While this is not directly related to leadership, it will give you cash flow to invest in new resources and recruitment that 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 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 partner 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 also is a chartered accountant and former senior partner of her own firm.

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