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How Firm Leadership Adopts Best Management Traits

Mar 2nd 2018
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In the accounting profession, where firm leaders routinely have to juggle the constant change of new legislation, rapidly evolving client needs and the exponential acceleration of technology, steering a steady and insightful course can be an especially daunting task.

In the hopes of promoting firm growth and leadership development, member firms of international accounting association BKR International recently voted on their five best of the best management traits to support practice management in the accounting profession in 2018.

Here are the five qualities they chose to highlight this year and examples of how to put these traits into practice on a daily basis:

1. Agility

Agile leaders of independent accounting firms accept constant change and can roll with challenges. They are open to new ideas and can leverage different generations in their firms to come up with fresh perspectives, processes, and technologies. But they balance innovation with the context of proven practice management and client service principles.  

Some more experienced partners, for example, may stay on as “of counsel” to support the transition of new leadership so they can mentor a young partner for a larger management role.

“We believe one of the most important skills is communication – everything from putting your phone away during meetings and making eye contact to picking up your phone to call a client instead of emailing them,” says Maureen Schwartz, executive director of BKR International.  “Proper table manners matter as well – you don’t want your newest partner to mistakenly take a bite of your client’s wife’s dinner roll.”

In addition, partners can mentor emerging firm leaders in marketing and business development techniques and help them understand and manage the financial aspects of the firm. 

“It may sound strange that accountants need financial mentoring, but running a successful accounting firm is very different from handling one or two aspects of a client’s business,” Schwartz says.

Examples of agility include:

  • Development of new ways of working: part-time, job sharing or remote work opportunities
  • Leveraging technology to solve time management, labor, communication, or collaboration challenges
  • Looking for the opportunities or lessons in a changing industry, relationship, or standard

2. Sincerity

A close synonym of honesty, sincerity is goodness of intention. When employees or clients believe that leaders are putting forth the best effort to look out for them, they will be open to change and the efforts required for success. Sincere leaders are not looking for just personal gain, but for the opportunities that raise all boats.

Examples of sincerity include:

  • Providing for and investing in the development of talent to enhance their careers
  • Asking questions to understand client goals and setting up a plan to meet them
  • Exploring new business opportunities that fit the firm and the prospect

3. Discernment

Clients are looking for advisors who can steer them in the right direction based on their experience and knowledge. Due to the constant overload of information available, accounting firm leaders need the ability to cut through what isn’t important and deliver clarity. Discernment is the quality that helps leaders identify fact from fiction and confidently recommend a strategy.

“Clients look to their CPAs for proactive advice, and accounting leaders must anticipate trends in their clients’ industries to be able to communicate potential pitfalls or opportunities that lie ahead,” Schwartz says. “They need to translate what is relevant and what isn’t for the client.

Additional examples of discernment include:

  • Analyzing industry outlooks and recommending a course of action or firm service
  • Avoiding marketing hype about the latest IT tool or solution for the firm
  • Gathering facts and tempering emotions within an employee or client conflict

4. Timing

Sometimes an idea is great, but it’s too early to put the idea into practice. Sometimes, the idea comes too late to fully leverage it. The speed of information and events makes planning plus strategy the critical foundation to properly time firm decisions.

The trait of timing helps leaders let go of missed opportunities and look ahead to the next one in order to handle it well. A great idea to expand a client’s business can only be properly timed, for example, Schwartz says, if you closely follow the trends in the industry.

“The best first step for any new idea is to develop a strategic plan for everyone to follow, with frequent communication among all involved so that you can adjust as you go to match the timing of the clients and the market conditions,” Schwartz says.

Examples of timing include:

  • Working your pipeline on a weekly and monthly basis to time the next sales opportunity
  • Providing a clear career track to help emerging leaders plan for new responsibilities
  • Communicating regularly on emerging technologies, competitors or regulations that will change how the industry operates

5. Gratitude

Everyone is busy, often too busy to appreciate accomplishments. Gratitude reminds leaders to appreciate their achievements, and also recognize the successes of their employees, clients, and family members. Leaders with a trait of gratitude create opportunities to celebrate and reflect on the good stuff. Bonus: employees and clients who feel valued are more engaged and loyal.

Those who regard gratitude as the “fluffiest” of soft skills, on the other hand, run the risk of creating a team where employees feel detached and isolated – and those employees are much more likely to jump ship for another firm.

“Current and future leaders must cultivate small and big ways that they recognize efforts and successes to fuel continued team engagement and make the culture feel inclusive and individualized. It could be as small as a thank you card and as big as sending employees to a conference in a fun location,” Schwartz says.

The same holds true with clients, Schwartz emphasizes. They leave when they don’t feel appreciated. Respond to them quickly and thank them for their business, whether they have been with the firm for 25 years or one year. Celebrate their successes with them. Attend the anniversary party. Take them to lunch.  

Additional examples of gratitude include:

  • A quick meeting with an employee to say, “Wow, you rocked that assignment and let me tell you why.”
  • Gestures of appreciation such as catered lunch, community volunteering or nominating someone for an award
  • On-site employee recreation, like indoor putting greens or ping-pong tables, to help them de-compress
  • End of busy season parties or outings

There are many other wonderful traits that accounting firm leaders possess, Schwartz acknowledges, but BKR members believe “these five traits, working together, result in trusted leaders who accomplish important things and appreciate the people who help them.”

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