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How to Share the Love of Your Firm

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Jun 16th 2016
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The average American between the age of 25 and 54 typically spends about nine hours a day working. With 251 working days in the 2016 calendar year, for accountants, that means spending more than 2,200 hours preparing financial data, managing business finances, and advising clients.

That’s a lot of time!

For practice leaders, the question becomes how do you keep employees motivated and excited about their job? While accounting can be exciting, 2,200 hours is a hard number to swallow.

Based on my time spent both as an accountant and working with Xero, I’ve found the answer is simple: culture. A strong office culture can make all the difference in retention, engagement, and excitement. If culture is the boat that keeps a firm afloat, here is what I’ve found powers its sail.

Recognize the Individual

In an industry where responsibilities and compensation are fairly standard across the field, employee benefits is what makes a firm stand out. Unfortunately, too many firm executives treat benefits as one-size-fits-all.

To build a culture that values employees as individuals and recognizes a changing accounting workforce, benefits should be designed with generational needs in mind, especially when it comes to balancing work with family. Consider:

  • Young(er) employees: Employees in their mid-20s and early 30s are more likely than others to be getting married or having children. They’ll find greater value in maternity or paternity leave, for example, than someone who has been with the firm for 35 years.
  • Midlevel management: Valued associates who have a decade or so of professional experience are likely to be balancing increased supervisor and account management responsibilities with a robust family life. They’d likely generate more benefit from unlimited, year-round PTO where they can choose when to take off to attend a child’s soccer game or piano recital on a Wednesday afternoon rather than mandated time off in the summer.
  • Senior counselors: Tipping toward retirement, firm executives are often more selective in the work they take on and would rather pass on a less-interesting project in favor of pursuing a passion, spending more time with their grandchildren, or taking leave for extended travel with their spouse. Offering the flexibility to take a five-week sabbatical to follow a lifelong dream, for example, will be more valuable than a handful of extra vacation days.

Transparency is Key

Accounting, by nature, is a rather buttoned-up profession. For accountants who have grown up in the industry, it makes sense that they now run their firm with a seemingly closed-door policy.

The problem, however, is that this type of environment prevents firm buy-in. Instead of seeing partners hard at work and making important business decisions, junior employees see an exclusive culture where only certain people are in the know.

To foster collaboration and an ownership mindset, transparency is critical. There needs to be a constant feed of information, especially in regards to profitability and revenue. A quarterly email about how the firm is performing against yearly financial goals is a great place to start.

But transparency extends beyond corporate performance. There also needs to be honest communication about employee compensation – especially with performance-based bonuses – and clear benchmarks for promotion. Having open and regular check-ins with employees, in addition to their annual review, will go a long way toward avoiding unnecessary firm drama and helping to cultivate employee engagement.

Find the Right Team

A culture is only as strong as the people who make it, so it is important firms find the right employees. The way firms approach hiring can make all the difference.

Start by rethinking the whole process. Are one-on-one meetings really the most effective way to get to know a potential teammate?

Once you’ve vetted the candidate for core competencies, consider moving to a group interview. Recruit a handful of peers to participate and put together a hypothetical client challenge for the group to solve together. Beyond just focusing on the group’s final recommendation and whether it is right or wrong, evaluate how the potential employee interacts with others.

You need to ask: Were they open to new ideas or married to one approach? Did they remain calm and collected or get frustrated? These types of observations will give you better insight into the candidate as a person, helping to ensure you’re hiring someone who will jive with the company’s culture.

While making smart hiring decisions is important, it shouldn’t come at the expense of current employees. Look for ways to encourage camaraderie among existing team members to avoid burnout.

In the past, firms have done everything from putting up a basketball net to catering Friday lunches where everyone eats as a group. Some even take vacations together! Whatever you decide, it’s the thought that counts. Employees will recognize the effort you are making, and maybe even have a little fun in the process.

We’re All in This Together

Assuming you’ve read this from start to finish, you now have 2,199.5 hours left. Make that time count! Spend some time taking stock of your firm’s existing culture and what’s working and what isn’t. Talk with your teams about what gets them excited. What do they love about coming to work ... and what could be better?

Taking the time to ask the hard questions today will mean a better culture tomorrow!

Note: Amy Vetter will be speaking on topics such as this, to help bolster the accounting profession and you in your practice, at Xerocon San Francisco 2016 in August.

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