It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, quality of leadership is a defining characteristic of a successful business.  In the accounting industry, leadership in accounting firms is often narrow and lacks depth in leadership development. I’ll explain why later in this article.

Accountant business owners often refer to a lack of enthusiasm and low-level engagement from employees and their professional team as the reasons their firm isn’t growing.  Team members are reluctant to apply themselves to initiatives that better the business, like advisory work or learn new skills that would help them in their role, like using new technology.

They often express frustration and disappointment in their team with little constructive insight into why the behaviour is present or how to improve their team culture.

Behaviours that stem from low-level engagement make it difficult for a firm to set goals and have confidence everyone is invested in achieving the same goals. It’s virtually impossible to hit growth targets because everyone is working to their own agenda instead of a united agenda.

How do you know if low-level engagement has a chokehold on your firm’s growth?

You might notice,

  • A lack of awareness about career direction or an unwillingness to discuss career development,
  • An aversion to giving and receiving feedback for the purpose of self-improvement,
  • Low-level accountability for their own career, their work, or assisting others,
  • Lack of interest or involvement with initiatives focused on bettering the business
  • Resistance to change or unwillingness to step outside their comfort zone

When there is low-level engagement across an accounting firm it stifles growth and negatively impacts every area of the business.

Not only will the firm continue to underperform against targets, but problems arise around succession planning. It’s a red-hot issue for accounting firms as senior partners near retirement.

  • Who will replace you?
  • How well are you preparing the leaders of the future?
  • How well are you setting your managers up to take over the business?

Perhaps you want to exit the business and leave it in capable hands, but there is a prevalent lack of commitment from team members to actively engage in advancing their personal and professional development. 

As a result, there is a distinct gap in management capability because the skillset to step into management roles and effectively lead others is significantly underdeveloped.

How to ignite higher engagement within your accounting firm

Managing team performance, setting KPIs, and having regular performance reviews are common performance management practices, but these are simply guide rails.

Firstly, it’s important to understand why your team isn’t accomplishing the achievements you would like to see and then realise that ultimately, your team is waiting for you to lead the way.

Your leadership fuels your team’s motivation to develop their own skills, step outside their comfort zone and work collaboratively for the benefit of the business.

It might seem confronting but being objective about your leadership and the influence it has on your firm’s culture is the first step towards inspiring your team to lift their performance.

Is your leadership style setting your team up for success?

If you think about your transition into management or partnership you’ve probably followed a fairly typical path.  The industry sets accountants up to be great technicians proficient in all the technical aspects of accounting.  You probably spent several years doing well in your career and reached the time when advancement into a management role was the next obvious step.

Most accountants who reach this career milestone are expected to transition into a management role with very little, if any, advice, mentoring or leadership development to transition from the role of a technician to managing a team.

Instead, their management and leadership style is modelled from what they’ve experienced in the past working under previous managers.  They’re a product of the environment, whether it’s good or bad, and their management and leadership style inherently replicates itself within an organisation if it isn’t intentionally developed.

Pause and evaluate your own leadership style and the perception it creates of you.

Do your team look at you and think they can’t be like you because either,

  • You’re so good at what you do.  Perhaps you’re a high achiever and have great relationships with your clients.  You’re a wonderful conversationalist, you find it easy to relate to people and your clients are loyal because they enjoy working with you.
  • You work 50-60 hours a week. You’re always stressed, you hardly see your family and you don’t seem to have time to enjoy life.  You’re always tied up with the business or clients.

The way you choose to balance life and work may not be appealing to your team.  If you’re expecting your team to do more, think about how your own work ethic influences their ideas about their career.

Leading by example means leading yourself first.  Demonstrate your willingness to step outside your comfort zone to focus on your personal and professional development.

“Let us all be the leaders we wish we had”

Simon Sinek

The number one principle of leadership no-one really talks about is that you cannot ask somebody else to do what you are not willing to do yourself.  If you refuse to regularly step outside your comfort zone to better yourself and make improvements, this is the example your leadership sets for your team.

Great leaders have a very strong sense of purpose and vision for why they do what they do. Accountants are great technicians, and our focus is on what we do.  We don’t often look deeper and connect what we do to our why.

A pivotal read on my bookshelf is Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why. Simon discusses the significance of leadership and purpose to inspire an organisation’s culture.

Elevating performance in your business starts with your own Why.

  • Why do you do what you do?
  • Why did you become an accountant in the first place?
  • Why do you work so hard when it’s not great for your family relationships? 
  • Why do you work so hard when it’s not great for your health?

Delving into these questions will help you discover and reconnect with your sense of purpose.  This is where you need to start.

If you want more from your team you need to have clarity about what you want to achieve personally, professionally and in your business. 

  • What is your vision for you and your business?
  • What does that look like? Why?
  • Why are you doing what you’re doing and what do you want to achieve?

When you reconnect with your why and you’re clear on your vision and purpose, everything you say and do has a positive impact on everyone around you.

Check perfectionism at the door

Accountants lean right into perfectionism but you can’t let your need for things to be exactly perfect stop you from moving forward.  The first step is simply to start.  It may feel confronting but that’s because it’s growth. 

Share your thoughts and ideas about the journey of developing yourself as a positive leader with those who are close to you and you can trust to support you.  It might be your spouse, your business partner, other associates or business owner friends. You might have a mentor or a coach who can guide you forward, share your goal and help you maintain momentum.

Accountants are great with processing information and problem solving in your head but probably not always great with verbalising those thoughts.  It helps to say things out loud so they become real and actionable.

You become accountable to them not just for yourself, but also to others.

When you have a clearer sense of purpose with your vision and you’re committed to it, share it with your team.  It will help them look at why they do what they do. It’s not about what they do, it’s about helping them to also think about why they want to do the work and where they want to go in their career.

Help your team connect with their Why

Once your team sees you stepping out of your comfort zone and leading by example you can start to get a sense of where they’re at as well. 

The only way to find out is to ask them.  Prepare some thoughtful questions from genuine interest and ask them if they see themselves doing what you do or do they think otherwise? Ask and listen to what your employees actually say to you in response.  Do their answers reveal they feel underqualified or lack confidence in their ability to add more value?

Ultimately, your objective is to fully understand what your team members really want.  Only then can you create an environment where they feel safe enough to step outside of their comfort zone and flourish because they know they’re supported and encouraged.

If you’ve realised you need to step outside your comfort zone, treat this as an opportunity to join your team and agree you will be accountable to each other for taking specific actions according to the individual’s development plan.

Perhaps you will try to improve your time management skills so you can work a little bit less and be more accessible as a mentor to your team.

Perhaps your employees need to improve their communication skills and start learning how to do more work in the advisory space because it’s a growth area for new skills that will benefit them and the business.

Be genuinely interested in what your team shares with you, listen and validate their ideas by creating a development plan that motivates them to actively participate in their progress.

Create a path to leadership in accounting

Remember, the example you set by leading from the front is what your team will reference when they need to hold themselves accountable. You cannot ask somebody to do what you are not willing to do yourself.

If you’re disenchanted with employee performance and you notice a lack of connection and interest in developing their professional careers, pause to find out more information before you jump to conclusions. 

Start with being objective about your leadership style and the impact it has on your employees.

What is the standard you’ve set and does it properly align with your sense of purpose and your vision?

Communicate with your team and make time to sit down with your employees on a regular basis.  Not just for performance reviews, but a separate time to ask genuinely interested questions so you understand what they want.

The best outcome will be when you’ve followed this process of self-discovery yourself, and then share it with your team so they’re also growing and contributing to a united purpose and vision that everyone and the business will benefit from.

It might mean doing things differently to the way you’ve always done things or what you’ve experienced before, but it will be a pathway to leadership in your firm and a team that is inspired in their work will outperform every day of the week.

At The Small Business Project, the foundational Business Metamorphosis® Advisor Program equips accountants in public practice with the framework and repeatable advisory processes to build a consistent and predictable advisory revenue stream through long term advisory relationships with clients.

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