Don’t Let A Busy Tax Season Fool You: Things Are Getting Difficult For The Accounting Profession

Michael PlattIt is an amazing dynamic to witness when you get hundreds of successful partners in a room together and the conversation turns to the economy. It’s almost as if there is a collective game of “chicken” being played among these top professionals, as they puff their chests and very deliberately espouse the “opportunities” for their firms – all with a veneer of confident bravado that masks a growing unease about the future.
 
But speaking with them one on one, without the peer pressure of having to position the future just-so, as I had the chance to do with many at the recent Winning Is Everything conference, a nervous story begins to unfold and an uncertainty about the future is exposed. While optimism is a necessary ingredient to act on opportunity, the level of anxiety about the future is real and growing. It’s easy to be distracted right now with tax season upon us – but that just may be delaying some of the inevitable whacks that the profession is quietly bracing for after April 15.
 
It is my sense, after speaking with many over the last few months, that an ominous “THUD!” will be heard around the profession later this spring. When the busy work is over, and the bills are out, the accounting profession will feel the sting of a cash flow pinch that much of the rest of the economy is feeling today. And layoffs – a word not uttered in this profession in a long time – will be a reality.

Not many are admitting it publicly – maybe because they don’t want to spook the “golden goose” that will get them through tax season – but privately, the conversation turns darker. On the condition that their firms won’t be identified, one partner from an IPA Top 100 firm in the Northeast says it “will be brutal.” Another from the Southeast confides that “significant” layoffs are inevitable. And one MP from a firm in the West admits his partners will be “rattled” by the change in their compensation this year compared to last.

And what about the staff – the qualified professionals that you have so intently recruited and in whom you have invested heavily over the last 15 years as the shortages of good people plagued the profession? The staff who have never seen a real downturn before, much less one of this magnitude? How do they stay focused, motivated and essential guides for your clients while they are dealing with the same stresses and angst of seeing their spouses, siblings and friends lose their jobs?

If you recognize nothing else, know that today your staff are nervous. No, they don’t need to be told that “everything will be all right,” because in reality it may not be – at least not in the short term. What they do need is to know that the leadership of your firm is being proactive, is weighing workable options, and has a plan in place for how to weather the storm.

“Now Is The Time To Lead” – that was the familiar refrain from almost every presenter at The Advisory Board’s Winning Is Everything conference in Las Vegas. Now is the time to firmly make decisions, cautiously but deliberately move forward, and take advantage of opportunities while your competitors succumb to paralysis and fear.
 
Dan Sullivan, a strategic coach and a keynote at the conference, shared a story about what goes on inside the heads of cliff divers in Acapulco just before they take their leap. “Success requires you to watch the waves ebbing and flowing against the rocks, and time your jump accordingly. You can’t jump when you see a pool of water. You must jump when you look down and see bare rocks below you.” That’s what the profession is just now starting to see. And that’s the time to jump. – Michael Platt