Modeling The Right Behavior When Deadlines Are Tight And Stress Is High

Jim Proppe

Jim Proppe

Accounting firm leaders are expected to motivate their tax teams to succeed and deliver excellent customer service all year, but the runup to April 15 is particularly challenging for everyone involved.

With more work than hours in the day, tax season is inherently stressful, and tons of hours are inevitable. With April 15 ahead of us, what lessons can be learned so MPs, partners and other leaders can keep everyone on task throughout the year, lower stress and care for themselves at the same time?

INSIDE Public Accounting asked for insights from Jim Proppe, MP of Southfield, Mich.-based Plante Moran and Larry Autrey, MP of Fort Worth, Texas-based Whitley Penn.

They say that the idea of work-life “balance” is different for everyone, but anyone in a supervisory position should learn what works for them, practice self-care and show staff what that looks like. If managers or partners are exhibiting stress through difficult behaviors, it does not go unnoticed.

Larry Autrey

Larry Autrey

“It does have an impact,” Proppe says. “If the team sees you on overload it cascades down and they start experiencing the same thing – whether it’s true or not.” It may even derail their partner aspirations. “We need to make sure that we’re letting them see how much fun we are having,” he says.

Here’s how both Proppe and Autrey, leading hundreds or even thousands of employees, take care of themselves and their teams when the stakes are high.

Ask for Help – At Plante Moran, each partner can lean on two peers who serve as an advisory team, helping the partner set goals, prioritize and develop plans to improve. “The advisory team is very entrenched in what the partner has going on throughout the year, so they can be an outlet when the partner is on overload,” Proppe says. Additionally, each staff person is assigned a partner as a mentor or coach to help find a customized solution to blend the personal and professional. “It’s a big investment of time, but we think it really pays off, we really do,” Proppe says.

Step Away – MPs encourage staff to schedule time off, not just hope a break will pop up. They do the same. For Proppe, it’s scheduling down time just like any other appointment, except “those are written in ink – they’re not moving – the rest of it is in pencil.” When Autrey was in college, his dad would suggest a long drive to de-stress. It stuck. Today, Autrey grabs an iced tea and although the drive from Fort Worth to Houston is for work, “by the time I get back I’m good.”

Flex, But See the Downsides – “No one says when you come in and when you leave in this profession – at all levels,” Autrey says. “To me, flexibility takes away the stress.” Autrey says the reality is that tax season is far less stressful than it used to be. “For better or worse, staff are saying to us, ‘We’re not working like you did when you were a staff person,’ and we’ve had to build the firm around that.” The danger is, it can mean more work, and more burnout, for managers and partners. “We’re all trying to keep an eye out for those people,” he says. The tax team management meets every Monday and shifts work around to ease the overload. At Plante Moran, one of the dangers for staff is feeling they can’t take time off since PTO is not set, it’s flexible. Proppe says his biggest fear is staff taking too little time off.

Beware of Post-Tax Season – Proppe says the biggest disconnect for staff is not during tax season, but in late April and May. The expectation is 40-hour weeks, but often they need to work more to catch up on the work put on hold.

Accept that Tax Work is Not for Everyone – Autrey says tax season was his favorite time of year, and that’s still true for many on his 300-member tax team. “Those people do well in the profession.” Some leave thinking they’ll lower their stress with a job in industry, say in a controller job, but they find there’s a ‘tax season’ at the end of every month to close the books. Autrey also left public accounting, but returned in three months. “I’ve got the illness, it’s terminal. I love every bit of it.”

At Plante Moran, staff members who are unhappy can work with their partner to find a different office, or different job within the firm or within industry. The only ‘failure’ is when a staff member announces a departure unexpectedly. “This profession is not for everybody,” Proppe says. “It’s exciting, I love it, but it’s not easy.”