High-Value Ways To Deploy Idle Staff During The Summer

As leaders are taking time to recharge and plan for annual retreats, partners are discussing the future in meeting rooms across the country.

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

To help stimulate some ideas, I offer my list of ways to deploy staff this summer:

  1.  Work with your international network to send select staff on a once-in-a-lifetime overseas internship.
  2. Focus staff on day-long reviews of each of your top 25 clients to gather business intelligence and uncover opportunities.
  3. Embed staff in key clients’ operations for a “free” week to review systems and processes. This will inevitably result in a list of chargeable projects for the future.
  4. Assign staff teams to review your firm’s most utilized processes and recommend improvements.
  5. Ask staff to document case studies highlighting client problems and how your firm helped resolve them. Capture these case studies and compile them for a marketing effort later this fall.
  6. Encourage staff to participate in community service events. Volunteer service is a much-needed, deeply rewarding experience for your staff and an image-booster for your firm.
  7. Assign key staff with a new service or skill to make a presentation at a firmwide staff meeting. Have all staff weigh in on how to utilize those new skills to help the firm succeed.
  8. Upgrade your CRM intelligence. Your staff knows a lot about your clients’ wants, needs and preferences, as well as their quirks. Focus on capturing that information so the next time the CEO of your favorite client comes in, she is impressed when she is automatically offered the frozen iced vanilla latte she loves.
  9. Give your referral sources a fresh perspective of how your firm handles similar challenges. Have key staff spend a week at a law firm to “shadow” their counterparts in other professions. Direct them to share how your firm handles certain issues, and encourage a reciprocal “peer review” by inviting your referral firm’s employee to spend a week at your firm.
  10. Review staff and partners. Not all will end up as superstars. If they are a drag on the firm, counsel them out and find someone else who will be a stronger asset.

There are plenty of ways to deploy staff during summer that will bring significant value to your firm. Get creative with your ideas and you will have a stronger staff and a stronger firm, better positioned to take advantage of opportunities.

Platt’s Perspective: Connecting The Dots – Because Perspective Matters

It’s amazing how perspective changes a landscape.

At one time or another, all of us have gone up a glass elevator, looking out at the entire landscape unfolding before us. What looked like a cluttered mess on ground level reveals itself to be a manicured, well laid-out design that makes sense only when seen from above. The trees, the landscaping, the water features, the roads, the sidewalks – everything is in order and all the pieces come together to form a harmonious landscape.

seeing-the-bigger-pictureAs a partner, you most likely enjoy this higher-altitude view of your firm. The “cluttered mess” makes sense when you rise above it. Your “landscape” includes the long-term vision, strategy, values, the various departments, services, niches, technology, staff, referral sources, client approaches, compensation, community activity, training, marketing, leadership development and all the other components that together create a harmonious landscape.

But staff rarely get a chance to ride that elevator to catch a glimpse of the total landscape. They are hacking through the weeds on the ground, not always sure of where they are going or how close they may be to getting there.

Remember that scene toward the end of the movie “The African Queen” when Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn all but give up on their long journey down the Ulanga – stuck in the reeds unaware that open waters are just yards away? The camera pans up and the audience can see that they are so close – but the main characters at water level despair and lose hope.

That’s not dissimilar to what may be happening in your firm. Staff may not know that they are contributing to the success of the firm and its clients. They may not recognize that they are on the right track and moving toward “success.” They may not see the open waters just beyond the reeds and they bail out – looking for other opportunities, even though they were “so close” to getting there in your firm.

Your responsibility as a leader is to help your staff see the well-manicured landscape. Take them for a ride in the elevator every now and then and show them the view. Connect the dots for them so they can see the well thought-out design behind the seeming chaos at ground level. Show them how close they are to achieving their objectives so they stay motivated to break through the reeds and get to the open waters ahead.

What’s the risk? Yes, they may find out they are afraid of heights. But they may discover that they get very excited about the view.

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

Mike Platt, managing principal of The Platt Group, has been working with firms since 1985. As a past executive of two accounting firm associations and co-founder of AccountingWEB.com, Mike has helped large local and regional firms across North America grow and thrive. Mike continues to bring fresh ideas, approaches and information to firms across the globe. A frequent speaker, Mike specializes in benchmarking trends and analysis, and dispute resolution services. Mike’s 30-plus years of hands-on experience and interaction with firms gives him a unique perspective on what works and what doesn’t inside firms.

The Platt Group’s Perspective

We all snicker this time of year. Don’t get us wrong, we respect the profession we choose to work in and with. It’s just that every conversation over the past three months with accounting professionals – young, old, in person or by phone – always starts with them taking a deep breath and saying, “I’m so busy right now, call me after April 15,” or “Yup, I survived another busy season.”

businessman-buried-in-paper_645x400We get it. Workload compression, procrastinating clients, long hours, being away from family, unique problems popping up, cranky staff, technology challenges, and no time to deal with everything else weigh heavily on the profession and you’ve earned the right to be a little punchy after April 15.

We know you have business clients who work 50-70 hours a week 52 weeks of the year, year in and year out. For them, there’s no “finish line” of April 15, glowing on the calendar like a siren calling your name in the fog, beckoning you to get to the final destination.

Many clients work long hours, are away from their families, encounter problems with staff, technology, and have little time to deal with everything else. They’re worried about making payroll, growth, succession, training, hiring the right staff, finding time for R&D, investments, retirement planning, marketing, business development, competition, governmental regulations, taxes – and the list goes on.

TAx Stress

How many times have you seen images like these, titled like, “You’ll Make It,” “Hang In There,” or “How to Survive Tax Season?”

Rather than complaining about the long hours during the 100-year tradition of a three-month tax season, shift your firm’s focus to the problems and challenges you share with your clients.

Make it a firmwide goal to ease your clients’ challenges of long hours, 12 months a year; make it your goal to help them with the issues that challenge them. Don’t wait for them to reach out to you next year. Do they know you can provide guidance at any other time of the year? Sit down with them, talk about all the issues, and find one that you can help them solve. Surprise them. Make a difference in their lives.

Are you your clients most trusted advisor? All of us at IPA have an incredible amount of respect for the profession, and know most people in the profession have the capacity to step up and truly “walk the talk.” Only by jumping in, proactively identifying a pain point, and bringing a valuable solution to the table will you become the go-to person for all issues, truly earning you the right to claim the title “most trusted.” You’ve got time. Pick your clients, identify a challenge and change their lives.

Platt’s Perspective: What We Can All Learn From The Donald Sterling Debacle

By: Mike Platt

As I write this, the reaction to L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s clearly outrageous remarks is less than a week old. For the record, I had never heard of Sterling before this week. I have come to know of him only from the collective outcry over his outlandish, absurd comments that were caught on tape for the world to hear.

While I agree with the majority of the criticism over Sterling’s actions and ignorance, it made me stop and think: Is someone guilty if they simply think racist thoughts or acknowledge internal biases against others? Or are they guilty only when they say what they think out loud? Or are they guilty only if they act on their prejudices?

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

Or are they guilty only if what they say is recorded for all to hear.

We all have biases and make quick judgments about other people – it’s been hard-wired into our brains for 100,000 years to help quickly identify friend from foe. Whether stirred by race, ethnic backgrounds, perceptions of age, gender, weight, whether someone is vegetarian or drives a certain kind of car, where someone went to school, or where someone comes from – all of these drive internal judgments, thoughts and biases that most of us in a civilized society try not to act on. So where in the spectrum do we cross over from “being human” to being the subject of intense disdain? In Sterling’s case, it seems obvious that he crossed the line. But where is that line?

If, as a leader of your firm, you can look in the mirror and see someone with absolutely no biases or prejudices staring back, congratulations – you’re one in 10 million. But chances are, most of us make judgments about people based on something other than the facts of a situation.

Is it acceptable to think bad things toward the person who cuts you off on the freeway? Most of us would say that our thoughts are our own. But when it comes to actions, a line between right and wrong comes into focus. Some of us may yell at the bad driver, but would you start chasing the car? What if you caused an accident? At what point is the line crossed?

Think about your role as a leader. Do you recognize any internal biases against any of your team members based on something other than performance? Do you look at that short guy with Coke-bottle glasses differently than his taller, less optically challenged peer? Do you think people who think like you are naturally better at what they do than others who may think differently? Does the mere act of thinking these thoughts make you guilty of unfair biases or prejudices?

Now think about how these biases or prejudices affect your actions. Would you hesitate to bring someone to a client because of the way they look? Are you more eager to encourage, promote and develop a superstar who shares your hobbies or religious beliefs or pedigree over someone who comes from a different background? Do you find yourself not bringing that short guy with the Coke-bottle glasses to your best clients because of the “message” it might send?

We can all agree that if you made some stupid Sterling-like comments at a firmwide meeting you’ve crossed the line. People would have a legitimate reason to judge you and question your leadership authority. But what about just thinking these thoughts? What about subconsciously acting on these thoughts?

Unconscious biases are complicated. For the most part, as 21st century successful business men and women, we have evolved a lot over the last 50 years when prejudices were more common in the workplace. But as human beings we still make internal judgments about the people we work with and either consciously or unconsciously may still act on those biases.

It takes a consistent effort and a fully aware leader to acknowledge his or her own biases, and once you recognize they exist, you are capable of pushing against them and ensuring that they do not influence your actions. Let’s all learn from the Sterling affair. Let’s look in the mirror and figure out what we need to do to become better leaders because of it.

Platt’s Perspective

Your Success Might Be Your Biggest Blinder
By Mike Platt

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

I was cleaning up my office the other day, and came across a book I was first introduced to more than 20 years ago. “Future Edge” was written by Joel Barker, a pioneer in the discussions of paradigms and their impact on how we all resist new ideas. The book, and the video training that accompanied it, focused on examples of successful businesses that were so caught up in their own filtered view of how the world worked that they missed major technological or process innovations simply because they couldn’t see the change happening in “real time.”

I started thumbing through the book and was reminded of the fundamental question Barker posed: “What today is impossible to do in your business, but if it could be done would fundamentally change what you do?”

The book has withstood the test of time. It discussed how paradigm shifts – both positive and negative – have evolved over the last few decades. But even after seismic changes that occurred as a result of The Great Recession, the fundamental challenge of seeing the world “as it is” versus “as you want it to be” is still an issue in American business in general, and I believe, in many accounting firms in particular.

We encounter firms every day that are quite satisfied providing the same services in the same way to the same clients using the same tools they have always used. The nose-to-the-grindstone approach may feel like you are working hard at what you are doing, but “doing things right” is not the same as “doing the right things” when it comes to client service and building your firm.

Let’s return to Barker’s fundamental question: “What today is impossible to do in your business, but if it could be done would fundamentally change what you do?”

Consider what the future of your firm would look like if . . .

  • Real-time auditing was a reality (and an expectation)?
  • Books could be closed and tax returns prepared within a week of year-end?
  • Just-in-time staffing was perfected?
  • Outsourcing of tax returns overseas overcame many of the psychological and security barriers that are encountered today?
  • Menu pricing were to replace hourly billing systems?
  • Partners were required to be re-elected after serving a three-year term?
  • An Orbitz-like website existed for buying audit and tax services?
  • Knowledge sharing among your team was absolute?
  • You paid staff for their results, not time worked?
  • Communication within the firm was clear and universally understood?
  • “Relationships” became virtual – no “face time” needed?
  • Staffing models shifted to people who chose to work for you for no more than four years?

What would these changes do to your selection of services?

Your pricing system?

Your staffing models?

Your physical space needs?

Your technology investments?

Your management style and structure?

For many of us, even contemplating these farfetched hypotheticals seems like a recipe for a massive headache. After all, things are going OK now, so why rock the boat? However, there are firms that are not only exploring these changes as possibilities, but have started making moves to bring some of these concepts to life. Barker said it 20-plus years ago but it still rings true today: “Watch for people messing with the rules, because that is the earliest sign of significant change.

As you start planning partner retreats to examine the future, consider posing Barker’s fundamental change question and let your imagination run wild. Recognize that innovation is happening everywhere by those who are willing to reject their filtered view of the world and ask, “What if . . . ?”  Shouldn’t your team benefit from that exercise too?

Platt’s Perspective: It’s A Jungle Gym Out There

junglegymOn my annual vacation, I typically select one or two business books and one just-for-me book to read during my shutdown time. This year I chose Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg as one of my business books. I have no doubt you’ve heard about it. The gist is she encourages women to “lean in,” define their ambitions, and not let anything hold them back as they pursue their goals.

I read the chapter, “It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder,” from my window seat somewhere over the Pacific. This chapter resonated with me. I thought, “I wish I knew this when I entered the workforce.”

Ladders are limiting – people can move up, down, or off. The jungle gym model benefits everyone.”

The traditional analogy for moving up in the workplace is the corporate ladder. But Sandberg notes all that is changing – for women and men – in favor of the jungle gym. Rather than climbing up, down, or staying put, people are exploring different paths on the way to the top.

I understood what Sandberg was saying. I, too, have taken the jungle gym path. There was no ladder in my future, so I thought. I had no idea how I could contribute to the corporate world. I had no path. I had no strategy. I just needed to make a living, and I let things happen.

Sandberg also says, “We need to start talking about how women underestimate their abilities compared to men and how for women, success and likeability are negatively correlated. What this means is that as a woman becomes more successful in the workplace, she will be less liked. Women need a different type of management and mentorship, a different form of sponsorship and encouragement than men,” she says.

  Sandberg on Leadership

“As traditional structures are breaking down, leadership has to evolve as well – from hierarchy to shared responsibility, from command and control to listening and guiding. You’ve been trained by this great institution not just to be part of these trends, but to lead,” she says. Sandberg goes on to say, “The workplace is a difficult place for anyone to tell the truth, because no matter how flat we want our organizations to be, all organizations have some form of hierarchy.

“Think about how people speak in a typical workforce. Rather than say, ‘I disagree with our expansion strategy’ ” or better yet, ‘this seems truly stupid,’ they say, ‘I think there are many good reasons why we’re entering this new line of business, and I’m certain the management team has done a thorough ROI analysis, but I’m not sure we have fully considered the downstream effects of taking this step forward at this time.’ As we would say at Facebook, three letters: WTF,” she says.

According to Sandberg, making the best decisions in business today is challenging due to the fact that no one tells the truth anymore; people lie about ideas, opinions and feelings about something.

There is a solution: “In being able to understand that the truth is subjective for everyone, and that people may very well have very different notions of “truth.” Because of this, individuals need to create a dialogue in which each participant feels comfortable sharing his or her idea of the truth. Empowerment comes from not only being able to listen to the opinions of others, but also from being able to take full responsibility of mistakes. Authentic communication demonstrates the power of an open mind,” Sandberg says.

Platt’s Perspective: Five Years After The Lehman Brothers Collapse

Shortly after the 2008 Lehman Brothers bankruptcy led to the world financial system almost going over the edge, futurist David Pearce Snyder told an audience at the AICPA that “this is not your father’s recession,” and “it will be five more years before the economy returns to a new ‘normal.’ ”

So now, five years later, the obvious question is, “Are we there yet?” The quick answer is, “Not quite, but we’re making progress.”

The profession has made adjustments. Initial belt-tightening and layoffs occurred early and led to preservation of income for the firm. “Right-sizing” and getting rid of underperforming staff came next. Leaders learned how to calm a nervous team – they offered open, honest dialogue, and a plan for going forward. Stepping up accountability came next, leading to elimination of some under-performing partners. Mergers became the quickest method of growth, with many firms in the “buy” mode. This coincided not only with paltry growth among smaller firms but also the pending retirement of a generation of Baby Boomers, which fueled even more acquisition activity. Strategic business development efforts took hold in many firms, supplementing “opportunistic” growth with “intentional” growth. Sales training for partners re-emerged and recruitment efforts stepped up for the expected additional work, which has started in a number of areas around the country.

What we don’t yet know is how strong the comeback will be, and what a new normal will look like. Temporary employment agencies are reporting a surge in part-time and temporary positions in the marketplace, leading many to question whether there is confidence that growth is sustainable or concern that it is fleeting.

Firms that have institutionalized a “do more with less” mentality as well as a culture of making tough decisions and acting on them are showing strong growth and profitability. One in eight firms reported organic revenue growth of over 10% this year – that number was 63% in fiscal year 2007. Almost one-fourth of firms are reporting double-digit income growth this year – that number was 55% in 2007.

Now, as then, one-third of participating firms show profitability above 35%. Fees per employee among the IPA 100 – after all the adjustments in staffing – are now about $15,000 higher than they were in 2007. After the mega-mergers of the last few years, minimum fees to get into the IPA 100 are still hovering around $30 million, as they were in 2007, showing the next group among the IPA 200 continuing to grow and rebound.

Words like “normal” are fairly subjective, and we’re still too close to determine if things have completely settled into the “new normal” as Pearce Snyder suggested. But signs of growth are encouraging and more consistent than in the recent past, and the future looks bright for those who make bold, intentional decisions and refuse to settle for the status quo.

Platt’s Perspective: Rock Stars, Passion And Keeping It Real

The Rolling Stones can teach us a lot about business, and I don’t mean branding, marketing or making millions upon millions of dollars.

The Stones can teach us about passion and business smarts. Now celebrating 50 years of performing, even the most diehard fan wonders what keeps them going. They certainly don’t need another tour to build their fan base, make money, or any other reason bands hit the road. They’re old. They’ve GOT to be tired of playing “Satisfaction” over and over again. So why bother?

Norm Brodsky, in a recent “Street Smarts” column in Inc. magazine, raised this question and concluded that passion – the internal drive that says ‘I must do this to feel alive’ – is what keeps the music playing for the Stones. I couldn’t agree more. I see that kind of passion in many firm leaders I’ve had
the pleasure of working with over the years.

Brodsky’s column got me thinking. MPs come from many different cultures, they take different approaches and have different personalities; there may not be one trait that separates them from the rest. However, I believe that successful leaders are engrossed in the “business” not the “work.” In other words, they’re not focused on getting the audit report out the door, they’re thinking about innovating and re-inventing the business so it can grow and succeed well into the future.

I believe there are many similarities between successful firm leaders and the front-man for the Stones, Mick Jagger. He has solid leadership skills, passion and the ability to adapt to changing trends and opportunities. Just as band members “get each other,” they know their strengths and weaknesses, and have a defined role to play in the band’s success – so do successful firms and firm leaders.

Great leaders understand that the entire group needs to be at the top of their game. If clients don’t get their money’s worth, everyone suffers. Partner groups need to be cohesive like a band, but if unsolvable problems arise, new “band members” must be brought in. The Stones take breaks from the business to re-energize, create new products, and create new opportunities – so should firm leaders.The band’s financial success hinges on it being run like a corporation. Foundation drummer Charlie Watts is an employee of Jagger, as is guitarist Ronnie Woods.

According to a fortune article, Jagger said, “It’s all very corporate, but in a fun, loose, New York  ad-agency sort of way.” The financial success of the band is no accident. It is the result of astute planning and strategy, thoughtful fund management and good old-fashioned hard work.

One thing I know for sure, the band understands Jagger’s passion. They see firsthand when they tour, the reason they are doing what they are doing. Like Jagger, I bring passion to my work daily. I have a passion for contributing to the profession. I want to give back something that firms can benefit from. I’m energized by that. When I wake up in the morning, that’s what motivates me, and keeps me grounded.

Firms that continue to evolve and challenge themselves to work toward a higher purpose are the firms that will prosper. These are the firms that connect with people on an emotional level and can therefore distance themselves from every other firm. With passion, hard work, a good team and excellent work, you can be a star in your own profession.

Platt’s Perspective: March Madness Strategy

As we settle into March Madness mode and cozy into our recliners to watch college basketball, I wondered how odd it would be to change the rules: no time-outs during the game.

Imagine each team member showing up for the game and setting his own strategy, without checking in with his teammates as the game progressed.

What would be the result if there were no opportunities to review plans, respond to challenges, injuries or changes in the lineup? What if there were no timeouts to decide as a group how to adjust when the opponent changes strategy?

After the opening tip-off, it would be up to the individual players to figure out what the team approach should be and what they should do to win the game.

You can easily see that the coordinated effort that defines the game of basketball could quickly descend into chaos as the team approach becomes a group of individualized efforts with no coordination. No matter how good or how experienced the players, the cohesive team would devolve into anarchy.

Many firms unwittingly operate under this “No Time-Outs” rule. They set the direction, announce it (maybe), hit the court, and as time goes on, it is up to each team member to assess and change course when necessary.

When individual efforts are valued over team strategy, everyone is busy running, blocking and pivoting according to their own interpretations

What if we could re-introduce the original rules of basketball time-outs to firm managers, and set it up so that the team uses the time to reassess and re-strategize as conditions change? What if the leaders of the firm could execute the strategy of the firm, huddle together, make corrections and execute the updated plan again with the benefit of these pauses in play? How much energy could be saved if they stop the day-to-day activities – “making the doughnuts” as consultant David Maister says – and pull back momentarily to course-correct? How much more progress could be made if firms could harness the benefits of a “huddle” and apply it to the ultimate success of their firm?

Thankfully, mechanisms are available that provide the same benefits that coaches receive from pre-game strategy, huddles during time-outs and after each quarter, and post-game film reviews. Partner retreats offer firm leaders the structure to assess, evaluate and make changes. It’s as important to huddle throughout the year as it is for a basketball team to huddle during breaks.

Business conditions change too quickly to allow the team strategy to descend into anarchy. Firms that regularly work on their business ultimately have a strong advantage over the competition and will be better able to capitalize on opportunities.

So let’s ask for a time-out. Let’s plan how we’re going to make significant forward progress – and take advantage of a firm retreat. Now back to the brackets. . .

Mike Platt is a principal with the Platt Group and can be reached at editor@plattgroupllc.com

Platt’s Perspective: “Trust” And “Control” Are Two Sides Of The Same Coin

Kelly and I were traveling through the San Francisco airport at the end of March for a business meeting, and encountered two people in a long line at the car rental counter. We struck up a conversation and found out that they are CPAs [senior managers] at a midsize firm who were on their way to a ski trip in Lake Tahoe.

“Wow, you don’t find many CPAs taking vacation this time of year,” we both said. “How can you afford to leave the firm in the middle of tax season?” They proceeded to tell us about the team that they left behind, the trust they had in the team, and the comfort level they had with the systems and processes to ensure that everything kept working while they were gone.

“Trust” and “control” are two sides of the same coin that need to be properly balanced for a firm to operate efficiently. At the extremes, too much trust without systems can result in anarchy and productivity will suffer. Too much control without reliance on the professional judgment of your staff leads to blind compliance and a slow, gradual disintegration of enthusiasm and engagement in the firm.

In recent weeks, several big corporations have canceled work-from-home arrangements and shut down “results only” work environments because trust and control were out of balance. Throughout this month’s issue, several stories highlight CPA firm issues that stem from the same problem.

As you begin to wind up tax season and proceed into the planning stages, be sure you take the time internally to address the right balance between trust and control. Is it out of whack in your firm? What are some of the symptoms that things are not properly balanced? What policies are in place that are either too light or too heavy on either trust or control that stop you from achieving the ideal situation? Have you ever asked your partners to think about this? Have you ever asked your staff what their perceptions are?

Now is a great time of year to get engaged in the discussion in your office. Communication is always the key to better understanding and better execution of the firm’s goals, and identifying obstacles and solutions to achieving those goals is actually much easier once they see the light of day. We encourage all IPA readers to consider what the proper balance of trust and control should be within your firm, and act now to fine-tune your environment. That is, of course, unless you are heading out for a ski trip in the next few days.

Mike Platt is a principal with the Platt Group and can be reached at editor@plattgroupllc.com