How to Coach Your Staff - Clarity Practice Management
Accounting and Tax Practice Management
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How to Coach Your Staff

How to Coach Your Staff

To recap, your first role as CEO is chief strategist. That means putting the right people in the right roles with the right resources.

Your second role is trainer and coach. This role is closely related to your role as chief strategist. You can’t put the right people in the right positions without the right people. This second role is about creating and keeping the right people.

Unfortunately, few of the people you hire will be the right people immediately. You have to grow them. They aren’t necessarily slackers or stupid. They have never worked in a forward-looking, well organized firm like yours. If you have made it this far through our discussions, you are well on your way to creating an extraordinary firm.

I’ve mentioned “The One Minute Manager” book before. If you have not read it, please make that your next reading project. It’s very short. Much of what follows comes at least indirectly from that book, filtered through my experiences.

One of the central tenets of “The One Minute Manager” is the one-minute goal setting. This meeting sets out short-term goals for an employee. The “one minute” part forces you to organize your thoughts and priorities ahead of time. For the most part, this is a once-per-week meeting, but with newbies, it should happen much more often than that, maybe even daily until they are regularly meeting your expectations. For a newbie, your one-minute goal setting might look like the following:

“Today, I expect you to get the Smith, Jones and Alfred returns to the point of questions. We have the answers for Edwards and Robinson. Wrap those up to the review stage. Remind Kerry and James that we still need their answers. Then fetch me a beer.”

Except for maybe the beer part. Most newbies don’t know a decent brew when they see one. You will have to train them to get to that point. A one-minute goal setting for a manager might look as follows:

“This week, let’s get the returns in the review stage below 100. Last week, our return turnaround was slumping. Make certain Sandra is working on the oldest returns first. She has 52 that have not been started yet. Keep assigning your returns out to staff. Your time is best spent reviewing returns. Then fetch me an IPA with an alcohol level above 6 percent.”

As you can see, the discussion with a manager is at a higher level. You are talking less about specific projects and more about keeping your process moving. Your managers must learn the difference between an IPA and a lager before getting promoted.

Hold ad hoc meetings if you feel your workflow is running off the rails. Set priorities as often as necessary. Find out about bottlenecks in processes.

One tax season, we had a problem getting returns from the initial scanning stage to preparers. I noticed from our project management software that admin staff needed upward of three days to get the initial scanning done.

That’s a big bottleneck. We need to get returns to preparers in about a day or we’ve added a couple of unnecessary days to our turnaround time. This causes the “what’s the status of” hell that we’re desperately trying to avoid. I held a quick meeting with our admin staff to determine the cause.

We had not ramped up their hours quickly enough in February. We were trying not to pay any overtime in February. An unexpected surge in returns coming in January and February caused them to fall behind. Instead of just bringing in one person for the next Saturday, we brought all of our admin staff in to eliminate the backlog.

Without that brief meeting, our March would have started off horribly. Our preparers would have been even more behind than in a normal March. Clients would have been calling me, and most importantly, I would have been unhappy. It is all about me.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit of a diva. If you haven’t noticed, bless you for your little white lies. When I’m not happy, pretty much nobody is happy. It’s a character flaw the world just has to accept. As my cousin Ron says, “It’s a gift. Unfortunately, you can’t return it, even with the receipt.”

Ultimately, your happiness as a firm owner is what matters most. If you’re not happy, make changes. Yes, your happiness is more important than happy clients. If you can’t get to happiness, this isn’t the business for you.

Here’s another example of when an ad hoc meeting stopped a potential disaster. One late March, I noticed in our project management software that we had 90-plus returns in the review stage. That is way too many for us, and client turnaround times were about to take a dive.

What caused this bottleneck? Work hoarding from managers. They were working on “their” returns, instead of assigning them to preparers and working on reviews. This issue pops up almost every tax season.

Once you give people primary responsibility for serving clients, not surprisingly, they want to treat those clients well. After all, they’ll be getting the irate calls if the clients aren’t happy, not you. That’s a beautiful concept so far. You get fewer irate calls.

However, beautiful concepts sometimes devolve into ugliness. Managers are supposed to be reviewers, not preparers. Reviewing returns takes substantially less time per return than preparation. Let’s assume that a person can review three returns in the time it takes to prepare one. Thus, a manager handles return reviews for multiple preparers.

When a manager decides to prepare a return for a favored client, three reviews get postponed. If a manager takes a day and prepares five returns, 15 returns fall behind. Returns in review are already the oldest in the queue. Welcome to the beginning of “what’s the status of” hell. The phones will ring.

In late March, our managers were “just trying to get all of my returns to the questions stage.” In only a few days, we had a big backup of returns to review that were aging their way into irate client phone calls and emails. Also, the end result of eventually catching up would mean a big avalanche of completed returns roaring downhill and burying our admin staff in early April.

My partner, Paul, and I talked to the managers and reinforced the idea that all of our clients were important, not just theirs. We reassigned some of their returns to preparers, and personally took on primary review responsibility for some of the returns caught in the review stage. We turned the admin avalanche into just a big snowball, unpleasant but manageable.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of real-time project status information in preventing tax season disasters.

Without an effective project management system, we would not have known about the magnitude of the review problem. In 30 minutes, we reacted and solved the issue.

Immediate feedback is another of the central tenets of “The One Minute Manager.” There are two types of feedback detailed in the book: one-minute praisings and one-minute reprimands. In the latest version of the book, the authors dropped the “reprimand” language in favor of another 21st-century weasel word, “redirect.” Thus, I prefer the original version of the book if you can find it.

Use one-minute praisings to deliver immediate and specific positive feedback. They are most effective in person, but using email once in a while isn’t horrible. Here’s an example: “You did a great job getting that difficult basis schedule right. I am really happy that you are developing advanced tax preparation skills. This makes you tremendously valuable to us.”

Note that the praising was specific and included how the good performance made the praiser feel.

One-minute praisings shouldn’t be restricted to situations in which everything has gone perfectly. The authors of “The One Minute Manager” stress the concept of catching someone doing something right.

That means with newbies that close is good enough for hand grenades, government work and tax returns. You are leading them toward increasing skills by praising actions that are almost correct. Here’s an example: “You did a really great job getting the equity part of the basis schedule correct. I am really happy that you are making great progress in improving your basis knowledge. As a next step, I’d like you to concentrate on learning the ins and outs of the owner debt section of the basis worksheet.”

There is no negative feedback in the above. You are celebrating what the preparer got right and using the positive emotions to motivate further progress. One-minute praisings are your most powerful staff development tool. As staff members reach advanced levels, you can decrease the number of praisings, but never stop them altogether.

The one-minute reprimand gives feedback that criticizes behavior, not the person. The reprimand is a sandwich. The actual reprimand is the meat surrounded by bread that consists of reinforcing the person’s value to the firm.

Don’t use the reprimand in circumstances in which more training is required. If you haven’t trained a newbie to know the difference between inside and outside basis, that’s not the newbie’s fault. It’s yours.

“I know that you normally provide great training for newbies, and I really appreciate that. However, this time you missed the mark. He needed more guidance and that led him to make a mistake on the return. I know this wasn’t an intentional oversight, and I know that you’ll do better in the future.”

You have been reprimanded. That’s all there is to it. The best time for the reprimand is not after your best client just spent 10 minutes telling you everything that is wrong with your ancestry and questioning your right to exist in this universe. Talk a walk to calm down. If that doesn’t do it, kick a politician. That always cheers me.

For more on goal setting, praisings, and reprimands, read “The One Minute Manager.” Do it or I’ll reprimand you again.

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