[IMGCAP(1)]The Private Companies Practice Section of the American Institute of CPAs recently issued its annual Top Issues Diagnostic Report.

For the fifth consecutive year, owner/partner accountability and unity has been cited among the top two issues for CPA firms comprising more than 21 professionals. The report states that “firms are seeking ways to lay a foundation for robust future growth…” and offers the following as one of its directives: Develop a culture of performance and accountability.

For years, I have written that partner accountability is “the holy grail” of a successful CPA firm. The ideal scenario: engaging all members of the team, obtaining unanimous agreement upon a goal, full collaboration on a strategic plan, and each participant’s acknowledgment of his/her responsibility, capability and obligation to contribute to the success of the firm. Ahhhh…. Life would be good!

Is accountability considered an unobtainable, intangible concept at your firm? Is it considered to be a dirty word for “more work with little or no gain”? Is there still a feeling of “Why should I do any more work? No one else is….”? Let’s see if we can’t get past these seemingly giant hurdles and get a little closer to drinking from the big goblet of accountability.

Engagement of all the Partners
In order to understand what drives a partner group, we need to revisit the group’s parts. There is a common expression that I think is appropriately here: “The whole is only as good as the sum of its parts.”

Since the group can only stand as strong as its individual members, in order to fulfill the objectives of the group, we might want to first address the motivation of each member. I believe that, no matter how hard you try, no leader will fully be able to remove the subjectivity of “self” entirely from group members. I advise that the best way to motivate a group is to make sure each individual’s needs/desires are addressed in the strategic plan or vision/mission.

Agreement upon a Specific Goal
If the only way (or certainly, the best way) to achieve your goal is by rallying everyone within the organization to support the goal through action, then isn’t it important to get buy-in around that goal? And might not the best approach be asking questions of group members?

This way, defining the goal is everyone’s decision. It is specific, not general, and because individual needs and issues are examined, it becomes a passionate, honest commitment. Everyone ultimately has a say in what their contribution will be. Note: This takes a bit of tact and requires an educated, yet objective perspective.

Collaboration on a Strategic Plan
Understanding how groups work is the key to effective, successful collaboration. There are four stages of group development. Understanding them can assist us in how we might nurture or develop a culture of accountability and unity among the members of the group:

1. Dependency and inclusion: The members of the group look directly to the leader for guidance.

2. Counter-dependency and conflict: Someone within the group challenges the leader

3. Trust and structure: The group members start to experience a sense of unity as at least two or more members of the group agree and are the “same”

4. Work and productivity: The group starts to be productive as its initiatives and goals begin to be recognized.

Which stage of development is your partner group in? Now that you understand that conflict is a necessary part of growth toward productivity, is this something that can be positively nurtured/encouraged among your shareholders? This requires a shift in thinking, i.e., going from ”conflict is bad or makes us uncomfortable” to “conflict is a necessary part of our growth as a team.”

Participation at the Individual Level
Accountability as analysis: Everyone needs to be responsible for his or her actions; each member is ready, willing and able to contribute to the desired outcome or goal.

The leader of the group acts more like a facilitator, asking open-ended questions to gather information from group members on their intentions, desires, opinions, fears, beliefs and judgments. The approach of using open-ended discussion and honest dialogue should elevate support and trust among the group members, permitting topics that uncover areas of vulnerability to no longer be a taboo subject.

One way to achieve this is to consider your group as a band fighting the “outside world,” i.e., your competition. When I have used this approach with shareholders, I often witness a different slant on the information presented as professionals become more open and objective in their considerations and statements.

The goal is to create and foster a nonthreatening group mentality by asking open-ended, thought-provoking questions. This should lead to more productive discussions that focus on alternative solutions, as opposed to the problems at hand.

How to Achieve Accountability and Unity among Shareholders
Clarity: The group or team should be very clear about the specifics of the desired outcome of the goal and how it will serve the greater good.

Make it personal: Insert a figurative letter “I” into the word “team.” Since motivation dictates behavior, facilitate open, honest dialogue to ascertain what will drive the members of your team. How will this goal serve them individually? What, if any, fears exist within them that might be resulted upon success? (e.g., more work, responsibility, less staff, longer hours, etc.)

Flexibility: Every person brings with them a natural gift or skill set that can contribute to the growth and success of the endeavor, so they should be encouraged to identify that value in themselves. Be open-minded, listen and encourage volunteerism around activities and deadlines.

Peer pressure: The existence of peer pressure around performance within a group is often palpable among successful teams. The key is keeping it positive by using reinforcement of effective behaviors and interpersonal strategies rather than focusing on wrongdoing and blame. Acknowledge missteps but quickly use them as a learning tool.

Role-playing and brainstorming: Listen to the perspectives of other members of the group. Contemplate possible consequences, such as others your group might need to interact with in order to achieve the goal. Consider asking an objective team member to play “facilitator for a day” or act as a “timekeeper” during the meeting. The presence of an overseeing objective team member is a beneficial tactic I have used to transform the energy, dynamics and performance of groups.

Personalities: Understand the interpersonal strategies of group members. Know what to expect from group members, as far as recurring behavior, both positive and negative. This is instrumental in advancing the group to the next level of development.

Lisa Tierney, CLSC, is the founder of Tierney Coaching & Consulting, Inc. Lisa is a certified professional life coach who works predominantly with CPA professionals, assisting CPAs in growing their practices, developing their leadership abilities, effectively managing their relationships and finding graceful exits around succession planning. She is a sought-after speaker and facilitator of workshops and partner retreats. She can be reached at Lisa@CPAMarketingConsultant.com.