by L. Gary Boomer

Today, teamwork is a necessity in providing clients with diversified services. Clients expect star accountants to play team ball and to have a winning team.

However, many firms are dysfunctional when it comes to teamwork. In "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team," Patrick Lencioni lays out the five key criteria for team success: trust, conflict, commitment, accountability and results.

Before I expand on those criteria, I encourage you to take the "How strong a team do you have?" quiz (see box on page 21). The answers to these questions can be revealing with regard to how well your firm is playing as a team.

Building a cohesive team is not complicated; it is just difficult. Too often we see firms where the partners don’t trust one another. Lack of trust is Lencioni’s No. 1 area of dysfunction.

Without trust, teamwork is almost impossible. This is an indicator of problems that are often associated with egos and lack of communication.

Lencioni states that team members must be vulnerable in order to develop trust. In other words, they must be open to their mistakes and weaknesses.

This is not easy in business, especially in many CPA firms. Partners tend to focus on their strengths and ignore weaknesses. Additionally, they do not readily admit to their mistakes.

When people trust each other, they are willing to express themselves and challenge other team members in positive ways. Lencioni refers to this as conflict, whereas lack of conflict is the second dysfunctional area that he identifies. Where there is trust, there is generally open conflict.

Many firms also lack commitment (the third dysfunction) from members of the team. Remember, support is different from commitment. It is easy to say that you support something -- it is much more difficult to be committed.

How often have you heard about a partner who supports a training program, but doesn’t attend the sessions and creates crises in order to keep staff doing client work rather than attending a training session?

Accountants love to hold others accountable, but don’t generally like to hold themselves accountable. Lack of accountability is Lencioni’s fourth dysfunction.

The balanced score card, a business management technique I strongly recommend, is also a proven method of holding people accountable and for keeping everyone aligned with a firm’s vision and objectives.

Finally, the fifth dysfunction is inattention to results. Often accountants are focused on effort rather than results. This often comes from the emphasis on chargeable hours.

Don’t misunderstand; accounting is a business that requires a significant investment of one’s time. However, improved standards, processes and procedures can help firms reduce time requirements while improving client satisfaction.

If you relate to any or all of the areas of dysfunction, the real question is, "How do you improve?"

Many firms are addressing these issues -- but, frankly, not quickly enough to make a major positive impact upon the culture of their firm. People lose interest in initiatives that require over six months to experience positive results. The cynics tend to morph the effort into a bureaucratic mess over a period of time.

Here are 10 tips on how to get started in improving your team’s performance.

1. Develop a written three-year strategic plan that is updated on an annual basis.

2. Have your entire team take the Kolbe Index and prepare a Team Analysis. This will greatly improve communications and trust within your team and your firm as a whole.

3. Assign your top people to the firm’s greatest opportunities, rather than its biggest problems. This will assist in developing leaders at all levels within the firm.

4. Utilize a CEO rather than an executive committee or, worse, the entire partner group. Governance is important, but the partner form of governance has proven ineffective.

5. Implement the balanced score card in order to align the firm, partners and staff objectives. Focus on four areas: processes, client satisfaction, learning and training, and financial objectives. Be careful not to focus solely on the financial objectives.

6. Hire a training/learning coordinator to manage the firm’s training/learning program. This person should not be an accountant, but rather a professional educator who knows how to develop training objectives, assess individual training requirements, develop individual curriculums, schedule training sessions, stress accountability and manage the entire program.

7. Utilize small task forces to implement the firm’s top priorities. Develop action plans, establish due dates and hold people accountable.

8. Utilize game plans for each person and review progress quarterly. This requires management time, but it is worth it.

9. Continually and consistently communicate the firm’s vision and strategy. Communicate successes on a regular basis. Focus on the positive.

10. Allocate resources to your best opportunities. Focus, rather than trying to be all things to all people -- thus the need for a clear strategic plan.

How strong a team do you have?1. Is your firm interested in results or effort (charge hours)?

2. Is the primary indicator in your firm chargeable hours?

3. Do you hold partners and staff accountable?

4. Do you measure indicators other than financial indicators?

5. Do you measure client satisfaction?

6. Do you measure partner and staff learning and growth?

7. Do you measure compliance with firm processes (culture)?

8. Do you avoid conflict within the partner group?

9. Do partners and staff challenge each other regarding performance?

10. Do your partners exhibit a high degree of trust in each other?

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