In the annals of American history, the recent government shutdown will not rank with the great spectacles of democracy. It is not the Constitutional Convention of 1787, or the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, or FDR's 100 Days. It offered no profiles in courage.
In its way, however, it does qualify as an edifying spectacle -- an excellent example of how not to run a government and country. Beyond that, though, it offers several valuable lessons for business owners and firm leaders. For the most part, these are about what you can't allow at your firm.
Divided houses cannot stand. Once your firm decides to do something, everyone has to get on board. It's fine to fight a proposal; it's irresponsible to fight a program that's being implemented. Too many firm initiatives fail to realize the results they could -- some because partners and other staff actively sabotage them, but far, far more because they simply opt out, refusing to participate. This saps energy and resources that most firms cannot spare.
Yes, dissent can be valuable, and yes, group-think can be dangerous. But firms generally need to devote more energy to pushing in the same clearly identified direction than to arguing about it endlessly. It's certainly fair (to say nothing of smart) to offer dissenters a chance to regularly assess how well a controversial new initiative is doing, but only if they're willing to honestly support it in the meantime.
Sometimes it's better to have them outside the tent. Love them or hate them, you have to acknowledge that the Tea Party members of the House have been tremendously successful in setting the agenda. Allowing a small, highly vocal minority -- whether it's a squeaky-wheel partner or a tight-knit practice unit -- to have that much power at your firm is not a good idea. I'm not talking about the partner group; obviously, the owners of the firm should call the shots. This is about the single partner who bullies others, or the manager who refuses to change, or the practice unit that acts as if it's somehow separate from the firm. They may be rainmakers or profit centers, but if they can't operate as part of the firm, you may be better off inviting them to leave.
Esteem your colleagues. At this very moment, every single member of the House of Representatives is dreaming about how, two years from now, they won't have to deal with any of the jerks on the other side. Very few firms have bi-annual elections, and the partners and managers you hate most are the ones most likely to stick around. You have no mid-term elections to help clear the air, and you will have to work with these people every day. What's more, many of the staff below you may only know about other partners or other units what they hear from you. The sort of unprofessional name-calling and sound-backbiting that all sides indulged in during the shutdown can irreparably poison the atmosphere of an accounting firm.
Have a plan, and expect the unexpected. Finally, we'll note that whatever you may think of the feds, they were ready. When the government shut down, they knew who was being furloughed and who was sticking around for crucial functions -- and they knew what those crucial functions were. That's a form of disaster planning, something that accounting firms could do a little more of. Many in Congress, on the other hand, seemed astonished to learn that the federal government ran things like federal parks. If you make a major move, don't be surprised when unintended consequences start popping up.
All in all, the shutdown was an ugly little bit of history; best not to repeat any part of it at your own firm. After all, when history occurs the second time, it's as a farce.
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