If you have been working at your firm for a few years, perhaps this is your first busy season after being promoted to senior accountant. Or maybe last year, after several years with the firm, you were promoted to a manager-level role. Perhaps you have been filling the role of marketing coordinator and have now proved yourself capable of becoming marketing director. These are just a few of the possible changes inside an accounting firm - sometimes it's someone stepping into the role of partner.

The issue is the fact that you have been "one of the team" -- whether the accounting team or the administrative/support team -- and suddenly you are in a position of visible leadership. You are responsible for others.

Many years ago, my first managing partner gave me some valuable advice. When you work your way up inside an accounting firm and are promoted to a supervisory role, things change -- and they change significantly. You must act differently now.

Put yourself in the role of a teenager before you reach legal driving age. Inside a moving vehicle, you were always a passenger, as compared to your new role after obtaining your driver's license.

As a passenger, you have more freedom inside the moving car. You can do things drivers cannot: Listen to loud music, focus on the passing landscape, play games on your mobile device, read, and generally horse around with other passengers. The driver has to focus on the road, their surroundings and other drivers. As a driver, you no longer have the right to become distracted or goof around with others in the car. You have taken that big step -- moving from passenger to driver.

The same scenario applies when you become a senior, manager or partner in the firm. You are no longer a passenger, but the driver. Your responsibilities increase and you actually lose some freedoms that you may have enjoyed as passenger.

No matter what your title inside an accounting firm, when you are asked to be responsible for other people, you are stepping into the extremely important, and rewarding, role of manager.

 

THE TITLE, NOT THE SKILL

One of the key succession issues inside firms is the fact that the "manager" title does not actually mean a person can manage. Many long-time employees of the firm have earned the title through longevity and the development of technical accounting and tax skills. However, it is so much more than that.

It involves learning a new skill set. What we often discover is that many managers continue to do what they have always done. In the CPA profession, we see many situations where an accountant is promoted because they have excellent technical skills. They have gained these technical skills through experience, and because the firm has invested significant dollars in their training and education. Yet the firm has failed to invest in, or even encourage, the development of management and relationship-building skills, the skills you must possess to be a successful manager and CPA.

If you have been promoted and are expected to lead a team and manage others, it's time for you to invest in acquiring the necessary skills. Be sure to ask the firm for assistance in obtaining management knowledge and expertise. Ultimately, however, it is your own personal responsibility.

As consulting guru David Maister says, "Managers must, above all else, have the skills of being net creators of energy, passion, drive and enthusiasm in other people."

If you are responsible for managing other people inside a CPA firm, thou shalt:

  • Voice your concerns upward, never downward.
  • Expect to lose control of your time because you are responsible for other people's time (as well as your own).
  • Not participate in the lunchroom whining that goes on about the topic of the day with the other staff.
  • Not gossip or complain about upper management.
  • Not blame others for a problem with your team. Take ownership.
  • Not avoid issues or choose not to make a decision. As a manager, the buck stops with you.

While there are a lot of things you should not do as a manager, it is even more important to begin with the things you should. Think about the manager role inside a CPA firm as being very similar to the conductor of an orchestra. The orchestra conductor works diligently with a group of talented individuals, with their varying styles, personalities and skill levels, to bring them together to perform beautiful music. The conductor's goal is to achieve an impeccable performance.
Let's look at the role of an audit manager. It's the manager's job to orchestrate the performance of the client engagement and develop the skills of the audit team. Their role is to:

  • Tell the audit team what do.
  • Tell them how to do it.
  • Monitor and measure their work.
  • Document each individual's performance.
  • Solve problems -- quickly.

Single out people for reward and recognition when they do a good job.
The newly promoted manager has moved from passenger to driver. They are responsible for things going well, getting the client engagement accurately completed, and serving as a knowledge resource for the team. Team members automatically go to them if they need something. If the team or an individual has a problem, the manager is the solution.

I still remember that conversation with the very first managing partner I worked for. He put it very simply when I was first promoted into the management level. I would describe him as a very traditional, hard-working, old-school CPA managing partner. He said, "So, you want to be part of management . ... Your life and your relationships will change. You will be on salary, you will need to set the example for others, and to work whatever hours it takes to get the job done."

I knew a change had occurred. I was no longer a passenger.

Rita Keller is a speaker, facilitator, consultant and author on firm management and partner topics. Reach her at rkeller@ritakeller.com.

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