There is a real epidemic in the accounting profession today. The disease has a couple of different names -- some managing partners refer to it as lack of accountability, while others talk about the complacency syndrome. In this article, we will explore one symptom of this at a time but from two viewpoints: Aquila's and Grissom's.

We have referred to this particular challenge as the hamster wheel or "partner wheel." This means you are working hard but not breaking out of the issues. You are working hard. It seems like you see your partners and team members more than you do your family. You have meetings - lots of meetings. You know what the issues are and you are spending a lot of time thinking about them and sometimes even talking about them.

The problem is you are not breaking out of them. Thinking and talking about them do not equate to addressing or resolving them. Hence, you are still dealing with them each year. You need to take action.

 

He said: If you are not used to making tough decisions, start with the easier problems. No matter what the issues, you need to prioritize them. I like tackling the easier ones first, especially if you don't have a history of addressing the tough issues. This way you can get some easy successes before you tackle the harder issues.

She said: I disagree. Prioritizing them is fine, but it isn't enough. What's going to change if you prioritize them now, as opposed to prioritizing them in the past? Sure, you know which issues have the greatest implications, but knowing is only half the battle and, quite frankly, you have been rolling these issues around in your head for long enough. You need to discuss the issues out loud with your leadership team. Adding them to the meeting agenda to be discussed is acknowledging that an issue exists and making a commitment to explore it further with the goal of resolution. This is a must-do.

He said: Discussion is good, but at some point it's time to draw a line in the sand. Say, for example, that you have an issue with an underperforming partner. Just talking to them about doing more is not going to work. A firm leader needs to set partner goals for all partners and let them know what the consequences are for not meeting them -- from no bonus to termination and anything in between. Then follow through.

She said: I agree. Draw the line. Don't cross it. After you have acknowledged the issues, you should set a deadline for resolving them. Preferably the deadline is within the foreseeable future. It is best to set a firm deadline at the beginning of this process before becoming involved in all of the emotions and details around the resolution. Targets are necessary. Set a schedule for tackling these issues and stick to it.

He said: If you set the deadline, you need to have some consequences if action is not taken or the goal not met. It may be better to set milestones, since issues may take longer than you originally think, and many times there is no way to tell if the final goal will be met in the time frame given.

She said: Fine. But get off the hamster wheel. Address it. Resolve it. Move on. You have more important things to deal with.

He said: If you really want to get the wheel moving, you need to align the partners around a common goal (or, as consultants like to call it, a vision). Ask yourselves: What is the firm working to achieve? How can the partner group achieve it by working together, rather than alone? What exactly are we trying to do in the firm?

She said: Alignment is important to get the wheel moving, but many times a partner's behavior is actually one of the issues that needs to be addressed. Leaders are many times hesitant to bring up an issue because the issue is sitting across the table from them at the partner's meeting. When this is the case, total alignment is impossible. Thus, a decision to address the issue must be made without consensus and alignment. If possible, leaders should have a conversation with close advisors to get feedback on the issue and gain some perspective before addressing it. However this is handled, the point is that it needs to be addressed -- and sometimes it is without the consensus of the group.

He said: Unless you have that common goal, you can't get consensus or alignment because the partners don't know what they are aligning around. This is not a chicken-or-egg dilemma. If a partner does not buy into the vision, then it is best for them to decide whether they want to stay with the firm.

She said: Firm leaders need to make a list of the issues that remain unresolved. What are the issues that keep popping up year after year with no major movement? A simple way to take the first step off the "wheel" is to make a list of the issues and take the time to determine both the cause and effect of them. For example, if your issue is a partner's lack of performance in a certain area, the cause might be a defiant attitude or, more likely, a lack of clear expectations for that partner. The effects could range from a strain on profitability to employee turnover or increased firm risk. When you lay it out, it is easier to look for solutions.

He said: Making a list sounds like my idea of prioritizing. I hope we are not back to where we started.

She said: What's the solution?

He said: There isn't one thing that will solve this problem. There are many activities that need to take place. For example, firm leaders need to get serious about leading the firm and not being an administrative partner. Specific goals need to be set and then filtered down to each owner and employee. Performance needs to be measured and rewarded.

She said: It isn't easy, or so many leaders wouldn't be struggling with it. Hard issues are difficult for a reason. They take courage and leadership to address. It also takes a lot of leadership and follow-through.

 

They said: If you are going to lead, you need determination and consistency. Many leaders start the process, but either don't really believe in it or don't stick with it. Partners know that this could be just another program of the day and if they wait long enough it, too, will go away. So, starting today, make a decision to face those tough issues head on. Step off the hamster wheel so you move forward as a result of all of the effort you are putting in. Don't let tough issues linger. Once you address them, you will be on your way to a more successful practice.

 

August Aquila is a well-known consultant, retreat facilitator and author. Reach him at (952) 930-1295 or aaquila@aquilaadvisors.com. Angie Grissom is a leading consultant at The Rainmaker Companies who exclusively serves accounting firms. Reach her at (615) 373-9880 or angie@therainmakercompanies.com.

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