Management is a term that means many different things to accounting professionals.

It may imply the people who manage the firm, the people who manage client relationships, or the people who manage others.

In his latest book, It's Okay to Be the Boss, Bruce Tulgan suggests that today's workforce has become high maintenance. That is, employees no longer hesitate to disagree with or confront management, especially when it does not give employees proper attention in the first place.

Do managers in your firm actually manage people? Have they been taught management skills? How much time do they spend managing people, or are their primary responsibilities managing client projects and meeting chargeable time goals?

Sadly, managing people has become an afterthought, and it mostly occurs when crises arise. The focus remains on client projects and chargeable hours. Tulgan defines management as, "telling employees what to do and how to do it, by monitoring and measuring and documenting their performance, by solving problems quickly, and by singling people out for rewards when they do a great job."

Based upon my experience, most firms are failing to live up to Tulgan's definition. Readers from different generations will react differently to that statement. Many from the builder and Baby Boomer generations believe that employees should "figure it out" without special directions, because they had to do so. Generations X and Y, on the other hand, prefer management's direct involvement.

Quality people want to know what is expected of them (in detail and not generalities), along with guidance, training and feedback necessary for success. In my opinion, failure to execute in this area has been detrimental to the profession.

Sure, most firms set chargeable-hours goals, but that is not enough. Firm managers should also be required to set goals in personal development and the development of others, client satisfaction (service) and adherence to firm standards, policies and procedures. In short, they should be accountable for managing people. Unfortunately, measuring the final three goals is difficult, so many firms merely emphasize chargeable hours (financial goals) by default.

It takes time and skills other than accounting to be a good manager. Today's leaders must know how to develop a training/learning program, solicit client feedback, and chart standards, policies and procedures.

What do today's employees look to management to provide?

* Beneficial direction;

* Opportune training;

* Support and guidance;

* Coaching; and,

* Feedback.

An honest analysis of your firm's progress in these areas is the first step to improvement. All progress starts with the truth. How much time do partners and managers spend managing staff? Do they spend time when it is convenient after completing their chargeable hours? Managing people should be a priority, with frequent contact between employee and manager.

Many employees are expected to report to multiple project managers, rather than "organizational chart" managers. This often dilutes results and yields inconsistent feedback from a variety of sources.

These are significant challenges to firms of all sizes. Managers are often stuck in the middle between partners (owners) and staff. What steps can a firm take to improve management in order to retain and attract quality people? I believe it is difficult to attract quality people if you can't retain and manage people.

DEFINE EXPECTATIONS

Employees want to feel significant and understand how they fit into the firm's strategic plan. Older partners may contest this, but it is true. Begin by documenting a strategic plan, with each employee networking their 90-day game plan into its objectives. Increase expectations and offer guidance to employees and managers at every level.

PROVIDE FEEDBACK

Annual or even semi-annual reviews are not enough. Employees expect coaching (daily or frequent feedback) as well as regular, formal reviews. Boomer Consulting conducts an accountability review with each employee every 90 days, relying upon 90-day game plans for guidance. Upon review, individual initiatives are flagged as complete, in progress or no longer a priority. Employees complete the forms prior to each review, reducing management's time and forcing the employee to evaluate their own progress. The result is a worker who takes part ownership of being managed.

TRAINING/LEARNING

Employees should be expected to attain specific skills at various levels within the firm. ("Learning ladders" should be measured as part of an employee's overall performance.) Most employees also have skills that they can teach to others, including partners. Thus, a two-way-street approach to training and learning is critical. By documenting course materials and conducting training classes, the firm gains a greater collective intelligence.

A strong training/learning program is a major advantage for staff retention and recruitment. Don't neglect to incorporate training as part of each employee's 90-day game plan.

DON'T AVOID CONFLICT

Small problems can emerge as crises if not addressed promptly. A majority of so-called managers prefer to avoid conflict, rather than address it in the moment. At these times, coaching with instant feedback and resolution can make a significant difference.

Too often, chargeable time and client responsibilities take a priority, and many problems are addressed too late or are ignored until they must be dealt with in crisis mode. Ignoring tension often prompts people to start looking for other employment opportunities.

PAY FOR PERFORMANCE

Seniority and book of business are no longer criteria for compensation. According to Norton and Kaplan's Balanced Scorecard approach, the focus should be on four categories:

* Financial;

* Professional development (training/learning);

* Client satisfaction; and,

* Adherence to standards, policies and procedures.

What you measure is what you get, so be careful to integrate measurements with firm objectives. Profit is a result, not a core value, in any firm.

Culture is important

Every firm has a culture. Some are healthy, while others need to evolve for the firm to prosper. If your culture is hands-off, switching to a hands-on culture will require time, discussion and planning. Expect comments like:

* "Our work is technical."

* "We have professionals who don't need management."

* "We don't want to become a bureaucracy."

These comments are symptoms of people who do not want to be held accountable. Accountability starts at the top, and firm partners must make the critical decision to be managed by others. Only then can they discover their own unique abilities and manage others with discernment.

PERFORMANCE EVALUATION

Management requires a performance evaluation system. The 90-day game plan and accountability review are important components, but the most significant criteria of a good performance evaluation system are:

* Simplicity and precision;

* A focus on the future;

* Frequent communication; and,

* No-nonsense accountability.

CONCLUSION

Change is difficult for most people; therefore, it is necessary to explain your firm's new management and accountability strategy with rigor. Communication among partners, managers and staff is critical.

Don't expect complete buy-in. Develop a list of frequently asked questions and draft responses. Expect pushback, but be strong and continue to adjust and improve as your firm grows. Good management is about progress, not perfection.

Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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