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Art of Accounting: Staff shadowing

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Social distancing and working remotely have been major changes for many accountants and firms. One of the adaptations that need to be made are new methods of training younger staff. Here is a suggestion that has worked well for me, and how it can be applied to the new virtual workplace.

I believe training at every level, even at the partner level, is necessary and should be ongoing and continuous. I also believe that if staff do not learn, they won’t grow and neither will the firm. I don’t want to get involved right now with the higher levels, but want to discuss a method for the lower levels that will move them forward. I call this staff shadowing. This is where a partner (or manager or supervisor) brings a staff person to a client meeting. Here are some benefits of this:

  • It is a teaching and mentoring activity.
  • It offers exposure to clients.
  • It breeds awareness of how the client relates to what we do and say to them.
  • It is a window into the thinking of the client.
  • It can show how the partner responds to comments by the client.
  • It is a staff ego booster.
  • It creates a method to evaluate the ability to assume responsibility, and attentiveness.
  • It is a low-effort way to provide high-opportunity growth.
  • It will eventually make the partner’s job easier.

The premise is quite simple. Bring a staff person to a client meeting, basically to sit there and listen and absorb what they can. I see two categories of meetings. The first is where the staff person has never worked on that client, and likely never will. Here they are exposed to the great range of topics that you become involved in on behalf of the client. Sometimes these are discussions of off-the-chart subjects such as succession planning considerations, financial planning for the owner, cash flow planning for the business, suspected theft of inventory, how much the client’s business is worth and why they want to know.

There are hundreds of reasons, and most staff people never get to see any of these until they become a senior manager or partner, and then they are “expected” to know how to deal with these issues. There usually is no preparation necessary, and in some cases I have “grabbed” a staff person who happened to be in the office to go with me. When their attendance is scheduled, I usually give them my notes and agenda beforehand so they have a familiarity with the subject area. At the end of the meeting, I give them a brief summary of what was discussed and any action items on my or the client’s part, and answer any questions the staff person has.

The second type of meeting is with a client whom the staff person either works on or will. For these meetings, I expect the staff person to prepare somewhat by reviewing the client’s financial statement or tax return, check out its website, and get an understanding of what business the client is in. If the meeting will be about a specialized service area, I expect the staff person to get an understanding of that technical area, industry issues or whatever the meeting will be about.

I have some ground rules. They should take notes and should not speak or interrupt in any way. They are there to observe and learn. If they have any questions, I will answer them later.

For the first type of meeting, when it is over, they have nothing to do with that regard. For the second type, I expect them to follow up on anything that came up where I told them to make a note and follow up. This is where I spot those who will become successful. They are the ones that eagerly follow up with whatever they can do, and on a timely basis. The opportunity for them is to have me transfer whatever knowledge I could to them. This is earned by their follow up and follow through. I call that my dividend. No dividends = no ROI for me = not taking that person to a future meeting.

The dividends from the first type of meeting are the staff person’s overall growth in awareness and scope of knowledge. If I take them to a couple more meetings of that type, I then start assigning parts of the preparation process to them. That becomes my big-time dividend.

These shadow meetings are non-chargeable time for the staff person, so they are done at the firm’s cost. I consider this an investment in that person — and my firm. Being realistic, if I take someone to 20 hour and half meetings a year, that is 30 hours of the best “CPE” they could possibly get. There is also an effort needed by the staff person. The preparation and after-meeting questions need to be done on their time. Of course, if they follow up on something, that is chargeable time and should be done as part of their work assignments. I use “chargeable time” to distinguish services directly done on behalf of a client rather than as learning time, and not as a method of pricing the services. Both types of time are important. We never overlook the time spent working on a client, but too often we do not consider the shadow time as a productive investment.

Adapting to staff shadowing in the new era of the Zoom type of meeting or conference call environment just requires the staff person to be on the call. This is actually easier since travel time is eliminated, you don’t need to pay for the extra lunch, the meetings will be better scheduled, and there usually would be a more specific agenda. With fewer occasions today for in-person engagements, the shadow meeting might actually present a better opportunity to train staff in more difficult issues.

Do not hesitate to contact me at emendlowitz@withum.com with your practice management questions.

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Practice management Ed Mendlowitz Client strategies Client relations
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