Art of Accounting: Staff who take ownership

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I don’t think that more than a quarter of the people who ever worked for me assumed “ownership” on what they worked on. The rest did their jobs well, delivered to us what we wanted, but we always needed to put that finishing touch on it.

The staff that assumed ownership followed up and followed through on what they did. They found out what happened to the final product, how it was used, why it was done for that client at that time, how the client benefited from it and how we tried to bring added value. If other people were in the loop, they traced the work upward to make sure the ball wasn’t dropped. Occasionally we needed to let someone go and the choice was between the person who assumed ownership that was not technically as good and whose ability to grow was limited, and someone who never assumed ownership but was technically proficient. Initially we made the decision to let go of the non-technically proficient people. These were mistakes and once we realized that, we placed a much higher value on ownership. The technical parts of our work can be handled by many, but the ownership only by a very few. The difficulty in hiring is that the technical expertise can be tested to some extent, while uncovering the ownership genes is hit or miss in the interview process. Staff members who assumed ownership had a direct correlation with making our lives easier and the client relationships stronger.

I’ve tried to teach staff how to take ownership and I’ve had some success. Not as much as I would have wanted, but much more than if I did not try at all. I also found that taking ownership is an innate trait that my training hones, gives a direction to, and creates empowerment for someone who might be tentative about taking ownership. In teaching I always make the effort, until it becomes clear to me it’s not working. Some of what I do, besides giving specifics of things that can be done, is bring them to meetings with clients as well as with colleagues, bankers and attorneys to give them the flavor of the scope of what we do and expose them to a greater arena than the work they do. I also suggest CPE programs, books, magazines and articles to read, and some soft skill techniques such as how to dress, network and initiate a conversation with clients’ personnel.

Of course, it is best to have technically adept people who assume ownership, but that’s not always the situation. If I could not have both, my choice always would be the person who takes ownership.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com along with the Pay-Less-Tax Man blog for Bottom Line. Ed is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University teaching end user applications of financial statements. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 964-9329 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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