Most accountants, particularly partners, complain about wasting time in meetings. I suspect this is because most meetings in accounting firms are poorly managed. By improving your meetings, you can also improve the performance of your firm because you will focus on solving issues, rather than just identifying and discussing them. Open discussion is healthy, but resolution is what differentiates the high performers.
Let’s start with the basics. We will focus on partner meetings because these are often where the problems start. Developing and sticking to an agenda requires discipline and structure.
Record decisions and assign tasks and due dates to individuals whether or not they are in attendance. This is part of the accountability process, and tools such as Box, Microsoft SharePoint and Outlook can help facilitate assignments.
Next, get rid of the paper and use a flat panel or projection system to keep everyone on the same page. Links to any relevant documents can be sent to attendees in advance. However, they do not need to bring paper to the meeting. Any relevant documents can be displayed on the screen. This ensures all parties are viewing the most current version.
The following is a sample agenda for a monthly partner meeting, with a few suggestions for reducing time and becoming more efficient:
1. Call to order. Start on time. No excuses.
2. Positive review. Start each meeting by having everyone share the most positive thing that has happened to them or the firm in the past 30 days. This exercise will change the tone of most meetings to a positive format where confidence is high, and issues can be discussed and solved. Make it quick: 15 to 30 seconds per person.
3. Review previous period scorecard. The leader should present a brief summary of the firm’s scorecard. These are important metrics that drive the firm’s economic engine. Limit the time, as accountants can easily get caught in the numbers.
4. Firm core values and vision. Have a copy of the firm’s core values and vision available in the event of discussions or decisions. Values and vision make decision-making faster and easier.
5. Accountability review. Present a quick report of issues that are still unresolved from the last meeting. Don’t be afraid to show names and dues dates. Seek updates from responsible parties and report on the status.
6. Current issues. Address these in order of priority. Define, discuss and solve. Do not allow people to go on tangents and procrastinate. Assign tasks, responsibilities and due dates. Utilize technology. When the meeting is over, it is over, and there are no flip charts or papers to incorporate into minutes.
7. Establish or confirm the next period’s “big rocks.” Great leaders hold partners accountable and keep them focused on the “big rocks” and don’t allow them to get caught in the sand and gravel. Do not be afraid of being repetitive. Most people, including partners, do not hear it the first time.
8. Meeting assessment. Allow each person to assess the meeting and express whether it met their expectations. Ask each person to grade the meeting on a scale of one to 10. Strive for eights, nines and 10s.
9. Adjourn. End on time.
Manage your meetings
Now that you have a format for your agenda, let’s move on to improving meeting management to reduce time and accelerate results.
Most partners are great at identifying issues. They are not as great at openly discussing the issues (especially the tough ones), and they tend to get caught in the “tangent trap.” At your next meeting, I challenge you to count the number of tangents people will take while trying to solve a single issue. This is human nature, but it requires discipline, leadership and a culture of trust to overcome.
The higher the level of trust in a firm, the fewer issues will make it to a partner meeting. Most will be resolved by firm management.
Accountability is a process, not a slogan. It starts at the top with addressing issues head-on and resolving them. Non-accountable partners tend to:
- Avoid specific measurements;
- Demand equality;
- Talk in abstracts; and,
- Ridicule excellence.
Accountable partners will:
- Strengthen standards;
- Welcome measurement;
- Take initiative; and,
- Deepen commitments.
This is not an exhaustive list of characteristics, but a tone of accountability is set in firm meetings. How your firm discusses and solves issues is a process. Processes can be efficient or inefficient. Great meetings are not about the technology, but technology can assist the leader or manager and hold participants accountable.
The ability to make decisions is one of the top criteria of a partner. Many in the accounting profession have the propensity to gather more information and organize it for presentation purposes.
You can live with an issue, end it or change it. The decision is yours. Putting off the decision and justifying procrastination while you immerse yourself in client problems is not an acceptable excuse. Self-help author Napoleon Hill said, “Lack of decision and procrastination are the major causes of failure.” The firm should come first, and resolution of issues provides people confidence, clarity and the capacity to perform at a higher level. You must have accountability to get to the next level.
As I said in the introduction, many of you know what to do; it is a matter of execution. Great leaders have a clear vision, are disciplined, and hold themselves and others accountable.
Start demonstrating vision, discipline and accountability in your meetings and you’ll be surprised at the improvements you’ll see in other areas.