How to help your staff become better leaders (and why this is crucial to your firm’s success)

“The difference between successful accounting firms and accounting firms that struggle is how they are led.”

That’s according to Ed Chan, who helped grow Chan & Naylor to 150 staff across 12 offices, and one of Australia’s leading accounting firms.

Ed says that strong leadership doesn’t only mean implementing robust systems and processes or hiring the right people. It's about defining what a strong top-down leadership style looks like, and learning how to develop leaders within an organization.

You can’t be the only leader

“A business is almost like an airplane,” Ed says. “It can go off-course and needs a pilot that can incrementally check-in and redirect the airplane. Without the pilot adjusting course, the plane will wind up going a completely different direction.”

Accounting firm owners who are bogged down with too many production tasks or working too many hours each week can’t always take a breather, look up, and understand when the business needs a nudge in the right direction. 

That’s why you need to prioritize developing other leaders. To help remove tasks from your workload, help you delegate priorities, and give you more freedom to check in on your business to ensure it’s running smoothly.

How to develop leaders in your accounting firm

Developing leaders within your organization is more than just searching resumes and finding people that check the proverbial boxes. Matching people with your business goals also requires leadership to take an active look at characteristics that can make the business thrive, how staff can improve the culture, and how to ensure everyone from clients to stakeholders can win. 

Learn the difference between production and productivity

Many first-time business owners come out of the production department. For accountants, you might be used to living life “on the conveyor belt,” as Ed puts it, “only producing profit loss and balance sheets and tax returns.”

Those who become proficient enough in productivity may decide to run their own business, and quickly learn that running a business is more than just production. Leaders also must recognize the importance of non-production type roles like:

  • Marketing

  • Public Relations

  • IT

  • Administration

Not every division can operate as a production division, which is why your staff needs to be good at both production and productivity.

Developing everyone in your organization to be a producer will not allow you to grow and scale well. This will result in a flat structure within your organization, which will make it difficult to recruit, retain new talent.

A flat structure will stifle your profits and decrease your productivity, and business-owners will work much longer hours to try to hold everything together.

Instead, focus on differentiating your team. Specifically, Ed talks about defining who on your team is a grinder, minder, and finder:

  • Grinders: Great at production work

  • Minders: Great at strategy and leading, usually strong managers

  • Finders: Great communicators, and have excellent interpersonal skills, usually great account managers

All three types of workers are important in an accounting firm. You can’t have one without the other two, and they need to work to complement each other. Your staff will naturally fall into one of these categories. While some employees are best at getting work done quickly, others are better at maintaining strong client relationships. 

Replace a flat structure with a narrow and deep strategy 

Once you’ve discovered who within your organization is best suited for production, leadership, and account management, start creating a deep employee hierarchy to complement each person’s skill set.

A diagram of the ideal accounting firm structure, based upon finder, minder and grinder roles.

With a strong understanding of what makes your team tick, and how they best fit within your company’s hierarchy, you can create a more productive, self-sufficient, and happy team. 

Pro tip: Check-in on how your employees feel often. Those who are burnt out might be in the wrong silo. Their energy could be better spent elsewhere.

Commercial accountants vs. public accountants 

In addition to pinpointing the finder, minders, and grinders, Ed also discusses the importance of paying attention to your staff’s background. 

For example, not all accountants are the same. Commercial accountants have the luxury to prepare information slowly, and perform in-depth research, whereas in a public accounting firm, speed, accuracy and productivity are the most important components for an employee. Not everyone works at that pace. It’s difficult to turn a commercial accountant into a public accountant, which means depending on the sector you’re in, you’ll be recruiting different types of people.

Getting the right people in the right roles can be time-consuming. Still, it will help lay the foundation for building strong, independent leaders within your organization to help it grow effectively. 

Avoid bypassing managers

Once you’ve laid out a structure for your team, actually follow it. According to Ed, a common complaint he hears from clients is, “I wish my staff would be more accountable and take more responsibility for a client.”

However, he says often management isn’t allowing their team to become more accountable because they constantly undermine their employees by bypassing. 

For example, let’s say you’ve hired a Senior Production Manager to lead four staff members. Then, work comes in. Instead of having the Senior Product Manager delegate work to their staff, you assign tasks to the four staff members directly. In this case, you’re bypassing the Senior Production Manager.

If all four employees go to you with questions instead of the Senior Production Manager, this is considered bypassing, too.

When bypassing occurs, your Senior Production Manager might think, “You’ve asked me to manage a team, but won’t let me manage them.” Or, “If you want to manage the team, then go ahead and do it.”

When you bypass staff, you wind up with a paid audience - the business owner will do all the work, and productivity will likely slow due to an overload of tasks on your plate, and culture will weaken from feeling undervalued. 

Think win/win

When assessing how your staff performs throughout your organization, and what decisions you should make, it’s important to think about solutions that let everyone win:

  • How will staff win

  • How do clients win

  • How do managers win

  • How do shareholders win

“The pie is only so big,” says Ed. “When we’re all fighting for the biggest slice of the pie, someone will get the smallest slice. Instead, increase the pie so that everyone wins, with equal happiness.”

By focusing on your resource mix while structuring your staff, you can easily reassess how a pie is divided.

For example, if you have your highest-paid employees doing trivial work, your client's fee would be hyper-expensive. In other words, the client loses. In the same scenario, if you write-off the time your senior employees spend on projects for clients, then shareholders and management will lose because senior staff is working on production tasks for a higher rate than the production team would.

If you find that your ‘wins’ aren’t distributed evenly, refer back to a narrow and deep structure. Have your higher-paid employees, do higher-paid tasks:

  • Check and review work, but don’t do it their own

  • Spend time training people underneath you

The strong leaders will make sure the work is getting pushed down to the appropriate staff, in the most effective way. 

Look out for — and remove — blockages

Another way business growth gets stifled is when business leaders are blocked. Always keep a keen eye on blockages that prevent your team from getting their job done. Blockages can come in many forms:

  • Computers aren’t working

  • Clients aren’t responding quickly enough

  • Internal politics are harming culture

Paying attention to blockages, identifying them immediately and them removing them as possible leads to fewer problems as your business grows. 

Productivity, solutions, and outcomes ahead of your ego

The personality of your business is a reflection of the owner’s personality. If you put ego and right ahead of productivity and solutions, you’ll likely see a dysfunctional team structure. 

Productivity should be the basis upon how you make decisions, and how well you’re able to remove blockages from within your organization. The decisions you make will turn into outcomes, and your outcomes determine the longevity of your business. Will you end up in the right or wrong place?

Consider the following ways to think of solutions and outcomes, over ego:

  • Client-facing: Let’s say a client forgot to deliver paperwork promptly, resulting in a fine. But, the client says they did indeed provide the paperwork. Rather than bickering back and forth over who is right or wrong, it’s more important to tell your business leaders to talk about a solution. Does the client lifetime value mean more than the fine? Does your time on the phone cost more than the fine itself? Does it really matter who is right or wrong? We want productivity, waive the fee for your client, and move on. 

  • Focus on solutions and not politics: Let’s say someone on your team forgot to update a database causing problems with a client’s account. Perhaps your manager’s first reaction is to hunt out who made the mistake. Instead of focusing on ‘who,’ urge your team to focus on the solution. How can you ensure this mistake isn’t made again? Should you hold a training session to rectify the situation?

  • No-blame culture: Create a culture where there is no blame. When your team is always on edge and scared to make a mistake, everyone hides, and problems don't get solved. On the contrary, when people aren’t intimidated to come to you or other business leaders to show errors, you can focus on solutions and move forward. In a culture where everyone is looking to improve, fix errors and move forward, your business will grow. 

What happens with a business filled with strong leaders?

“The place just hums,” says Ed. “Everything launches on time, the staff is happy, they stick around longer, and they have a career path.” 

Ready to make your practice hum?

Here are the four steps you can take, to have the quickest wins in your company and develop strong leaders:

  • Self-awareness: Start with yourself. Are you bottleneck growth within your organization? What can you do immediately to change? Whether that means restructuring your team from a flat structure to a narrow and deep team or including your managers in more decisions, if you are the bottleneck, don’t worry it’s easy to fix. 

  • Traffic flow: Remember, productivity looks different in different departments. Some of your people are better at communication, while others are better at production. Divide your workforce management in a way that lets you zero in on the strengths of each of your employees. 

  • Remove yourself, as the leader, from production: Spend more time training so that you don’t have to do the work. 

  • Focus on your business culture: Remove blame, and scorn office politics and negative language, and your organization’s personality will turn into one dedicated to solutions and growth.

This article is a recap of our recent webinar, How to develop leaders in your accounting firm, featuring Ed Chan (Chan & Naylor and WIZE Mentoring). You can watch the full recording here.