Holistic accounting and pushing clients to achieve greatness, with Lynda Steffens

  • Lynda Steffens, founder of Australia’s The Small Business Project, teaches accountants how individualized advisory work can break up the drudgery of compliance. Her students then have more fulfilling work lives.

  • One of Lynda’s professional core values is being ‘empathetically pushy’. This means seeing the struggles business owners face, but not using them as an excuse for complacency.

  • The key to help retiring owners have a better chance at selling their practice is to focus more on advisory work, not just compliance.

Most accountants are made somewhere in their college years. Not Lynda Steffens. She had her accounting epiphany at a much younger age.

“I already knew at the age of 14 that I wanted to be an accountant,” Lynda says. “It was the first time that I laid eyes on debits and credits and double-entry bookkeeping. It just worked. It made the world a better place. I understood it and was good at it.”

As the daughter of farmers, she was familiar with the inner workings of small business—and good old-fashioned hard work. 

“We could do some things and were afforded some great opportunities because of the family business. But also, there were times when you couldn't do things because the business came first,” Lynda explains. 

Now, Lynda’s helping accountants put business first, both for themselves and the clients they serve with The Small Business Project. She teaches accountants how to maximize their advisory services to boost their clients’ bottom lines as well as their own.

On episode 55 of the Accounting Leaders Podcast, Lynda shares her views on compliance, the generational gap between entering and exiting accountants, and how helping others has been the heartbeat of her career. 

Empathetically pushing forward

The guiding star in Lynda’s career has been helping others with whatever skills she had in her arsenal. Whether she’s doing the books herself or helping others better their accounting game, Lynda uses a similar line of thinking. 

“Initially, I was in the accounting and compliance areas for many years of my life. As I proceeded into management roles and became an employer, it became a question of, ‘How do I lift up my team? How do I lift up those around me? How do I make them the best that they can be?” Lynda shares.

Another cornerstone in Lynda’s work is what she calls being “empathetically pushy”—that is, understanding a business owner’s struggles, but not sinking into the quagmire of stagnation. Anyone can make excuses and fall victim to their own habits. It’s pushing beyond that resistance that makes the magic happen. 

Lynda maintains a holistic view of accountants and business owners, seeing everyone as complex individuals. Business problems aren’t always limited to the business and could stem from deeper issues. Here’s how Lynda brings people to their full potential:

Accounting for individuality

When Lynda worked in compliance in her career’s earlier years, it was always about building individual relationships. The Big Four firms never appealed to her because she wanted to maintain a personal relationship with clients. It’s in those personal relationships that she’s able to fulfill her purpose. 

She recalls finding a common but unexpected problem at the root of one client’s business troubles. Lynda repeatedly came up with solutions to her client’s issues, but the client never executed the plans. It turned out that clinical anxiety was to blame for the client’s inability to make positive changes in her business. 

With the help of her network, Lynda connected her client to resources for dealing with anxiety. 

“Collaborating with others helped us break down the heart side, not the head side, [so she could] achieve and break through those barriers. Now she's gone from a one-woman band to having five employees, turning over three to four times what she was,” Lynda says of her client’s journey. 

Advising the advisors

Now with The Small Business Project, Lynda helps accountants maximize their potential by teaching them how to approach advisory work. Her 12-week course shows that it’s less about the answers accountants can provide, and more about the questions they can pose. 

To Lynda, the field needs a fresher take than compliance, which often revolves around following the rules and sticking to a plan.

Advisory, or business improvement advisory as I like to call it, needs to be done differently [than compliance]. It's an entirely different process.
Lynda Steffens, The Small Business Project

Every client will have individual needs, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all mindset. Instead, Lynda teaches her students how to leave room for individuality and customization. 

And the proof is in the pudding. Lynda gives an example of a recent accountant in her program who was able to add $50,000 of advisory work to his books within six to eight weeks of finishing the course. Plus, he has the capacity to at least double the advisory work from there. 

The changing of the guard

Although the market was flooded with fresh accounting talent when Lynda graduated, that’s certainly not the case today.

More accountants are retiring than coming into the industry. And there are notable cultural gaps between those leaving and those entering the profession. Lynda and Stuart discuss some of the sticking points between the two parties.

First, the traditional model of starting at a firm and working 20 years before becoming a partner isn’t functional for the incoming generation. Today’s graduates expect to have a steady career path with quick upward mobility. That trend is widely misunderstood by the older generations of accountants. 

Accountants close to retirement tend to value keeping the status quo, avoiding the technological upgrades that would simplify the work. This can come back to bite them when it comes time to sell their practice. 

If their assets only consist of compliance clients, that’s not a very attractive sale. But if the workload is a mix of advisory with compliance, a younger accountant might be more enticed to buy out the practice.

But it’s not all to blame on stagnation of the older generation. 

According to Lynda, “We've just been so busy doing what we've had to do. All of the work on the compliance side has kept us very busy and kept our heads down, instead of being able to plan for our businesses and even dream for what our business is, could be. So I don't think we've had that time or even made that time.”

Recommended reading: Transforming client livelihoods with Graeme Tennick of Tennick Accountants

Death to compliance?

While the industry is in flux, Stuart questions whether compliance will continue to have a sustainable role in accounting. If AI can perform the majority of the tax and compliance work, will accountants still be necessary?

Lynda says yes—with a little mindset shift. Compliance will never fully go away because regulations will continue to change. 

“It's only going to get more complex. So business owners only need us more. What we need to do as smart business owners and professionals is to work out the best way and the most efficient way that we can do that,” Lynda explains. 

Some of that efficiency is leaning on tech. Once the technology saves time on some of the drudgery of compliance, accountants can focus on the profitable and fulfilling advisory work. 

Hooked on business

Passion accompanies every step of Lynda’s career journey. Looking back at her early accounting ambitions, Lynda finds it hard to believe her career brought her to this point.

“I'm absolutely loving what I'm doing right now. I can see it being something that I will be very happily leading for a great many years yet because it gives me such purpose. I never thought I'd become this entrepreneurial business junkie at 50 years of age,” Lynda says.

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