3 tips for stimulating team accountability at your accounting firm

The greatest teams an entrepreneur can lead are ones who feel responsible for their roles, and accountable to their work and each other.

3 people deep in discussion (involving hand gestures) around some couches and a coffee table in a corporate environment.

As accounting firm entrepreneurs, we all want to know how to build great teams and how to inspire teams to work collaboratively with each other while delivering high value service.But it’s one of the hardest things we do as entrepreneurs and a serious place we all struggle. If you are like most firm owners we coach at Thriveal, you want to be that leader that others want to follow. But it doesn’t always work out that way. 

Some teams are just not interested in being accountable. Especially today when the Great Resignation and quiet quitting are prevalent in most industries. It’s hard to find teams that are self-motivated and interested in staying focused, able to self-manage their own work, and truly care about doing their best. But they do exist, so be encouraged!

Like most growth issues, the problem probably lies at your feet, as the leader. I’m not saying that to blame you, but to let you know you have the power to create an accountable and responsible organization.

Leaders who create accountable cultures will, in turn, create teams that promote their own accountability to one another. These team members expect each other to be responsible for their work. When leaders lead from this perspective, teams either get serious about accountability and responsibility or they leave the organization. 

Building a culture that promotes adherence

Let’s talk about how this looks from mine and my partner’s perspective using the firm we’ve been leading for over 20 years, Blumer CPAs, as an example. I’ll list this in numbered points to make it easier to read, but that doesn’t mean that the work of building accountable cultures is that easy (or that it can be completely summarized in three simple steps).

1. Clarity from the beginning

Most struggles around culture come down to the confusion teams feel around what is expected of them in their role.

You can build a great culture by making sure every single team member has a written job description (we like to include expected weekly work hours and their pay in the document too). This is a major first step.

I can’t tell you how many times we have pulled up the job description of a struggling team member to review what we all agreed to when they joined our team. Staying on this page with your team will solve a lot of headaches for you as the leader.

2. Keep tabs on transparency and truth

Second, build a great culture that is steeped in transparency and truth. How do you do this? My partner and I put recurring blocks on our calendar to meet privately with each team member every quarter.

This is where we ask questions like:

  • Where are you struggling, and what do you think is the reason?

  • Where do you feel successful, and tell us how you did that?

  • Are you managing your calendar well? (We’ll pull up the calendar many times to look at it together.)

  • What are we assuming you know about the growth of the firm that we can clarify?

  • What does your work production look like in the 40 hours you’ve committed to the firm in your full time role?

In these meetings, we may share our own confidential struggles, with the idea that we want to encourage our team to reciprocate by sharing where they are struggling, or where they are experiencing wins. 

Our private meetings are meant to open up the sharing by promoting a transparent culture. Transparent cultures promote adherence to roles in unbelievable ways.

Transparent cultures lead to trust.

And when groups of people trust one another, then they are open to the leadership that is necessary to both encourage their growth and address areas that need correction.

Recommended reading: Karbon’s values in action (part 1): Connectivity and openness 

3. Turn up the heat on accountability

Finally, expect adherence to job descriptions. When a team member struggles, you gradually come closer and closer. It’s as if you are ‘tightening the screws down’ on a team member who is struggling. 

Let me explain. 

When team members struggle, the first thing you do is assume you were unclear about their role. So you have a meeting with the employee after they have dropped the responsibility of their role multiple times. This is where you make sure they understand what you expected when you hired them (this is the basis of them accepting responsibility).

If they continue to struggle, you continue to meet with them, turning up the heat more and more each time you meet, telling them you expect them to take on the responsibility of the job they agreed to when they started at your firm. You’re simply calling them to the responsibility they agreed to when you hired them (see the first step).

Side note: ‘Turning up the heat’ is not micromanaging, as many struggling team members like to describe it. Here is my definition of micromanaging: ‘harassing a team member to do their job in arbitrary, specific ways that assuage the control tendencies of the leader when the job performance of the team member is actually appropriate.’ In other words, micromanaging is not necessary for teams that are doing their job in the first place.

When teams see their leaders creating a serious culture of accountability, then they tend to follow suit. On the contrary, as you come closer and closer to struggling teams that continue to struggle, they typically feel such a level of heat that leads them to eventually leave the organization, or you have such a backlog of uncomfortable warnings and documentation that you can legitimately fire them. 

Expect accountability from day one

Firm owners should expect teams to be accountable to their work and the entire team, and feel the responsibility to produce their work consistently. 

Team members who don’t feel responsible for their collaboration with the team require consistent care, where you need to ask them to step up their work. Either they step up, or they must be let go eventually.

You can not allow a rogue team member to continue doing whatever they want. It’s unkind and hurtful to your other employees And by keeping them accountable, even if that results in termination, you’re setting a strong example for the rest of your team.

Ultimately, you’re saying that you walk the walk. If not, you are promoting your firm as slack, and willing to put up with unaccountable team members and client work that is not up to scratch.