Teamwork: what does it mean? What does it mean to you? Most importantly, what does it mean to your team and accounting practice?
There’s an oversupply of definitions for teamwork, varying slightly depending on who you ask. In business practices, it’s best to approach it together, so as to build consensus in the workplace around a shared definition.
Teams of accountants today range in size and complexity, from hundreds of accountants working on audits of multinational organisations to two accountants working on a project for their manager. Collaboration (that stems from good teamwork) has emerged as one of the defining characteristics of successful firms, and is aided by technology – platforms that provide accounting teams with a controlled, centralised online space to communicate, share files and documents as well as coordinate time management and resources.
Partners are always challenging employees to ‘tear down silos’ and ‘transcend boundaries’. There are very few geniuses working in rooms all alone nowadays – nearly every project requires an element of collaboration.
So why is it so hard?
Collaboration is only effective when there is buy-in, and as ever, working with other people can breed obstacles.
Egos can get in the way. It’s natural to have competition in the workplace, you want to advance your career after all. A certain level of competition is healthy for the work environment, however too much may create disunity.
Unequal levels of effort or time from individuals can also cause rifts in the team. One accountant may appear not to pull their weight, or else completely dominate the work, which can make others feel alienated. This can trigger an ‘us vs them’ mentality, and all of a sudden, members of the same team no longer feel that they are working toward the same goal.
Unproductive and dull meetings are another teamwork inhibitor. You can bet these sound familiar.
Ground rules can help
Teams work best when they put some initial effort into defining roles, clarifying processes and preventing or reducing conflict. Sensible ground rules can instill the behaviours needed for good teamwork. Here are some areas where ground rules may be helpful.
Clarify who makes the critical decisions at the start of the project — and split up the responsibility for less stress at the top and greater ownership throughout the levels. One person (partner or manager) cannot be the source of all information, but delegation does have to come from the top and without visibility into who is working on what, it’s difficult. Changes regarding the scope of the project or changes in goals should certainly go through someone more senior, while other project participants might be empowered to make decisions about changes in tasks and methodology, so long as they don’t impact the project goals or deadlines.
Define the best channels for various types of conversations. Weekly updates on a project might be posted in a shared space each week. Progress and upcoming deliverables could be dealt with in a more personalised forum, such as face to face meetings (even over Skype) so that brainstorming and problem solving can be more effectively approached. Chat could be used for ad hoc, informal conversations.
If later on the ground rules seem too rigid they can be loosened it up; at the least you will have created an effective means of communicating workflow.
Dull and unproductive meetings are one of the biggest time-wasters around. What to do? Insist on an agenda. Nominate a facilitator. Hold ‘stand up’ meetings. Circulate follow ups within one day. This is good meeting practice, and helps move forward in what can otherwise be a constant nuisance to collaborative efforts.
Adjust your attitudes
Teamwork is both a set of behaviours and the attitude those behaviours are undertaken with. Criticism – even the constructive kind – is often seen as something that gets in the way of teamwork and can cause people to hold back.
Consider a change in your perspective on criticism so that ideas are unobstructed. Conversations aren’t and don’t need to be perfect. When constructive criticism is being extended – view it as growth, and know that it simply signifies that an idea has room to grow before being adopted by the team. This may sound perplexing and tough to swallow, but the aim is to give every member of the team space to exchange honest thoughts. If the team is open to it and the criticism is delivered well, it has the power to move a project forward. Find a space (in your tools or forums) to share and view notes and welcome this ‘good criticism’. Let the chatter flow freely! Keeping a log of process changes along the way also has a beneficial upshot. It can help you visually observe how you approached an idea, or present an old angle that you may want to go back to.
Leadership keeps teamwork in order
The CEO or partner of the firm has the role of conductor, moulding individual inputs into group brilliance.
Collaboration needs to be well-managed for it to achieve results. Part of the role of the leader is to disrupt conflict, clarify who the decision makers are, and equip each member of the team for participation. A new process, for example a software introduction, needs to be owned by the firm’s partners or a champion – they should show the practice that they fully believe in the change as being in the best interests of both individuals and clients and they must make explain clearly the advantages. Practice leadership needs to get everyone on board and drive progress with enthusiasm, or people may continue to do things their own way!
It’s also important to share responsibility for positive outcomes. In many modern practices, partners need to understand how to manage a team remotely through the tools at their disposal, and so must understand the nuances of different channels of communication as well as those of each individual role and contribution.
The French often say it best – the phrase ‘esprit de corps’ – literally ‘the spirit of the group’, evokes a sense of unity and of gusto, and while it may be more common on, say, the sports field than within the walls of the practice, there’s no harm in aiming high. Work together on embedding the right attitude, effectively using the best technology, and adopting strong, sensible processes to get the best out of everyone involved.
To compare the challenges your firm is facing acquiring, training and retaining staff with accounting practices from around the world, download The talent challenge: insights from Karbon’s 2017 talent survey.