August 10, 2009


Improving partner and staff accountability is essential in these economic times. I think many partners associate accountability with increased conflict and typically shy away from addressing the issues. As a result most accountability discussions take place after the fact when there is no possible chance of changing the results. These conversations usually focus on fault and blame and in most cases are not productive and in some instances have had a very negative impact on partner and staff relationships. There is a better way to improve accountability which starts with individual motivation.


In Abraham Maslow’s book, Motivation and Personality, he discusses two types of behavior, coping and expressive. Coping behavior is where an individual is reacting to the behavior of others while expressive behavior is doing what is important to you. He further states that an individual cannot be motivated when they are coping with another person’s behavior and will only be motivated they are in an expressive mode of behavior. Of course it is impossible for us to avoid both of these behaviors every day of our lives but what we do want to focus on as effective leaders is to make sure our people are in the expressive mode as often as possible to improve their motivation.

In public accounting the work and in most cases the feedback concerning that work is given after the fact. Review notes about the job, annual performance reviews and in many cases discussions concerning why a promotion or a raise is not going to happen because some unknown expectation has not been met. The one excuse given to most staff when they are not getting a promotion is “You’re just not ready yet” but in most cases they have not been told what it takes to be ready. In effect we place most of our employees and in some cases even partners in the coping mode much too often. If you want your employees more accountable you have to have to define success in advance of the task or period of time by using what I call success plans.


Smart younger individuals joining the accounting profession have in most cases been very successful in their educational pursuits and are not used to failing. This typically is not the case in their first few years of public accounting as it’s not uncommon to feel a little inadequate for the first few years in the profession. I know I felt like I didn’t know much when I first joined the profession and was reminded of it constantly by those above me. Everyone wants to be successful but to do so they have to know how to achieve that success in advance of their performance. Our profession in general does a very poor job of communicating performance expectations according to a national survey of non-owner accountants I conducted several years ago. A significant number of the respondents replied that they did not know exactly what was required to get a raise or get promoted nor did they get the feedback they felt they needed to be successful. What is needed is a formalized process to communicate the requirements for a specific task or position and how success will be measured. If improved accountability is the goal all parties need to know what is required in advance. Review notes and backward looking evaluations might well have some influence on future performance but do not have any impact on what has already taken place. There is a better way to get to get your partners and staff to take ownership and agree to be accountable.


To begin the cycle of accountability, performance and success (CAPS™) the person in the supervisory roll must clearly communicate the ultimate goal and help develop a plan to achieve that goal. Whether the task is doing a tax return, auditing cash, responsibility for an entire client engagement or annual job performance the time needed to complete the cycle will vary significantly but the CAPS™ process follows the same flow.

Too often we try to shortcut the process and then are disappointed when we don’t get the result we wanted because our expectations had not been clearly communicated and success had not been clearly defined.


Staff accountants with less experience need more direct supervision as they haven’t been exposed to the complexities of public accounting before. Specific instructions concerning the steps to be performed, the time expectations and frequent checking and feedback are needed to make sure you get the result you want rather leaving it up to chance.

Supportive supervision techniques are used with those individuals that have more experience. General instructions are given as to expectations and we generally tell the experienced accountant that if they have any questions to please let us know.

Using an inappropriate supervision technique can lead to not getting the job completed timely or successfully or in some cases it can demoralize your experienced staff. Inexperienced accountants getting supportive supervision don’t know when they have a question and experienced accountants will accuse you of micro managing if you use direct supervision techniques with them. You should always consider the individual and the task to be performed to determine which supervision technique to use during the course of the project.


Here’s how you can immediately improve accountability and performance in your firm:

• Communicate your expectations clearly
• Discuss the plan to accomplish the goal
• Make sure the plan is understood and agreed to and that success is defined
• Use direct or supportive coaching/supervision techniques appropriately
• Give timely feedback
• Celebrate success

In future articles I will be discussing success plans for partner and employee annual performance, job performance and career coaching. Please feel free to share your thoughts on these subjects by emailing me or on my blog.

No comments: