As I travel the country working with the best of the best CPA firms to help them improve their processes, people development and ultimately profitability, I’m often reminded that one of the toughest positions inside CPA firms today is the mid-level.
Every firm is a little different in what they call their mid-level, whether it be in-charge, client relationship director, etc. But just know that this level could be your Seniors, Supervisors, or Managers. The reason this observation comes up during process improvement training and consulting is this level feels the squeeze more and more every day. If you think about it, their days revolve around juggling four competing priorities of their time:
- Managing their engagement teams (managing down)
- Managing their engagement partners (managing up)
- Managing their clients (managing out)
- Managing their own workload (managing within)
To successfully juggle all four is some feat, to say the least. I’ve identified two important trends over the past several years in regard to this mid-level practitioner.
First, this level is yearning for more guidance and direction on how to be effective engagement and project managers. You’re training on the technical, but you may be missing training on the key elements of engagement and project management skill development. Unless the person is an absolute all-star, they may be struggling to keep up without this training, guidance and direction.
The second key trend is with firms we work with to improve processes with Lean Six Sigma. These firms’ new and improved processes have a lot more project management best practices built into the process than ever before. So whether we’re talking Tax, Audit or Client Accounting Services, the best processes of firms today have strong foundations of project and engagement management best practices.
Why should you care if you’re a firm leader?
I’ll boil it down to three reasons:
If your mid-levels aren’t properly managing their engagements and their interactions with clients, what does that do to your overall client service? Do partners have to get more involved and take time away from higher level activities they should be performing? Do you just drop the ball and hope the client doesn’t care?
Retention of Future Leaders
If your mid-levels have the potential to be future partners but aren’t being given the training and opportunities to manage engagements and clients better, might they be getting frustrated and looking for other opportunities outside of your organization? Are they feeling the squeeze so much that they don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel? I see lots and lots of untapped potential in our profession for this mid-level – we must do our best to develop them and keep them.
If your mid-levels aren’t managing those four competing priorities well, you can pretty much guarantee your profitability isn’t as strong as it could be.
This is why the right blend of process improvement and project management training is becoming essential to firms today. Status quo is rapidly falling behind.
How can you improve?
I strongly encourage firm leaders to invest in project and engagement management training for their mid-level practitioners. And go beyond the basics to zero in on the four competing priorities these individuals face on a daily and weekly basis.
Managing their engagement teams (managing down)
Discover and teach best practices that enable in-charges to better plan, communicate with, train and motivate the staff and seniors on their various client assignments. The four-step training model and collaborative review are two key lean six sigma techniques that we see CPA firms successfully utilizing to help manage the development and work of the lower levels.
Managing their engagement partners (managing up)
It’s important to create a firm culture that is based on trust and also level-loaded / leveraged in a way to give your in-charge level more opportunities for client contact and running engagements. To ultimately be successful, this requires a new method of communication from the in-charge up to the partner to keep them engaged and “in the loop.” Build these strategies into your process.
Managing their clients (managing out)
Quit blaming your clients! That’s always the go-to response and easy way out when you don’t have the information you need when you need it from the client. Instead, focus on what you could have done differently to manage the client better. The phrase we use in our Lean Six Sigma projects is “make it easier for the client to do business with you.” Focusing on how you can make it easier for your clients to work with your firm will result in many more wins than losses.
Managing their own workload (managing within)
It’s important that all in-charges have some basic training on personal time management principles including email best practices, prioritization strategies, finishing what’s started, scheduling focus time, and understanding leverage to get more work done.
The next time you find yourself frustrated by the outcome of a client engagement – think engagement and project management skillset development. Your mid-level practitioners want to do an outstanding job and grow their careers. There’s a ton of untapped potential inside your firm at this level. Give them the training and mindset to unlock that potential! It’ll be a win-win proposition.
About the Author:
Dustin Hostetler, Shareholder and Director of Lean Six Sigma Consulting at Boomer Consulting, Inc., is a pioneer in applying the Lean and Six Sigma concepts to public accounting firms. As a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt with extensive experience working inside a large regional CPA firm, he has taken proven Lean techniques and tailored them to bring ground-breaking value to public accounting firms. His innovation and passion has brought true efficiency to accounting — helping accounting firms improve client service, improve client retention, set the foundation for growth and build the bottom line.
Dustin holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from The Ohio State University, graduating magna cum laude, and earned both his Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and Master Black Belt certifications from Kent State University. Dustin is also a member of the CPA Consultants’ Alliance, a working group of thought leaders united in their efforts to further leadership within the CPA profession.