One of the biggest obstacles to a small or midsized CPA firm realizing its potential, its partners and staff realizing their potential and a CEO (Managing Partner) maximizing their impact on the trajectory of the firm is when the line between LEADING and MANAGING get blurred. Too often, firm leaders believe their job is TELLING everyone what to do and how to do it (managing things) versus providing the tools, authority, and clarity on the firm’s strategic objectives and then getting out of the way (LEADING). Leadership at its most basic level is about inspiring everyone towards a common vision, a shared vision and ensuring that the decision-making hierarchy is clear and consistent within the firm’s mission and core values. Leadership is not about tactics and how things are done but making sure everyone is doing the right thing with accountability for results.
One of the greatest quotes (Steven Covey) that so clearly differentiates managing versus leading is, and I am paraphrasing a bit since I can’t find the exact quote – “Management is about climbing the ladder successfully and efficiently while leadership is making sure the ladder is leaning against the right wall”. Another way of saying this is it does not matter one bit if your team is successfully getting things done if what they are getting done are not the right things. Managing is getting the team to get things done – LEADING is making sure they are doing the right things. Managing is about making decisions, LEADING is about holding those managing accountable for making the right decisions.
Why do so many firm leaders get caught in this fog of MANAGING versus LEADING?
The Managing Partner is sitting in her office at the end of the day and looks at her to do list and realizes that most of it was not done. As she reflects on her day, she realizes that she spent way too much time solving problems for others and telling them what to do. She starts a bit of self-reflection and thinking about where she should be spending her time versus where she is spending her time.
She places a call to her coach and says she needs to talk to him soon. A few days later they are together having breakfast and she starts to relay her quandary regarding how she is spending her time. She says “I don’t understand why I just don’t seem to have the time to do the more critical things I should be doing as CEO. It seems I spend most of my time solving other people’s problems. Any advice you can give me?
Her coach only has to think about this for a few seconds since it is a challenge that many of his client CEOs face. He asks her to draw a T-account and on the left put down where she spent her time yesterday solving other’s problems. On the right side, put down where she spent her time on firm critical and/or longer-term strategic actions/thinking.
When she was done, she said “Obviously the left side of the T-account is way too long compared to the right side”. Her coach asked her why and she said “Partners, Admin department heads and others are constantly streaming into my office and asking my advice on how to handle something and we spend time resolving the issue or at least I point them in the right direction”. Her coach then asks her “Why do they come to you on matters that they should handle on their own”?
She responds “Look I know where you are going with this but helping them does not take that much time and what’s wrong with them coming to me if they are not sure of what to do? Isn’t it better that I give them direction versus them making the wrong decision”?
Her coach sits back and smiles and says “How many of the situations they bring to you are mission critical versus tactical and issues they should be resolving without you? Without actually sitting in on your meetings, I would tell you that close to 100% of the issues they come to you with are issues that they should be able to resolve with zero input from you. After all, aren’t they in their positions to manage the day to day and to solve issues that come up every day? Do you think that maybe you have created the culture or expectation that you are there to solve their problems and that you want them to come to you for answers? What I have found is that what you encourage and allow, you give permission for it to continue – you set the expectation in their minds regarding how they are supposed to act”.
In Our Opinion, in previous perspectives we talked about the importance of a Standout team at all levels of the firm. You can’t have a Standout team if you don’t have a standout management team and a standout leader who leads. A mistake we see too often is people being put into management positions who lack the talent and passion to manage and do not always share in the vision of the firm leader. They are slotted into management positions based on longevity, friendship or worse yet “they are the best we have” – what a terrible excuse and IT WILL ALWAYS LEAD TO SUB-PRIME PERFORMANCE. If you are the firm leader, you need a strong management team who shares your vision and passion, who have the skills to manage and who know how to build teams. If you want to succeed as the head coach of the entire organization, you need a team of position coaches that know what to do, are not afraid to make decisions, share your vision and playbook and who have the talent to succeed. Your success as head coach is directly proportional to the success of your position coaches.
If you are the firm leader, step back and complete an evaluation of every person in every management position. Maybe it would be helpful to have an outsider, who can be impartial, complete the evaluation and provide you with recommendations for consideration. The evaluation, whether you do it yourself or retain a competent consultant to help should assess each person in a management position along five key attributes:
Your challenge as the firm leader is to take the steps to ensure that your management team is the team you need to drive the firm’s vision and future success. Do you have the courage to remove someone from a management position who just is not cutting it?
The ultimate responsibility for how well the firm is managed is yours. By the way, removing someone from a management position does not always mean out of the firm – it means putting everyone into a role that fits their skills and talents. So, think about your team and take the actions, hard as they may be, to properly align your management team and the entire firm will be better for it.
Tony Zecca (CPA and retired CohnReznick partner and National Director of the Advisory Group) is a ESPOSITO CEO2CEO consultant who is brought into client assignments for his skill in strategy, growth and transformation. ESPOSITO CEO2CEO, LLC — a boutique advisory firm consulting to leading CPA and other professional services firms on strategy, succession planning and mergers, acquisitions and integration is actively led by Dom Esposito, CPA. Dom, voted as one of the most influential people in the profession for two consecutive years by Accounting Today, authored a book, published by www.CPATrendlines.com., entitled “8 Steps to Great” which is a primer for CEOs, managing partners and other senior partners. In Our Opinion, is a continuing series of perspectives for leading CPA firms where Dom and his colleagues share insights, experiences and wisdom with firm leaders who want to “run with the big dogs” and develop their firms into sustainable brands. Dom welcomes questions and can be contacted at either firstname.lastname@example.org or 203.292.3277.