When it comes to leading your CPA firm with transparency, many firms struggle. However, the more we embrace the opportunity of transparency, the more successful and strategic our firms can become.
In this episode of Pulse of Practice “Leadership Conversation with Amy Vetter”, I am joined by Amy Vetter, noted CPA, Author and Technologist. With Amy’s expertise, we uncover the best practices for leadership transparency and the importance of openness to the overall success of your firm.
Why does leading your CPA firm with transparency matter?
It is important to work with authenticity when developing culture in the workplace. If we are not authentic with each other (in the same way as in our personal time with our family or friends), something within your firm will be “off”.
“There are different levels in the practice, and people feel they don’t know the information a manager or partner would know,” notes Amy. “The problem with this is staff team members start getting disengaged because they feel like they are not as important. We need to start creating a culture of trusting, regardless of the staff level. It’s important for them to understand the things that affect their jobs. Then, they will feel more engaged, more part of the business and personally cared for.”
There is a common misinterpretation from firm leaders that if you give away too much information, the staff is going to start thinking they are the true leaders of the firm. The fear of losing control is holding back leaders from transparency.
“I don’t think it’s about who is in charge,” rebuts Amy. “I think if that is the fear, you’re not having personal relationship with the team. What makes people feel most respected is when they feel they have a relationship with their leaders. That staff member then cares about their situation as well.
“When everything is at an arm’s length, people start feeling like they are separated from what is happening in the firm. They feel they don’t matter, they’re replaceable, or they’ll start making up stories of what could be happening behind those closed doors.”
Amy calls attention to the corporate world: public companies’ information is transparent and exposed to everybody through stockholder meetings, quarterly releases, etc. The employees of those companies understand how their direct roles layer into the goals, profitability or performance of the company.
“The same thing should be happening in firms,” says Amy. “Make people understand their impact, good or bad, to the bottom line. Then, they can set goals and make a difference realizing their job rolls into a bigger impact. They understand how it works to help the overall company, and they feel more engaged.”
Create a culture of openness
Leading your CPA firm with transparency requires a two-way conversation. What are your firm’s goals, and what are you doing to support your staff members, so they feel they are being cared for while reaching those goals?
We must connect the dots. We need to not only be transparent in what is going on within the firm but communicate how it is related to your staff or clients. In order to do this successfully, we must ensure our staff feels comfortable to share information with leadership.
“The best leaders are open to feedback underneath them, not just above them, because that is how we get better over time,” notes Amy. “The problem is when we don’t open the culture so staff can give us feedback. If you don’t create a culture of openness, you can’t get better, because as people move through the ranks, there is less listening going on and more talking. People are in fear of losing their jobs if they’re too open with how they are feeling.”
Amy describes a process used by a CPA firm in which they called “360 Feedback”. During this session, staff ranked underneath the leader and his coworkers could anonymously provide feedback on how successful they felt he was as a leader.
“I think the part of that process that was so important is not that he agreed with everything people are saying, but he was open to listening to what they were saying,” says Amy. “After, he was responding and informing them of reasons the decisions were made that they were not aware of.”
The open culture is not present in a firm until a leader steps up and builds that trust over time. If you do not tell your staff why decisions are made, it’s natural human condition for them to come up with their own reason why things are happening. Sharing your perspective and having transparent conversations of the reasons behind their concerns allows your staff to feel better educated and involved.
Also, as we pointed out, this is a two-way conversation. Not all their feedback has to be used in forward-looking business strategy.
“Many times the staff are the ones in the trenches, the closest people to the clients, and they have a lot of feedback of things they could see that could be improved in the business,” says Amy. “Bring all that feedback together and start prioritizing based on what is the most important thing that will change the business, keep it profitable or grow it. What are the things we need to do to keep the lights on, and what things are we not going to do?”
Honor the fact your staff has an opinion, but also recognize that they may not understand the full picture of the firm’s business. You have now garnered the most amount of input from a variety of sources. Not all your sources are going to have a full view. Recognize what is a good idea and the potential struggle. If you understand why your staff feels something is a good idea, you may be able to better identify a missing piece. You may execute a strategy in a different way than what was suggested, while still receiving the same result in the end.
“Expose staff to the right pieces so they understand how decisions are made and feel their voice is important,” adds Amy. “As long as your clear in the direction you’re heading, this is how you get aligned. Appreciate hearing voices in this process because it will help you develop a better strategy than you would on your own.”