Leadership communication before tax season is a key determinant of firm success. It’s important to remember that tax season is a bizarre time for firms. Teams are working faster than they normally are (usually), and the possibility of missing key messages for the clients and team are much higher than normal.
Let’s discuss what I mean by “messaging.” This is a term my partner and I use when working with firms that are in some form of transformation. They are either building leadership teams, changing their own structure, working through succession plans and retiring partners, or a host of other disruptive changes in the firm.
Messaging is the process of telling humans what is happening to them during these drastic changes.
The importance of messaging can be seen in the team’s confusion when new pieces of software are put in the firm, or when a team member is suddenly fired, or even if the firm intends to purchase or renovate a building. All these examples are disruptive to human teams. When disruptive processes shake up a team, and resulting service to clients, then they tend to feel uneasy and seek some form of context as to why these things are happening around them.
Seeking for context is a human concept we have learned in consulting — namely that teams need safety to operate most effectively. And the right amount of context can help teams stay safe and work hard. Context for teams is the knowledge of what/why/when/how things are happening around them to make proper sense of what they are experiencing. If leaders fail to provide context, then the team will struggle with whatever change initiative leaders are attempting to put the team through. Leadership communication during tax season is vital. Messaging is the attempt to provide this context to a team in the right order, from the right person, and with the right amount of information.
Now that we know about context messaging, let’s apply this concept to a firm that is about to go through tax season.
An example of leadership communication before tax season
Here are some suggestions to provide the right context to a team that will help them be successful during this unusual season (note how obvious some of them are):
- It’s important to gather the team in early January and tell them that we are about to begin this unusual season. Help the team get mentally ready and see if they have any issues or concerns that they want to voice about what is coming. You will be surprised the questions teams have, yet never voice because they are not given the explicit opportunity. The obvious context provided in this preparatory meeting begins to switch the mind of the team into a different form of service. Of course, they will serve whether you ‘introduce tax season’ or not, but this is a way to care for a team more deeply in the strenuous time they are about to experience. Human teams need care and consideration.
- Have the person that leads the movement of taxes through the firm lead a meeting to discuss how the returns will be tracked and managed through the firm. This would usually be the position of a Manager or Partner, someone with the recognized authority to maintain the accountability of this season. A tax season needs a champion, and it will be helpful if this person is identified in this type of meeting. This leadership will bring comfort to the team, and they will know that there is a designated ‘help’ should they struggle. This is not the obvious meeting provided in the first step, but more of a tactical move where everyone is reminded of the tracking, the firm’s process, and given the chance to ask any questions or make suggestions for improvements.
- Tax teams should be meeting regularly (at least weekly) as one full team led by the champion in step #2. This is a time to publicly acknowledge the continued process, deal with unanticipated issues that have been encountered, and make necessary tweaks to the process. These ongoing reminders keep the team safe, keep them tied to the bigger picture of being part of a bigger purpose, and reinforce the leadership and followership required to move massive processes in such short times. Ongoing meetings like this provide additional opportunities for teams to learn from one another as they publicly tackle issues encountered daily. Having regular tax meetings is important as you go through this season. Depending on the size of your firm, you could break larger firms into smaller teams by type of return, type of expertise, by partner, or even by client type. Creating teams is a way to allow humans to feel they are part of a group with a similar mission. Being part of a team reinforces their purpose and the important reason for their role.
- Meeting at the end of the season to do an after-action review is a great way to pull additional learning out of the process everyone has just experienced. To be sure, the team will always learn more every year no matter how many times they have experienced tax season (even in the same firm). Humans are always learning and making sense of their world. So, pulling that learning out of the minds of the team will continue to make your firm more valuable as your service becomes more and more consistent year after year. You can ask these questions during your tax season after action review: (1) what did you expect would be difficult or go well during this season? (2) did what you expect happen? (3) why or why not were your expectations met during this season? (be specific). The champion can then document these after thoughts and use them in next year’s opening meeting (#2 above).
Many firms may think this messaging before tax season begins is overkill. But you must ask the question “If your tax season is a particularly difficult time of year for your team and clients, why is that?” Seeking to answer why and how you can improve this season is worth a try. See what your team and clients think about your firm’s tax season by following these suggestions. And to know for sure whether this season was an improvement over the prior year’s season, ask your team in the after-action review (step #4 above) to grade this season against last year with: (a) this year was worse than last year, (b) this year was unchanged from last year, and (c) this year was an improvement over last year.
I think you may be surprised what a little additional care for the humans you work with and the humans you serve will do for your firm. Leadership communication before tax season can be very beneficial — to everyone! I’ll offer tips on communicating with your team during tax season in the next blog post in this series – stay tuned!