CPA.com Blog

Tom Bachmann

Master Leadership Trainer, Paychex, Inc.

Leading Virtual Work Teams

Virtual teams are emerging as the basic unit for conducting business of all types. Studies show that over 80% of workers today are involved in some way with team members who are not physically located in the same office. Virtual communication networks have made virtual teams possible, while globalization has made them a necessity.

Leading virtual teams presents new challenges to leaders and managers because you have a decreased line of sight that can impact your capacity to build and maintain relationships and engagement, and manage performance and communication. There is a greater tendency for remote employees to make assumptions, feel isolated and disconnected, not understand how their work fits into the bigger picture, and not share their frustrations or concerns. The following actions can help you overcome these challenges so you can lead your remote employees and teams more effectively:

  • Do a face-to-face team building event at least once a year.
  • Determine communication ground-rules that enable successful working relationships: respond to feedback requests within the requested timeframe (avoid virtual silence); avoid multi-tasking during meetings; when you disagree, seek to understand more before seeking to be understood; discuss sensitive information via phone not email; agree on acceptable hours for communication, how to reach one another outside of normal working hours and emergencies, and when, how, and who to inform if coming in late, leaving early, or taking time off.
  • Work with your team to create the team’s purpose, vision, brand/logo, team theme, and song.
  • Invite members to share personal stories of recent events at the start of your staff meetings.
  • Have a recognition program.
  • Be very accessible and responsive. Be accommodating to employees who work in different time zones than you.
  • Set expectation that employees need to proactively raise concerns to you. It is hard to be a mind reader from afar especially when you don’t have any visual cues.
  • Maintain a consistent schedule of 1:1 meetings. Ask direct questions during 1:1 meetings: What else do you need from me? How do you feel about your current contribution to our team?
  • Broker networking opportunities for remote employees by connecting them with peer groups or mentors in their location.

For more information on leadership skills and management tools necessary to thrive and succeed in a virtual environment, don’t’ miss the Leading Virtual Work Teams session at AICPA Practitioner’s Symposium and TECH+ Conference, Monday June 6, 1:55pm – 3:10pm at the Aria Resort & Casino, Las Vegas, NV.

John Engels

Founder and President, Leadership Coaching

Firm leaders: Self-management strategies that make a difference

Most firm leaders are so focused on projects, tasks and supervising others that they forget to keep their eyes on self-management – the skills and strategies that anchor personal and professional growth.

That’s an understandable yet costly mistake.

To help reset your leadership compass so that it points to “True North” – your management of yourself – I’m suggesting four powerful yet under-appreciated strategies.

If you keep his brief list handy, review it regularly and heed its wisdom, you’ll be making high-impact strides in how you lead others, both in your firm and in your family.

Strategy #1: Stop avoiding discomfort

Consider these situations:

A wise decision certain to bring pain in the short term gets delayed and delayed.

There’s an important conversation waiting to happen, but it’s uncomfortable.

You were inappropriate and you owe an apology, but it doesn’t happen.

Good decisions, important conversations and relationship-building apologies are examples of situations when we don’t do what we know makes sense because it’s emotionally uncomfortable.

It’s a case of comfort over progress.

Most of the discomfort-avoidance that happens in firms stems from the “approval virus.”

If firm leaders could learn to regulate their allergy to discomfort, they would care less about approval and perfection and make better decisions.

This is more challenging than it sounds. I wish I had a dollar for every decision I see leaders make that is driven by their need to be liked.

The odd thing is that leaders who make acceptance a priority are rarely respected in the long run. Another way to say it: Caving in to the fear of rejection often leads to rejection.

Strategy #2: Engage “the enemy”

I coach my accounting firm clients and children to learn how to deal with people they don’t like.

One of my parenting quips is: “By the time we get rid of all the people you don’t like, there won’t be anybody left.”

I often hear firm leaders perpetrating an “eliminate the enemy” mindset when referring to business competitors, “problem” employees or “difficult” siblings.

I have two main beefs with seeing those folks as enemies. The first is that such an attitude guarantees a highly anxious relationship. Anxious relationships are much more prone to impulsive decisions and destructive consequences.

The second problem with an enemy mindset is that it feeds my own irresponsibility. As long as the other is the problem, I don’t have to look at myself.

One way to shield myself from responsibility is to make the other the bad guy.

Instead of hyper-focusing on enemies, take a good hard look at your response to the enemies.

Notice what happens when the only attitude that changes is your own

Strategy #3: Value (and appoint) a devil’s advocate

Staff members widely believe that they cannot communicate difficult messages to partners—“because I could get fired.” In 99 percent of the cases, that’s a cop out.

When I talk to firm partners they commonly say: “The most valuable people who work for me are those who will tell me the truth as they see it. That includes their feedback to me, about me.”

Not all leaders are that open. But all leaders should make such transparency their goal.

One idea is to encourage others in the firm to speak directly and candidly when they have a problem with one of the firm leaders.

Timid employees play a big part in ivory-tower leadership. Staff complain that partners are clueless, but they often won’t take the risk to communicate their observations. Protecting leaders from grass roots feedback harms the firm.

Any top leader who’s not getting honest feedback from below should consider appointing a “devil’s advocate” for one year. The job of the devil’s advocate is to report uncomfortable messages, contrary opinions and unflattering feedback to partners. This can happen one-on-one or in a group, depending on the feedback.

A good devil’s advocate sifts important information from hearsay, gossip and whining. And they frame their feedback as personal perception only (“I’ve noticed ...”)

To avoid favoritism, the “devil’s advocate” could be a rotating role with a one-year term limit.

Strategy #4: Shoot for deeper connections

The most common problem I see in accounting firm leaders is their inability to connect at a deeper level with their spouses, children, partners and staff. Much of the distance and conflict that occurs in families and businesses could be greatly eased if leaders learned how to forge deeper conversations.

Leaders I interact with want to do this, but deeper conversations are out of their comfort zones, and they haven’t developed what I call connection capacities.

Connection capacities include emotional awareness, humility (“seeing oneself as one really is”), the willingness to reveal self to others, genuine curiosity about the other, an appreciation for what the other is up against, and the ability to listen.

These capacities are learned neither easily nor perfectly. Progress in these areas requires focus. Many leaders spend too much time doing what they like and are good at - solving problems, giving advice and cutting deals.

A steady commitment to prioritize connection can shift the tenor of even the most troubled relationships. It’s tough to connect with someone if you are not on the road to knowing yourself.

The good news about the four strategies above is this: because the focus is on self-management, firm leaders can exert a high level of control over the outcomes.

So let’s get to work.

John Engels founded Leadership Coaching, Inc. in 1996, based on the integration of three cutting-edge research disciplines: neuroscience, Bowen Family Systems Theory, and the evolution of leadership in non-human species. Under John’s guidance, his consulting team continues to draw on decades of learning with family researchers and with accomplished scientists who study the leadership behavior of wolves, elephants, chimpanzees, and other animals. Currently, John spends much of his professional life as a mentor to executive coaches and family business consultants. He recently developed the “Leadership Skills That Change Firms” program for accounting professionals.

Nicole Gantz

Director of Marketing, Honkamp Krueger & Co., P.C.

Streamlining Honkamp Krueger's Client Patronage Program with a Mobile App

Culture of Innovation at HK

Ask most professional service firms, and if they are brave enough to answer, they will admit they are challenged about how to truly be different than the CPA firm across town. We all feel passionately about our firms, that we offer world-class, quality services from experienced, incredible people. But we all make that claim – so how are we different?

One approach Honkamp Krueger (HK) has used is a culture of technology innovation. Led by technology partner and champion, Natalie Hoffmann, CPA.CITP, HK partners and managers strive to innovate at every level of the firm, both with streamlining processes with and for clients, and our own internal processes.

The marketing department is no exception in the expectation to innovate, so we developed an app.

Members from the partner group, marketing and IT departments developed a quick list of app ideas. We decided to focus on an app solution that benefited both clients AND employees, and one that would help alleviate an inefficient internal process. We chose to develop a mobile app for Android™ and Apple® to streamline and add innovation to HK’s Client Patronage Program, in which promote to our employees to intentionally shop at our clients.

Innovation to reality

Hoffmann led the marketing and business development teams through the process of mapping out our needs, reviewing and comparing proposals, choosing the best developers, and all of the other small but important details involved in developing your own technology.

The outsourced technology company worked closely with the HK marketing department to launch the mobile app including the branding, content, functionality and reporting systems. HK marketing worked with Apple and Google to make the application available in iTunes® and Google Play™ stores. A web-based version was also created for employees who do not use mobile apps. Finally, the HK IT department worked diligently with developers to implement the highest security measures for the app.

Overall, implementation took one year. During the launch, the HK marketing department trained all employees on the application and continues to train all new hires on the focus of the program and the mechanics of use.

With the app, employees are able to easily discover firm clients they can shop at, review detailed information about products and services, map client locations, get driving directions, submit spending amounts, and win fun prizes. Our marketing department is able to run spending reports by industry, client and employee, and provide this critical and impressive information for business development and client retention efforts.

What were the results of the app?

Results have far exceeded expectations. Receipt submission increased by 43%, employee participation increased by 47%, spending dollars increased by 50%, and manual hours spent by the marketing department decreased by 14 hours per month.

In addition, the program and the app have proven to be critical tools in the sales process of winning new retail clients and keeping current clients who are impressed by the program and appreciate the loyalty.

Finally, HK has received national recognition for the program with the January 2015 cover story of Accounting Today, an article in the November 2014 edition of INSIDE Public Accounting, a Maverick Marketing Award by the Association for Accounting Marketing, and the 2015 Innovative Practitioner of the Year award to Hoffmann by CPA.com.

Through a combination of a culture of innovation, leadership willing to provide the resources needed to develop ones own technology and hardworking, forward-thinking teams, HK was able to get a significant return on its technology investment.

Frank Fiorille

VP of Risk, Compli- ance, & Data Analytics, Paychex

Small Business Job Growth Strong in First Quarter

Small business job growth started 2016 with a bang, marking the best three-month increase in two years, according to the Paychex | IHS Small Business Jobs Index. The uptick was generally widespread across the country, and a number of individual states and metro areas saw job growth trends that indicate strong gains to begin the year.

Each month, Paychex and IHS measure the change in small business employment in the U.S., analyzing year-over-year worker count changes and trending the results to reveal movement. As we look back on Q1, let’s examine some of the data highlights.

National Scope

The pace of small business job growth improved 0.36 percent during the first three months of the year. The index held steady in March following gains in January and February to close the first quarter of 2016 just 0.05 lower than last year.

Regional Analysis

The pace of small businesses employment increased 1.40 percent in the East South Central region, the fastest growth among regions. Both the South Atlantic and Middle Atlantic regions improved solidly. After trending below the national baseline (100) all of 2015, the Middle Atlantic jumped above 100 in January as small businesses conditions strengthened further in February and March as well.

The West Central and Mountain were the only regions where small business employment growth slowed during the first quarter.

State Analysis

With the best growth rate in March as well as Q1 overall, Virginia climbed into the top 10 among states at 100.88. With three monthly gains totaling just over 1 percent, the Ohio index (100.66) is up to its highest level in more than three years and back above the national baseline.

Texas continues to be one of the strong metro indices, yet has slid 0.93 percent, mainly due to sizable drops in Dallas. Illinois fell below the national baseline for the first time in five years, as the pace of small business gains slowed 0.76 percent.

Metro Analysis

Reaching an index level of 104.01, Seattle improved 1.35 percent from December 2015 to March 2016, and overtook Dallas as the top metro index. Houston’s small business employment conditions also improved, by 0.29 percent.

The Chicago metro dropped below 100 for the first time since March 2011, as small business employment slowed 0.79 percent to start the quarter. Also dropping was Dallas metro, which fell 2.97 percent, reserving the trend of 2015.

Industry Analysis

Construction small business job gains continues at a strong pace, 102.22 in March, as the growth rate increased 0.55 percent during the last three months. At 101.13, the pace of employment growth in Education and Health Services is at its strongest level in more than two years, as the industry has gained 0.69 percent.

While most industries improved during the first three months of the year, Manufacturing did not and remains the lowest industry at 98.94.

As you can see, the first three months of 2016 featured a continued expansion of small business jobs growth. While we expect business owners will continue to look at additional options for hiring, such as part-time and contract workers, the overall expansion of small business jobs during Q1 is a positive sign that the year is off to a solid start.

Frank Fiorille is senior director of risk management for Paychex, a leading provider of human capital management solutions for payroll, HR, retirement, and insurance services.

Michael Cerami

Vice President, Business Develop- ment & Corporate Alliances

CPAs and the Growing Opportunity in Sales Tax

For businesses that operate in more than one state, keeping on top of sales and use taxes can be daunting. And it’s evident compliance is only growing more complex: for example, more than a dozen states are taking steps to impose taxes on online retailers or “remote sellers,” part of an effort to persuade Congress to push through national legislation in this area, a recent Wall Street Journal article found.

According to the report: “(The) states are tired of waiting for Congress to write national rules to let them collect sales taxes from out-of-state Internet retailers. So, in a loosely coordinated effort, they are moving to impose those taxes themselves and daring merchants to challenge them.”

The stakes are high: the National Conference of State Legislatures, citing a University of Tennessee study, says states collectively lost $23.3 billion in 2012 because of the different tax treatment of brick-and-mortar businesses versus online-only retailers, although other estimates vary.

In many ways, CPA firms are better positioned than ever to provide clients guidance and support in this area. CPA mobility laws have increased the ability of accounting professionals to practice in multiple states. And merger and acquisition activity in the profession has created new CPA firms with multistate footprints and multistate expertise.

There’s also an X factor in establishing an advisory practice for sales and use tax compliance: technology. The knowledge base for tracking legislative and regulatory developments in tax jurisdictions around the country is something that needs to be curated by a highly trained staff. That’s virtually impossible for all but the biggest CPA firms to replicate, and it explains why specialized cloud solutions that deliver this kind of continuously updated information are an important differentiator for trusted business advisor services.

To learn more about sales and use tax advisory services from the firm perspective, join CPA.com President and CEO Erik Asgeirsson and a panel of experts for a Digital CPA Webcast “Sales and Use Tax: What Your Firm Needs to Know” on May 26.

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