The ABCs Of Supervision

Technical skills are only half the story.

  • ALTHOUGH TECHNICAL COMPETENCE is important, a key but neglected area of a CPAs development is supervisory skill.
  • CPAs NEED TO LEARN HOW to communicate, organize, motivate and direct the efforts of others in their firm
  • A LACK OF INTERPERSONAL SKILLS may be a major reason why many qualified professionals are not promoted to partner.
  • AN IMPORTANT ASPECT OF supervising is being available to your staff.
  • COMMUNICATION SKILLS INVOLVE clearly explaining not only the task at hand but also the entire engagement.
DAVID SATAVA, CPA, DBA, is assistant professor of accounting, and
JIM WEBER, PhD, is assistant professor of management, at the University of Houston, Victoria, Texas.

Do you remember your first major accounting job? Did your supervisor hand you some accounting workpapers and say, Here, do this, and then quickly walk away? We remember looking at several printouts, wondering if we had made a mistake in choosing accounting as a career. What we wanted and needed was a supervisor who was skilled at managing employees, especially new employees, and who could relate and explain things so we could understand our jobs better. Unfortunately, many talented professionals concentrate so much on developing their technical skills that they do not spend enough time and effort developing an understanding of how to treat and manage people.

Percentage of CPAs who eventually become a firm partner:


According to Source Finance (a financial and accounting personnel company), only about 2% of accounting professionals ever become partners in CPA firms. While technical skills are vital in the early stages of a career, they are not the primary requirements for promotion to higher level positions. In order to become a manager, a professional must develop the ability to communicate, organize, motivate and direct the efforts of others. In order to advance to partner, a professional must develop strong supervisory and management skills. A lack of interpersonal skills may be a major reason why many qualified professionals are not promoted to partner.

Putting the Rubber to the Road
This article is directed to CPAs who seriously want to improve their chances for promotion by learning a caring and practical approach to supervision. The following list of the ABCs of basic supervisiontargeted at new and seasoned supervisors willing to reevaluate their leadership stylesis a primer on the basics of good supervision along with tips that should help CPAs improve their interpersonal relations with staff members. These ABCs should provide a solid basis for motivating and leading subordinates to become successful professionals.

A ccessibility. Do you have an open-door policy? Are you available and supportive? If not, why are you there? Allocate extra time for employees to ask questions when you give them a new assignment. In the long run, this will reduce the total amount of time you will have to spend explaining later and will help your subordinates do their work on time.

B ig picture. Successful supervisors provide their employees with an overall view of the entire engagement early in the assignment. This helps staff members understand their jobs better, both generally and in relation to the current assignment.

C ommunications. Staff members cant read your mind. When in doubt, give too much information rather than too little. Instead of giving all of the instructions at one time though, consider breaking the instructions into small components. Informed employees should make better decisions than those who are uninformed. Encourage staff to converse with you; one of their ideas could dramatically increase productivity.

D ignity. One partner tells his staff to dignify everybody they come in contact with. Honor and treat others with respect. Remember the adage: praise publicly and criticize privately.

E nthusiasm. Staff members seldom get more involved in their jobs than their supervisors do. If you are negative about your job, expect your staff to show a similar attitude. Eventually, staff members who stay will reflect your image.

F eedback. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration constantly monitors its spacecraft to determine whether they need a midcourse correction. Early feedback reduces the amount of correction needed. Periodically inform staff members about their performance. Staff who do not receive feedback will seldom meet expectations. Feedback is like a roadmap that helps drivers reach their destinations.

Rate Yourself As a Supervisor

Give yourself 3 points if the question always gets a yes answer, 2 points if it gets a yes most of the time and 1 point if it rarely gets a yes.

  1. Do you keep your office door closednot just physically but metaphorically?
  2. After assigning work to your staff, do you just walk away?
  3. Do you forget to discuss the big picture with your staff?
  4. Do you just assume your employees know what you are thinking?
  5. Do you discuss only faults with your staff?
  6. Do you have trouble showing enthusiasm for anything work-related?
  7. Do you keep the path to professional success a secret from your staff?
  8. Do your staff members pin up Dilbert cartoons with the pointy- haired boss on their cubicles?
  9. Do you believe that giving someone a compliment makes them want more?
  10. Do staff frequently quit and you still cant understand why?

If you scored 20-30, your supervisory skills need a lot of work. If you scored 15-19, youre doing better but you still have room for improvement. If you scored less than 15 points, youre an asset to your subordinates and supervisors. (Now give this test to your subordinates and see how they rate you!)

G roups. There is an important distinction between supervising only one individual and supervising an individual who belongs to a group. Individuals in a group frequently respond to supervision by filtering it through the values of the group. Quality and quantity of work performed tend to conform to group norms, especially in cohesive groups. Supervisors who try to understand how group dynamics influence group members will get more out of their staff members.

H umility. Supervisors should remember how difficult and time-consuming even the simplest of accounting tasks seemed the first time through. Be modest about your achievements and try not to inform your staff about how smart you are. Your firm can and will be able to survive without your services some day. Your staff needs you to help them grow professionally instead of listening to your autobiography.

I nformation. After providing your staff with the big picture, gradually give them the detailed information needed to understand and complete their accounting tasks. Balance the need to know with the ability of your staff to understand. Dont give too much at once, or a lot of information will get lost in the translation. If you give too little information, staff will become frustrated and may look for another job (see Communications).

J argon. A young boy in a T-ball league was rounding third base when his coach yelled for him to go home. The boy immediately ran to his parents crying, wondering why the coach had sent him home. Each accounting firm has its own unique way of describing things. New employees may not understand company jargon immediately, so help staff understand your firms special language as soon as possible.

K nowledge. During tax season, a tax department found itself very busy. Several auditors agreed to help out. A young auditor asked a tax partner a question and was sharply told to look it up himself. The question at issue was complex, especially so for an auditor. Because the tax partner was not willing to share his knowledge, the auditing staff became less than willing to help out. Knowledge is power only as long as it is shared. Supervisors who are unwilling to share will find themselves stifled professionally.

L eadership style. Since employees are at different levels of professional and personal development, they each require different types of leadership. Supervisors should help new staff understand the technical side of their jobs. As subordinates mature, supervisors should spend more time motivating them to complete quality work in a timely manner. Encourage technically and professionally mature employees to plan and supervise assignments. Treating employees fairly does not mean treating them the same.

M otivation. The easiest and fastest way to motivate employees is though positive reinforcement. Tell them when they are doing something well! Because most employees generally hear and remember the negative things they are told, make a special effort to praise good performance. Learn to provide positive reinforcement honestly.

N etworking. Help new employees develop networks within the firm. Go out of your way to introduce new staff to their peers. Perform simple favors such as passing on information that may be of use or interest to your staff. Make sure staff members help newer members develop their network.

O rganizational culture. A study of CPAs published in the Academy of Management Journal (Organizational Culture and Employee Retention, 1992, pages 1036-56) determined that the organizational culture of a firm had a direct bearing on how long CPAs stay on the job. Firms that were genuinely friendly and showed concern for their employees kept them much longer than firms that were concerned only with completing the work. Supervisors should create a culture that is friendly, warm and kind toward staff members, without forgetting that performance is a requirement, too.

P atience. Patient supervisors generally develop productive staff. Remember the 10-4-2 learning curve principle: A job that takes 10 hours the first time will be completed in 4 hours the second and 2 hours thereafter. Give staff realistic time to complete a task before demonstrating your impatience. Remember that the prayer, Oh Lord, give me patience, and give it to me now! just doesnt work. If you hired good staff, they will grow.

Q uality, quantity and quotas. One of the most difficult situations faced by employees is the eternal dilemma of quality versus quantity. Staff pressured to produce more work will usually end up cutting corners on quality. Performing quality work and meeting quotas takes time. Be sure to give your staff realistic standards or you will spend more time interviewing prospective new employees than training them.

R eplacement. If you want to advance in the organization, train your staff to replace you. Helping staff take over your tasks will give you the opportunity to learn new and interesting assignments. Delegate without interfering. Learning and growth dont come to staff who watch you take over and complete a task because you are more qualified than everyone else. Trust your employees enough to delegate, and give them a real chance to develop professionally.

S taff. A good support staff may have a substantial effect on your career. Support staff will cover for you, correct you tactfully when you are wrong and probably know more about the firm than you. Just because youre a CPA doesnt mean you always know how to treat and interact properly with your staff.

Improving Your Skills

From the AICPA

  • Effective Listening Skills. A group- or self-study course that includes a videotape and three participant manuals. Order no. 103349JA, $395. Call 800-862-4272.
  • The Quick and Easy Guide to Delegation. A paperback book. Order no. 090414JA, $15. Call 800-862-4272.

    From Others

  • Healing Manager: How to Build Quality Relationships and Productive Cultures at Work by William Lundin and Kathleen Lundin. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1993.
  • Successful Managers Handbook: Development Suggestions for Todays Managers by Brian L. Davis. Personnel Decisions International, 1996.
  • Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement by Aubrey C. Daniels. McGraw-Hill, 1994.
  • The Art of Framing: Managing the Language of Leadership by Gail T. Fairhurst and Robert A. Sarr. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996.
  • Million Dollar Mouths: The Seven Secrets of Managers Who Avoid Employee Lawsuits by Stephen D. Bruce. Ransom & Benjamin Publishers, 1996.
  • Developing Management Skills , 4th ed., by David A. Whetton and Kim S. Cameron. Addison-Wesley Longman, 1998.

    The World Wide Web

  • T ormentors. One job of a supervisor is to help staff grow and contribute to the goals and objectives of the organization. If you actually help staff become more successful than they could be on their own, you are a mentor . If you are not willing to help staff members grow professionally and actually contribute to their undoing, you are a tormentor.

    U ncertainty. People dont like uncertainty. They respond best to change when they participate in the process. Dispel negative rumors with facts and a calm demeanor. Staff members are much more likely to go along with change when they see how well you handle it.

    V ision. Staff will have confidence when their supervisors have a firm grip on the future and appear to have a plan to make things work well for the organization.

    W ork. Supervisors cant forget that the work of the unit is the reason it exists. Supervisor and staff salaries are derived from profitable work. Successful supervisors set a good example and actually work.

    X -ray. With staff you know well, it is easy to look through their skills and dwell on their shortcomings. Avoid this, and remember: Your employees are looking at you, too.

    Y oke. Only oxen and other beasts of burden are used to carrying a heavy yoke. Be considerate when you assign work to your staff. Your standard for work should be time-tested and, above all, fair. There is a fine line between giving too much and too little work. If you give too much work, employees will become frustrated. If you give too little, they will become bored.

    Z ealous. The last item is also the most important. Be zealous in supporting and defending your staff. Be zealous in rewarding good performance and in helping employees correct poor performance. Employees will respect you when you show that you really care about them.


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