Be the kind of boss employees want to work for

By Marcia Layton Turner

Employers are finding it challenging to find good accounting talent, even amid the widespread unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of June 2020, there were more than 28,000 openings for tax manager jobs on Indeed, noted Liz Mason, CPA, the CEO and co-founder of High Rock Accounting, who will be speaking on this topic at her 2020 AICPA ENGAGE session “Be a Boss (Without Being a Jerk)” on Friday, July 24.

A big part of the problem, she said, is a cultural shift that is occurring among younger employees, who often value quality of life more than traditional incentives such as more money, faster promotions, or higher-profile assignments. A survey by Qualtrics bears this out: Millennials say that satisfaction and stability are more important aspects of work than compensation or opportunities for advancement.

And even when jobs are satisfying and stable, employees often leave because they sense a disconnect with their immediate supervisor. Direct supervisors affect an employee’s engagement and, consequently, their willingness to stay with a particular employer.

So, what can you do to attract and keep talent? Become a better boss, Mason said.

Insisting that work get done your way, or the way it has always been done at your organization, may not be the best approach going forward. A better tactic would be to ask employees how they would tackle a task, or to offer your input only if they want it, she said.

Three things you can do to forge a better relationship with your team, Mason said, are:

Change how you communicate. To hold on to your best people, look at how you’re interacting with your team. How you speak and what you say matter.

“Bosses have a tendency to dictate what they need from their staff,” Mason said, as in, “I need you to put together these documents for me today.”

Instead, change the vocabulary, she said. Ask for assistance; don’t demand it. Position assignments as opportunities for collaboration, not as orders pronounced from above. Express appreciation when staff members share ideas.

Also, “change the way you approach the delegation of projects,” Mason said. For instance, when you assign something to a staff member, ask whether they would have time to take on a new priority. If they say they don’t, then work with them to reprioritize their task list.

Show respect. At some firms, “senior leaders are less likely to listen to younger team members,” Mason observed.

“An ‘us vs. them’ culture emerges where, as the boss, you’re the enemy. That’s not effective,” she said.

It’s a fallacy that being tough is part of being a good boss, Mason said. Being hard on employees doesn’t help them. It only demoralizes them and may lead to disengagement and, ultimately, attrition.

Treat staffers like colleagues, like people who will determine how successful the firm will be this year, Mason said, because they are.

Create a safe space where employees know they won’t be judged or insulted for expressing themselves. For example, when someone comes to your office to discuss something, make it a point to show you are listening and interested. “Close your laptop,” Mason advised. “Make eye contact. Put your phone away. Focus on them.”

Nonverbal acts like these will translate into trust and continued safe and open communication, she said.

One way High Rock encourages positive risk-taking among employees is by giving a bonus for failing. “We reward people when they make big mistakes,” Mason said. “To get the bonus, you have to put yourself out on a limb and try something new without knowing if it will work or not.”

One team that earned this bonus attempted to set up a new client payroll system in five days rather than the four weeks it normally takes, Mason said. Although they failed to meet the deadline, the fact that the team had even attempted such a feat made them deserving winners, she explained.

Rethink how you motivate staff. One of the best ways to compensate your team is to ask them what motivates them, Mason said. Many managers are blown away when they stop to ask this question, she said. If you assume that everyone wants more money, you could be wrong.

“Take the information that you get from your team to design a reward system that they resonate with,” Mason explained. That could mean something “as small as handing out a gift card to their favorite coffee shop, or as large as a bonus,” she said. Write down the new rewards policy and communicate to staff how to qualify.

Don’t assume rewards have to be tangible. Millennials and Gen Zers frequently prefer incentives other than money, such as more time off, the opportunity to work remotely, or a lighter workload.

That’s one reason High Rock completely changed its compensation model several years ago, moving away from salaries and billable hours to pay based on the role a staff member played on an assignment, Mason said. Everyone gets a base salary, but, on top of that, preparers receive 10% of their clients’ gross revenue for the month while reviewers receive 15%. Consultants normally receive 20% and CFOs, 60%.

“The structure incentivizes them to be as efficient as possible on the project,” Mason said.

Marcia Layton Turner is a freelance writer based in New York. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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