For CPA managers, the upcoming busy season requires a delicate balance between patiently coaching less-experienced staffers while urgently pushing to the filing deadline. These managers must identify and correct any errors, but also provide effective feedback to staffers that prevents such errors in the future. Otherwise, managers will be fixing the same problems again and again—and their staff will fail to develop.
“I’ve been supervising for six years,” said Bobby Schroeder, CPA, a tax manager for Ericksen Krentel & LaPorte in New Orleans. “The first season was like being thrown to the wolves. I knew I had the technical proficiency, but managing people is a different story.
“It’s a difficult challenge under the best of conditions,” he added.
Communication is the most essential tool to building a strong team. Here are tips from Schroeder and other managers for providing effective coaching and feedback to less-experienced tax preparers:
- Get to know your team members. In many cases, young tax managers are just a couple of years older than their direct reports. When supervising someone just a few years younger, it may be challenging to establish yourself as a leader, especially if you have gone from a peer to a supervisor.
But you can be in charge and still take a personal interest in your employees, Schroeder said. The time to do that is now, before a deadline is looming.
“Under the pressure of deadlines, tempers get short,” he said. “Use the times when you’re not busy to establish good relationships. That way, when the temperature rises, employees still feel a common bond with you.”
- Communicate in a variety of ways. Just as people learn in different ways—some benefit from reading, others need hands-on training—employees may need coaching in different ways to retain information.
Ashley Cooper, CPA, a tax manager at HoganTaylor LLP in Oklahoma City, uses a number of techniques to check in with her staff, including conversations in the hallway, emails, weekly one-on-one meetings, and a quarterly lunch with each employee. It’s not easy to make time for face-to-face meetings during busy season, but doing so may be essential for some employees who respond best to speaking in person, she said.
“I not only write down errors that need to be changed on a specific tax return, but also have a conversation with the staff to make sure they understand the points I made and the reason why they are so important,” said Cooper, who has been managing for two years. “When I am able to walk through the errors in person, they tend to retain that knowledge better and no longer make the same errors.”
- Be clear and concise. Don’t sugar-coat feedback or beat around the bush when giving constructive criticism, suggests Teela Hammond, CPA, director at Barnard Vogler & Co. in Reno, Nev.
“When you send pages of comments and unnecessary words, what you’re really trying to say gets lost,” she said. “The more direct you can be, the better.”
Put yourself in the position of the person receiving the feedback, said Stacie Gill, CPA, a partner at Maddox Thomson & Associates in Houston.
“I think too often we write things quickly that make sense to us but that, through the eyes of someone less experienced, come across as confusing or hard to follow,” she said.
- Follow up quickly.When you and your team are charging toward a stressful deadline, it may not always be realistic to stop and coach a tax preparer on how to correct an error.
“When it’s April 13, and I have a client showing up in an hour to pick up a return, there comes a time when I just have to make the changes myself,” said Schroeder, who works at a firm of 45 people. “But once we’re past the deadline, we say, ‘Let’s go back and look at this next week.’ ”
Too often, managers get busy and put feedback off too long, said Hammond, whose firm has 15 employees. “I’m always working to offer feedback in a more timely way,” she said. “You get so busy. But when you address a problem two months after it happens, it just isn’t as effective as addressing it right then.”
- Balance the negative and the positive. “A good balance between positive and negative feedback allows team members to feel valued, appreciated, and continue to grow in their careers,” Cooper said.
At HoganTaylor, she said, the tax department meets weekly and the firm meets monthly to recognize a job well done, or someone who has put forth extra effort to exemplify the firm’s core values.
- Don’t write when you’re angry. Whether you’re offering written feedback on your company’s tax preparation software or sending it through an email, be mindful of your mood.
“One thing we learn when becoming managers is to never write an email or review note when you’re angry or upset, because that can translate into the tone of your message,” Hammond noted.
Wait until some time has passed and you have calmed down. Better yet, if the matter is sensitive, have a face-to-face conversation. The intent or tone behind written messages can easily be misinterpreted.
- Admit when you’re wrong. Though it can be embarrassing to admit an error, it’s important to come clean.
“When writing comments on an employee’s work, I make sure and admit to my own mistakes if I wrote a point incorrectly,” Gill said. “I start my note with, ‘I told you incorrectly before …’ This shows I’m not blaming them and that I take responsibility for my work and any errors I’ve made.”
Owning up to mistakes also sets an example for employees of how to graciously correct errors—something they may well need to do in the hustle of busy season, when even experienced tax preparers welcome another pair of eyes to review their work.
Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C.