Get people to meet your deadlines

Give them crystal-clear instructions, and don’t be afraid to follow up.
By Samiha Khanna

Relying on others to meet deadlines can often be stressful. When colleagues or clients are late getting deliverables to you, projects and assignments can get stalled while you wait for essential pieces of information. Then, you can find yourself scrambling to finish your own work on time.

If others in your workplace often miss deadlines you set, you can use some tactics to help them get on track. Here are suggestions from CPAs and other experts for getting clients and colleagues to respect deadlines.

  • Be clear and specific. The more specific you can be when setting your deadline, the better, said Elizabeth Grace Saunders, time management coach and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment.
  • "I highly recommend specificity, as well as repetition," Saunders said. "If you want a report sent to you by close of business on Thursday so that you can review it on Friday morning before sending it off to a client, say exactly that. Don't say, 'I want this in the next few days.'"

    An informal or nonspecific deadline could, in some cases, lead to a worse outcome, she said. "If one person thinks that a certain task is an optional activity and someone else sees it as something that should be done in the next week, and there's no deadline," she noted, "an expectations mismatch can cause incredible frustration."

  • Follow up. Colleagues have competing projects, so you may hesitate to nudge them about a deadline, worried that it could add to their stress.
  • This is one reason Wendy Thompson, CPA, CGMA, manager of transportation accounting for Love's Travel Stops in Oklahoma City, prefers to check in face-to-face when she's following up with colleagues about deadlines.

    "Stopping by their office is more personal, and you can find out a lot more information about other tasks they have, as well as communicate to them why your task may need more immediate attention," said Thompson, a 2017 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy.

    Tax manager Lucas A. Luckett, CPA/PFS, who works at Anders CPAs + Advisors in St. Louis, has deadlines that usually require critical information from clients. As he deals with taxes, his deadlines are usually not negotiable, so he has learned to send requests early.

    "If I have not received any confirmation from the client, I like to follow up after 10 days," said Luckett, a 2017 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy. "If the client acknowledges my initial request, then I send a follow-up email a couple days before the internal deadline." That email can say "something as simple as 'Let me know if you have any questions as you gather and submit your tax documents,'" he noted.

    Whether you follow up in person, on the phone, or with an email, Saunders suggests putting the deadline in writing. This way, all parties can refer back to it if there are questions.

  • Set deadlines together. It's easy for a requester to set a deadline, but it is better to involve the people who will be doing the actual work, said leadership consultant Bill Treasurer, author of Leaders Open Doors.
  • "Higher-ups sometimes establish deadlines without any understanding of what the work entails," Treasurer said. "Whenever possible, include the people who do the work when setting the deadline to ensure that the deadline is based on reality, not wishes."

  • Resist the temptation to create false deadlines. Sometimes, professionals will try to build extra time into their schedules by asking others for deliverables far earlier than they actually need them.
  • Treasurer said this is a practice to avoid. When you give others "false or unrealistically aggressive deadlines, workers start to blow them off," he said. Too many false deadlines, he said, can create "a boomerang effect whereby people no longer take them seriously."

  • Build contingencies into the planning process. Instead of setting false deadlines, identify milestones and intermediate deadlines that will get the team to the larger deadline on time, Treasurer suggested. Be mindful of "red flags" that serve as immediate signs the process could be snagged. Also, create an inventory of possible factors that could cause delays, and devise strategies to resolve these issues if they arise, he said.
  • Convey what's at stake. In many cases, missed deadlines can be costly to everyone. Being transparent about deadlines also means making everyone aware of the potential for monetary consequences if deadlines are missed, Treasurer said.
  • "Fear has a stickier impact on the human brain than good news does," he said. "Make sure each team member is keenly aware of the serious dangers of missing the deadline."

    With clients, if there is a serious chance of a missed deadline that could result in penalties or major setbacks, discuss these risks as soon as possible.

  • Lead by example. Hold yourself to the same standards that you hold your colleagues to, Treasurer said.
  • "If leaders absolve themselves from the consequences of missed deadlines, people notice," he said. "So before expecting your team to honor deadlines, be sure that you're honoring them."

    Setting an example through your own timeliness makes an impression on colleagues and clients. It's something Thompson said she prides herself on.

    "I feel like my motivation to complete things timely and accurately has served me well in my career — earning people's trust and respect," she said.

Treasurer challenges people to think bigger than just making deadlines. "Set a higher standard," he said. "Exceptional performance requires beating deadlines, not just meeting them."

Samiha Khanna ( is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at

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