How to keep your direct reports engaged

Building relationships makes all the difference.
By Brandyn Campbell

In an environment where accounting professionals are in high demand, keeping employees engaged is essential. Failing to do so means that organizations can lose valuable team members who move on and take the substantial investment of the organization's time and training with them.

Managers are vital to employee engagement: Research has found that the relationship between an individual and his or her manager is the most critical component of keeping employees connected to their work. After all, managers have a direct pathway to their team members to learn their motivations, how they work best, and how to align these factors into goal-setting for the team member as well as the organization.

By working to understand your direct reports on a personal level, you can help them have enthusiasm for their work beyond the scope of their positions and take pride in the organization's success. Here are some strategies managers can use to deepen employee engagement:

  • Connect employees with a common purpose. Everyone wants to feel that he or she is a part of something bigger. According to Christopher Collins, Ph.D., associate professor of human resources at Cornell University, employees "ultimately want a line of sight from what they do to what the organization is trying to accomplish."
  • Josh Elder, CPA, audit manager at Peters & Chandler in Oklahoma City, suggested that managers help team members connect to a larger purpose by outlining how their work impacts the team's targets, and how those metrics support the organization's quarterly and annual goals.

    Elder also recommended showing employees how they benefit the organization and how their role is unique. He said managers can create opportunities for employees to take on additional projects or participate in professional development activities that align with their personal goals.

  • Build relationships. People spend the majority of their waking hours at their jobs. They crave opportunities to discuss their outside interests at the office. To feel more connected with their workplace, they must have a manager with a genuine desire to learn about them.
  • That doesn't mean managers need to have close friendships with employees, but they should demonstrate enthusiasm to learn more about who employees are. "It's about having a genuine interest in their goals, interests, and ambitions to gain an understanding of their deeper, underlying motivation," Collins noted.

    Joseph Caplan, CPA, senior manager at Mazars USA in New Jersey, makes this approach part of his management style. "I invest time into getting to know my people on a professional and personal level," he said. "I try to understand their goals, passions, and struggles." This strategy allows him to enjoy getting to know his employees so that they ultimately feel valued, appreciated, and understood.

    Finding ways to form these relationships has benefits beyond simply getting to know those with whom you spend time each day. "The more you know your employees, the more you can tailor feedback to them," said Collins.

  • Make performance discussions more meaningful. Once managers have a sense of what drives team members, they can put that knowledge to work for the employee and organization alike in the form of a performance plan.
  • Elder, who is a 2018 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy, uses what he knows about his team members to create a personalized strategy with them. "I work to define a growth plan for an individual that also connects [to how their work] will impact the bottom line," he said.

    He returns to that discussion periodically because of its importance. "I have this conversation more frequently than once a year to start empowering them, as well as to have a way to hold each other accountable," he said.

    Caplan uses performance plans "as a way to reward quality work" by giving employees opportunities to "stretch their skill sets," he said.

    Collins recommended leading with an individual's strengths when holding performance discussions. This tactic helps managers set up employees for success by focusing less on the achievement of specific tasks and more on connecting their work to larger organizational values and objectives, he explained.

  • Be empathetic. Empathy is a critical factor in building employee engagement. It's especially important to be empathetic when employees are facing pressure — for instance, when a deadline is approaching, or during busy times of the year such as tax season.
  • Caplan connects with his employees by letting him know that he knows what they're going through because he's done it himself. "I've been there. I share my stories," he said.

    Caplan also works to ensure that his direct reports make time to take care of themselves outside of the office. "I check up on them to make sure that their well-being is OK, and encourage them to take part in personal interests to help them take care of themselves and recharge," he said.

    Elder works with his team proactively to ensure that they know what to do when stress mounts, particularly during tax season. "I make sure that there is a light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

    That means being intentional and planning ahead. "I try to anticipate what's ahead and find pockets of breathing room," he said. For example, he reviews weekly schedules with his employees to find time for them to engage in activities that are part of their personal growth plans to foster stimulation and help prevent burnout.

While many factors have changed about office culture over the past several decades, the drivers of employee success have remained constant: Employees "want to be developed, have interesting opportunities, be of value, and know that their efforts contribute to a bigger picture," said Collins. Managers are key to providing those connections, and doing so effectively means success for their teams as well as their organizations.

Brandyn Campbell is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at

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