How soon is too soon to have a debrief after busy season? And what should be the goal of such a debrief? Those topics are addressed in a special crossover episode with the AICPA Town Hall series. Hear three CPAs discuss the topic, how it's applicable to more than tax season, and how firm leaders of different sizes approach the debrief. The full Town Hall episode is here, and the speakers in this segment are:
- Lisa Simpson, CPA, CGMA, vice president–Firm Services at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants;
- Brandon Lagarde, CPA, director of the Tax Services Group at Postlethwaite & Netterville; and
- Brent Forbush, CPA, CGMA, managing partner of Forbush & Associates.
The conversation is a follow-up to an article Lagarde and Forbush co-authored in early 2020 in The Tax Adviser.
Also, learn about the IRS response to a TIGTA report that noted the IRS destroyed millions of unprocessed information returns.
What you'll learn from this episode:
- Why Simpson says this topic can be "project agnostic."
- Lagarde's college football analogy for the debrief after busy season.
- Why Forbush says he is a fan of "management by sticky note."
- Advice for capturing honest feedback and for making sure the opinions of remote employees are included.
- How a busy-season debrief can be paired with a team service activity or outing.
Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:
To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.
Neil Amato: Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is Neil Amato. This episode is going to feature the expertise of CPAs, but it won't be me asking the questions. We're going to rebroadcast a segment of the AICPA Town Hall series, and you'll hear that interview right after this word from our sponsor.
The AICPA Town Hall series is in general broadcast in video and podcast form, two Thursdays per month. One recent segment, which aired on Thursday, May 5th, was a topic that is tailored to tax season. But as you'll hear, it's really something that is industry agnostic. It's the busy-season debrief, and it's really for anyone who has just gone through a more intense period of work and looking to improve.
The voice you'll hear first is Lisa Simpson, a CPA who is vice president of Firm Services at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. What follows is Lisa's Town Hall series discussion with CPAs Brandon Lagarde and Brent Forbush about how their firms have approached the busy-season debrief.
Lisa Simpson: Next I'm excited to introduce a couple of our Tax Practice Management Committee volunteers. We've got Brandon Lagarde and Brent Forbush. Brandon is with Postlethwaite & Netterville, which is a top-100 firm based out of Louisiana, and Brent is the managing partner of Forbush & Associates in Reno, Nevada. Thank you, guys. You've both been really invaluable volunteers, and I appreciate you joining me today.
I roped you all into this because I saw an article and I've got a link to the article on this slide that you did with April Walker from our tax team around busy-season debriefs. One of the things I wanted to just start with is, I want to make sure we all agree that debriefs are not just for tax practitioners. I was in business and industry before I came to the AICPA. We had a couple of really intensive sales cycles within the calendar year. Four weeks of just full gas and then a couple of weeks catch breath and then another cycle.
I would use a busy-season debrief to figure out what we can improve for the next one — so, audit, tax, businesses and industry after a big project. I think this is project agnostic. With that, let's get started, Brandon, I wanted to start with you and get your insights into why you feel like a busy-season debrief is important, and when you approach the timing of that.
Brandon Lagarde: Thanks, Lisa. I'm glad to be here with such a great group. We were asked to give our thoughts on the way that we approach after tax season, and tax season is, I'm a big LSU football fan. Tax season's, if you look at a football game, it's a game. It's a challenge we have to get through, and a tax season debrief is almost like watching game film after the game is done. You plan for the tax season. You try to change some things, modify things. There's a lot of work that has to be done in a very short period of time, and it's important to watch that postgame film to say, "What did we do right? Did we make that block correctly? Did we mess something up? Did we do something really well that we can improve on?"
It's really important to me. It's probably more important than the planning is the postseason debrief. We talked a little bit before this about timing, and we recognize that we're two weeks after tax season, after the most recent tax season. Here in Louisiana, we haven't had a regular tax season in quite some time where we had a finite end date that was consistent with what we're used to.
We actually had August 15th end date last year based on disasters. But timing is important to do soon after the end of busy season because we all know that things get lost. Our memories fade quickly, but same time, if we look at it as our tax team needs a break, we need time off, we need to relax. Right now is really the prime time to, again, watch that game film.
Simpson: I love that analogy. I'm an SEC football fan, so I get it. Brent, you're in a much smaller firm, you get about 10 people. Do you still feel like a busy-season debrief is important? Like you're talking to your entire team every day, I would assume. But do you still find that value in the debrief?
Brent Forbush: Yeah, I don't have a great football analogy like Brandon does, but it is, I think it's highly important. And like Brandon was saying, we try to take it a little bit away from — we're not going two days after tax day, "OK, let's debrief now." Give people a bit of time to decompress and think about all those things.
But even with our teams, so we're about 13 now, but we break into like a tax and audit group and then a CAS [client advisory services] group. It's great for math perspective because when we do get all back together and yes, we are talking to each other almost every day, and we have some team members that are remote and they get the hybrid. We let our team members choose how they work. It is that time that we can come all back together and even say, hey, from CAS, what worked well and how you assisted tax or got information to float the tax? Or tax, how can CAS better assist in the process that we're getting into year end or getting financials that are getting tax returns out the door? It is, even though we talk, it's a great opportunity for us to be collaborative and remember that we still are one team at the end of the day, even though we have different responsibilities.
Simpson: I think from my perspective, the last couple of years have been, so we've mostly been heads down buried in the day-to-day that you have to do to get through, to get your clients, their PPP loan or to answer their ERC questions, or then to actually get their tax returns done or get their audited reports out the door. Sometimes it's just hard to pick your head up and look around and go, "OK, deep breath, what can I be doing differently?" Would you guys agree that's one of the benefits of the debrief?
Lagarde: Absolutely. As you mentioned, it's a chance to turn your attention to your strategic plan instead of just, again, completing tasks. Like you said, over the last two years, we haven't had a real strong break in that cycle of work, and this may be one of the best opportunities we have to sit back and really debrief on what happened.
Simpson: Let's talk about how you approach planning. You've got to have a well-planned session to make it be meaningful. Brandon, you've got how many people in your tax department?
Lagarde: We have a roughly 70 folks in our tax department across, say, four to five offices with some remote workers as well. I guess you can even include those and make it 10 offices.
Simpson: When you're approaching the planning process, who gets included in the actual planning?
Lagarde: We definitely want to make sure we have key leaders in certain areas. We will look to a leader within our senior group, a leader within our manager group, and have them get in the room and say, what do we want to accomplish with this session? Let's make sure we hear all voices all the way down to the administrative staff as well, to make sure that we're, again, capturing the best feedback we can.
Simpson: Brent, what about you?
Forbush: I think one of the great things about the planning, from a small perspective. We typically start with our management team, which there's about three of us in that, and we look and say, what is the best way? But like Brandon said, we want to make sure that there's valuable and impactful feedback from all levels across, and it doesn't matter because there could be a great idea from our administrative assistant who could flip the entire process on its head.
Forbush: Particularly, I know in our firm, we tend to, I don't know if you want to say lose the process a little bit, particularly as we creep closer and closer to April 15th, and you throw the process on its head or throw it out the window even. How do we make sure that the process that we all defined and agreed on can stay consistent all the way to the end? Sometimes the person that has the best feedback in that is not going to be me sitting at the top chair and dictating ideas. We want to make sure we open it up. We have as open an environment as possible from the get-go. So that's one of the things that we start with from any debrief process.
Simpson: That's a great segue into the next topic. You've planned it, you figured out when you're going to have it, where you're going to have it? Then who's going to participate, and then how you're going to capture the feedback. Are you doing anonymous surveys in advance? How are you capturing good, honest feedback, especially in a small firm, but Brandon, let's start with you.
Lagarde: Certainly, when we approach any type of retreat or a session like this, we definitely want to obtain as much feedback as we can to help even plan the process, make sure that we're covering the most important topics. In most cases, we will do a survey beforehand to identify again our pain points per se, but make sure the most relevant topics are being addressed.
Simpson: We've given you a list of some of the questions that you might consider. For PCPS members, we've got an entire list of them and some other considerations that you can take into play. But, Brent, in your 13-person firm, can you be anonymous when you're giving feedback?
Forbush: It's really hard to really do it. I have to say, I'm a bit of a Tom Hood aficionado. I'm in his fan club, the roadie group. We love the idea of his management by sticky note. Creating an environment where ideas can be generated by the individual even prior to actually sitting down for a collaborative meeting and getting those ideas on the board, so that sticky notes getting posted up there beforehand.
Yes, they're mostly not going to be anonymous at that point at our small firm, but we try to instill this idea: It's not about the people, it's about the process. Don't focus on a person did this wrong or right or screwed up a process, but where did the process break and why did it break down? Then how do we improve that or change it or fix it going forward?
Simpson: You hit on a couple of really important things there. It's important to not blame the individual. We're all going to make mistakes, but what can we learn from that mistake to keep the process moving forward. It's interesting. I'm envisioning, when you talk about Tom's management by sticky notes and getting those in advance, I just imagine walking into a conference room in your office and seeing all these different-colored sticky notes building up as you get ready for your session. Do you physically do it like that?
Forbush: We have. COVID threw us for a bit of a loop the last two years because, I think, as a small firm, we were literally running from thing to thing. But yeah, that's what we've done. You can do it with technology now. You can create a whiteboard and team where people can go and say, let me put an idea onto that whiteboard in advance that's sitting out there. It gives an opportunity for other people even before the meeting to go in and physically look at it even if it's physically in a conference room and say, hey, what are some of these ideas or issues that people have presented?
Then even from my perspective as a manager saying, was it a failure in my process, in my ability to train on the process. Because I'm involved in a lot of the training because we're a 13-member firm. So what did I fail at? Because maybe we already have a process that we didn't execute on around that idea.
Lagarde: Now, I'll just add to that. I think that the last couple of years, certainly through COVID, we've all had to challenge ourselves on doing business differently and doing things a little differently, and challenging clients on doing things differently. There's going to be opportunities that things are going to go great, opportunities things are going to go bad. But again you have to be willing to accept that feedback and willing to be honest and say, look, we tried this and it didn't work. It's no one's fault. We're not going to point at Brent and say, "It's your fault for failing to train us properly." It's like, look, we didn't get the proper training. We didn't know how to use the new technology, or we failed to communicate properly on the front end. So, I think, again, having an open mind in all sides is really important, too.
Simpson: That reminds me of a saying that we used before one of our committee meetings. It's "reserve the right to be offended." Just check that at the door. We're here to improve the process. We're not here to take it personally, so let's try to just be open and honest about it. Brandon, do you use an outside facilitator when you do your breakouts or when you do your debrief sessions?
Lagarde: We have not historically. I think we mentioned this in the article. It is something that is definitely I need to look at closer. Because I think, and as a facilitator, again, back to the pointing fingers or the taking the personal relationships out of it. As someone who's come from that side, they're able to help move along conversations better, and sometimes people are more open and honest with someone who doesn't have a say in how much that person gets paid.
It does help to have someone from that side. Now, there's issues with that, too, but certainly we've done that on some of our partner retreats, but we have not done that quite yet on a debrief session, but definitely something that should be strongly considered.
Simpson: I think you can do it either way, obviously. An outside facilitator can maybe be more engaged and making sure that everyone in the room is participating and has the opportunity to give feedback. But you're right, I think either way can certainly work.
Forbush: One of the things we've used, and not purely in a debrief, but using an outside facilitator for. Lisa, you mentioned in the sales cycle, is getting somebody who is not intimately involved with our profession but you're truly getting an outsider to our profession. There are a couple of people on Twitter in recent weeks talking about this from the outsider perspective.
They get to be the facilitator and say, well, let's bring things from other sales and marketing or other types of organizations into not just the debrief but our processes in general where we're super analytical people, we're very thoughtful. Hey, I'm thinking A to B to C. They're going to bring something that may revamp how we're doing something completely and much better than we're currently doing it.
Simpson: That's a great point. You mentioned remote employees. How are you thinking about engaging your remote employees in this debrief? Are you going to bring them in, or are you going to create their own little breakout table?
Lagarde: We don't have a lot of remote employees. We probably have a handful now, but they're certainly in the peak of COVID where we're challenged with facilitating that. Sometimes they come into our main office or main location, Baton Rouge, which is our hub. We'll bring everybody in. We'll have an afternoon session then get some fun to make sure that we also mix a little fun into work.
Other times we've used different platforms to have our remote folks break out on their own and have a discussion because the remote folks, as well, will have a different process. They're going to have different issues that we won't see when we're in the office. They have their own unique challenges. So it is very important to get their insights and input because, again, they're valuable team members.
Simpson: I want to come back to that fun piece. But I want to dig into something else before we go down the fun part. How do you keep this from turning into a whining session? Or just how do you not go into the rabbit hole? How do you keep this with an eye focusing on improvement?
Lagarde: I'll defer to Brent because he sounds like he's got it figured out.
Forbush: I do not have it figured out, but I guess you could say we whine outside of the debrief a lot, so you get it all out. I think that's part of it. One of your tips is where is that opportunity for somebody to vent or whine? A lot of times I think that's the one-on-one. Again, we're small, but again, breaking it down and looking at teams and core teams and saying, hey, give me the opportunity to just be a wall.
I'm just going to listen and tell me everything that went wrong. At that point, you can be a little specific, maybe it's client issues, maybe it's people issues, but I'll just be a wall. Then you get that off your chest, and now, when we go into the debrief, we can be more process specific.
Simpson: Giving them that opportunity, you've listened intently and given them that chance to talk about it, so now we can move forward.
Forbush: Yeah. Exactly.
Simpson: Give me your best fun ideas. Do you do a baseball game? Do you do a service component? How do you create some fun at a debrief?
Lagarde: We serve beer and alcohol and talk about LSU [laughing]. We mix it up every week. We went to a jump place one time. We went to Topgolf. Again, that's usually after we get through our session, we try to go bowling and just do something a little more social just to have fun. I guess the most interesting thing we did at one of our debriefs was to ask people: If you had one thing, if you had one process that you would get rid of within the entire firm, what would it be?
We got some interesting feedback on that, and feedback that was somewhat surprising. But again, I think that was quote "fun" just to be able to have people in a lighthearted way to some degree because we didn't want it to turn into a whine session per se, but it was just, what's the one thing that just makes you less inefficient and just you would love to kill?
Simpson: That was a great idea.
Lagarde: That was a fun event or a fun item that we played with.
Simpson: A fun exercise, yeah. Brent, can you top that?
Forbush: I can't top that, but I know one of the things that we've done as a firm and not during COVID, but pre-COVID, and I think it's a little bit personality of the people in our firm is there's almost always been a Marvel movie that's been coming out right after tax season for the last 10 years, it feels like. So we'll typically close the office and take the entire office to a Marvel movie, drinks and popcorn and candy.
Again, it's that time to just say, hey, I'm not worried about work, I'm with work people, and then we can build a relationship there. Service is a great one. That gets people, again, thinking less about themselves and more about somebody else, and how can I help somebody else. I think that can change even your debrief process.
Like, hey, how can I use this process to help somebody else in the process or by making a change to help an admin with getting a tax return out the door or a staff with getting a tax return completed. I love the service component. We haven't done it, but I love that idea of changing the focus from inward to outward.
Amato: Again, that was Lisa Simpson, Brandon Lagarde, and Brent Forbush. We are glad to be able to feature their expertise on the Journal of Accountancy podcast. In the episode show notes, we will link to the full Town Hall episode, along with the article mentioned, which appeared in The Tax Adviser.
In other news, the Journal of Accountancy's Paul Bonner wrote last week about a report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration that said the IRS destroyed 30 million unprocessed information returns. The IRS acknowledged that and said the cause was its own antiquated technology. The AICPA in a statement called the matter "concerning," and there's more detail in the article, which will be linked in the show notes. That's all for our episode on Tuesday, May 17th. Thanks for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.