Overcome the martyrdom of the profession
Reevaluate what the future holds
June/July 2022 Footnote
Editor's note: Updated May 25, 2022
How many hours did you work during busy season? Or over the past year? How about your staff? Did you tell your clients these numbers? Of course not, because your clients don’t care.
They engage you to provide value, whether they perceive that in timely delivery, business advice or other services. The martyrdom complex of grinding out hours has no place going forward, especially considering the attractive outside opportunities available to current college graduates.
Each hour worked should have a purpose that is adding value to the firm and your clients, yet today we see countless firms with staff and leadership that are “too busy” to stop and ask, “Is there a better way?” We help firms address big changes to free up capacity, but in this article, I offer changes that can help curb death by a thousand paper cuts in your A&A practice.
The perfect time to reevaluate
The Great Resignation of the past year-plus was and is an opportunity for many firms to reevaluate how they operate, how they staff and how they manage their client roster. Unfortunately, many firms did not embrace the opportunity and were relegated to just making do with the lowered capacity and additional, self-inflicted workload.
It is no surprise that new staff would consider leaving after a year if they are putting in long hours and seeing the partners working even longer. The question we need to ask ourselves is, “Why do we still have the same schedule expectations that our profession had 30-plus years ago when technology has dramatically improved?”
What we have is a decision to stay the course and grind all year long with a hope that things will get better on their own. The problem is this martyrdom complex does not matter to any client and has no appeal to new staff that see opportunity everywhere.
When it comes to making the necessary changes to rid your firm and yourself of the martyrdom complex, I have three key suggestions to follow:
- Walk the walk with the work-life balance.
- Develop a planning culture that rejects the “same as last year” mentality. In other words, it’s anti-SALY.
- Right-size your workload to your actual capacity by dropping clients you’ve graded as D or F.
Walk the walk
“It’s just faster if I do it.”
How often have you said that and ended up taking on work that could have been delegated to less experienced staff? Suddenly you find yourself swamped with others’ busy work and no time to complete your own. The other issue is that while it might seem like you’re doing another staff member a favor, by taking something difficult off their plate, it can actually rob them of a valuable learning experience.
An alternative is working on the project together. This means they will be the driver, let them take the lead and be available to guide as needed. The added benefit of taking a step back from a familiar project, is that by getting fresh eyes on a task you’ve done repeatedly, you may discover efficiencies or question if the task is necessary in the first place.
Firms talk about having a work-life balance but if the people at the top don’t display that, the staff are not going to believe there is a balance. Alternatively, if your firm is all about putting the long hours in, then be true to that identity and transparent about it. Fewer surprises mean less turnover.
I have talked with many firms where the partner is the first one in for the day and last one out (or emailing at 11 p.m.) because it means they are dedicated or doing the extra work so their staff won’t be as burdened. This is noble but it also sends the message that only the workaholics will be successful in the firm. Additionally, it says that if staff isn’t at the office before and after those partners, they aren’t working hard enough. Define the balance and walk the walk. Your actions are the example, regardless of what you post on your website.
Develop an anti-SALY attitude
The biggest roadblock to change is SALY, which has become the default guide to conducting an engagement because it takes less explanation and can begin when the client has only prepared a handful of schedules for you. Unfortunately, this means jobs that drag along and a burying feeling for everyone involved.
I hear far too often, “I want to make that change to be more efficient, but we are just too busy,” and, “We would like to be better with that data tool, but we are just too busy.” I see many opportunities to reduce time by simply taking a moment to look at the big picture of a job.
An audit that starts without proper planning is likely to be planned by SALY and that always includes unnecessary work in low-risk areas. There is a difference between being busy because there is a lot of work and being busy because you decided to do the same painful process as the last time. Far too often planning is performed during the fieldwork time, and then the actual fieldwork is spread past the scheduled time and the time entry looks like a heartbeat over the next month or longer.
Invest in your provided by client (PBC) management and workflow. There are plenty of tools, such as Suralink or CPA.com’s OnPoint Collaborate, that ease the process of gathering documents and providing due dates for your clients to get you those documents. Not only use the tool for gathering but use it for holding your client accountable. Set a due date far enough ahead of fieldwork that you can have a fruitful planning meeting. Put that due date in your engagement letter with consequences for missing those dates.
Challenge your documents. We have collaborated with many firms on reimagining their audit workpapers to be more efficient. Some of the changes we have made were simple fixes such as challenging the materiality used and removing narrative redundancies. Deliberately do this in planning. Go through the workpapers and ask if your sample sizes accurately reflect the client risks. Does your risk assessment reflect your actual assessment of risks, (or have risks been kept elevated because there was a mistake 10 years ago by a controller that no longer works at the client)?
An audit doesn’t have to be a painful marathon of workpapers just because it was in the prior period. This includes finding opportunities to better leverage data in your testing from a simple VLOOKUP for price testing inventory to taking the time to fit a data tool into replacing procedures. The use of data tools is not done by digital osmosis, you need to be deliberate to replace current procedures with it.
Drop the D and F clients
The rising costs of labor in the workforce puts an even brighter spotlight on how you are employing your capacity. Take a look at the jobs that are keeping you up at night. If they are the D and F clients, then it is long past time to reevaluate keeping them as clients.
Some clients might have been picked up as “filler work” years ago, grew out of control and are now a costly burden. If you are the workaholic type, along the lines of, “I don’t know what to do with my time if I cut out some clients,” use this as an opportunity to better serve your good clients or improve your practice. Not only do you gain time back to serve the good clients, but you show your staff you care about more than the top-line revenue. It’s hard to justify spending 12 hours on a Friday in July on a client that is terrible to work with.
If your summer feels like a continuation of busy season, then these changes need to happen now, or it might only get worse next spring. Remember, no one gets an award for working the most hours, especially if they could have worked smarter and applied that time better.
Tyler Anderson, CPA, partner at Accountability Plus, LLC, whose work follows the mantra, “It doesn’t have to be this way,” is dedicated to finding better and more efficient ways of doing everything. His combination of his military experience and public accounting expertise influences his unique approach to teamwork, workflow and continuous improvement. His experience on the team has included work as a key developer on CPA.com’s award-winning OnPoint PCR platform and methodology. Accountability Plus consults CPA firms with improving their A&A practice by refining their workflow and developing clear and concise assurance engagements by following the standards, connecting risk and evidence, and thinking beyond the checklist. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.