Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wisely stated, “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” As I celebrate the arrival and close of MBS Accountancy’s 10th tax season, I thought about the value of reflection for leaders. I know it’s a buzzword, but there’s no denying the impact of hindsight on our future focus.
A 2018 HBR article noted that self-reflection helps leaders stay motivated and engaged, which translates to a more significant positive impact on their followers. Looking back over the past decade, there are numerous lessons I’ve learned while managing my outsourced accounting firm.
1. A leader is only as good as their team.
Last year, and even this year, has been challenging for my team and me as we’ve navigated many significant changes in tax law, including those with retroactive impact, for our amazing clients. However, I’m immensely grateful for each team member’s perseverance throughout this time.
While working remotely, our team would check in with each other over Zoom and discuss the day’s work. Throughout the hectic challenges presented by COVID-19, continuing our daily team sync-ups allowed us to encourage and support each other through stressful deadlines. Before the pandemic, managers everywhere feared that at-home employees would be less productive, absent, or negligent in their job responsibilities. But my team responded bravely to tax changes that required overtime hours, weekends away from family, and a demanding workload.
2. Every employee needs power.
In 2020, coronavirus precautions disrupted our world’s business-as-usual routine and pulled concepts like remote work from the back burner into the spotlight. As a 2020 HBR article noted, “Covid-19 [forced] many leaders into remote management which requires a different skill set than face-to-face management.” As my team and I adjusted to remote work, I realized how important it is for my team to know that I trust them to fulfill their job responsibilities.
Often, managers and leaders focus on the “how” and the “what” as they work on business processes. However, early on in our remote work setup, I realized that it was equally important for me to focus on the “who.” I’ve learned that an essential aspect of productivity involves figuring out the best person to handle a task. While the process and tools are crucial, the right person is also essential. Realizing this, I’ve placed a greater emphasis on hiring people who support our firm’s long-term vision and can complete critical tasks well.
3. Hire for fit, train for skill
Managers, myself included, will often focus on skill and hire people who can do the job. But, unfortunately, this leads to problems when you hire credentialed, experienced people who aren’t willing to learn new skills or aren’t team players. To avoid this situation, CPA Bob Wang brilliantly wrote about how he learned to hire people based on how well they “fit” into his firm’s business model and long-term goals.
This has been an adjustment since I tend to hire people who can hop in and get things done, with no training required. I’ve since learned that experience and credentials don’t always indicate a person’s quality of character. Now, I focus more on weeding out applicants based on their character, willingness to learn, and overall attitude. Of course, foundational skills are essential, but I’ve realized that skills can be taught – character and ethics can’t.
4. Focus is essential to foresight.
One challenge I’ve faced as a leader is the problem of focusing my foresight. Often, we as leaders can assume that they will not come to fruition if we don’t begin all of our plans immediately. This indecision is best illustrated by the philosophical illustration known as Buridan’s donkey. In this situation, a donkey is placed in the middle between a stack of hay and a pail of water; however, the donkey is unable to decide which to do first and consequently dies of hunger and thirst. While many articles and podcast episodes extol the virtue of foresight, fewer offer advice on choosing one direction out of many possibilities.
There are a few strategies that I’ve adopted to improve my focus and ensure I continue to grow as a leader:
- Defining my Most Important Tasks (MIT) each day and categorizing them as either Do, Delegate, Delete, or Delay.
- Pausing and reflecting on my priorities every day so I am always aligned with my long-term goals personally and professionally.
- Choosing mentors and checking in with them often to get advice on how to overcome challenges.
5. Mindset matters
As we go through each day, numerous challenges can prompt negative thoughts that cripple us and lessen our performance. Research by the National Science Foundation showed that around 80% of our daily thoughts are negative. Letting spontaneous negative thoughts run unchecked can impact our productivity, our emotional health, and spiritual balance.
To keep my negative thoughts in check, I’ve learned to acknowledge them and do one of three things:
- Reframe them into positive thoughts.
- Ignore them.
- Acknowledge them and explore solutions.
By doing one of these things, I empower myself to take action on negative thoughts and take away their power over my day.
6. Proper employee reviews are essential.
A 2016 Gallup article showed that only half of the employees worldwide have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them. Conducting proper employee reviews is critical to encouraging those around us to achieve their goals on a personal and professional level. Establishing a vision and aligning their roles and responsibilities helps employees understand how their actions, good and bad, impact the future.
Rather than focus only on quality in an employee performance review, I also assess the efficiency and the progress made toward each team member’s personal goals for their career and future. I do my best to avoid focusing on too many metrics because this can stifle and suffocate my staff’s productivity.
7. Recognizing burnout is critical to combating it.
Burnout is an ongoing problem that has only been accelerated by the 2020 pandemic and the increase in remote work setups. Prolonged isolation and increased workloads have driven employee stress to unbelievable levels, making it even more imperative that leaders like me recognize the signs of employee burnout and work to counteract it.
I’ve worked on decreasing burnout in my accounting firm by reflecting on my management style, prioritizing personal downtime where I unplug from technology, and placing employees in roles that fit their unique strengths and preferences.
Onward and upward…
Being a leader is both incredibly rewarding and challenging. I am honored to be surrounded by the amazing people at MBS Accountancy and am committed to constantly improving myself as a leader. Over the next decade, I look forward to working with the great people at MBS Accountancy to achieve greater success for our clients and team.