Last week I was called by a young accountant asking if I could help organize his time so that he could do all of his client work while doing what is necessary to build a successful practice and allow him to spend needed and quality time with his growing family. We talked for a while and it made me think back to how I handled it. Here are my personal thoughts.
A childhood goal was to have my own accounting firm, and my father told me that I could only succeed if I could have employees to delegate work to. He also said I had to do it in a way that didn’t “take me all day” to do. It became my personal mission statement. Early in my own practice, I hired staff to work for me. When I started, I didn’t have a family yet and my income needs were modest, so hiring someone was affordable. It hurt my initial cash flow, but it gave me a quality that I rank high in customer relations and marketing for new customers. It gave me availablity. Since I wasn’t bogged down to do the work, I gave myself a lot of free time. I did this by taking the staff member to a client in the morning and giving them a very rigid work schedule or to-do list. I stayed for a while to make sure they were on the right track then left to come back mid afternoon to review what they had done and give them next steps and for me to do the part I had to do. I gave myself a big block of free time in the middle of the day, say 11:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. During that time, I was able to call on leads or referral sources, have lunch with someone who could help me grow, and even do a little cold calling.
Having a staff member also made me a ‘business’, and it actually helped me get fees that were maybe a bit higher than if I was pushing my own pencil. It also allowed me to become well organized and kind of forced me to become a good supervisor giving crystal clear instructions. This led me to systematize almost everything that needed to be done.
At one point I read a harvard business review article on “Managing the Monkey”, which explained how the bottom-up delegation of staff to the boss could be avoided, and that was a pivotal moment for me. I gathered my stick and explained this technique. I told them that from then on, I would follow this method and no longer accept from them the work that they should do. I gave them a method to do questionable items themselves and how to present them to me for a decision.
Besides systematizing and not accepting monkeys from my staff, I stopped doing any work that could be done by someone else. That was the easy part. The next part was that I assumed everything could be done by someone else. However, to get a staff member to do something new, I had to teach them. I did this by breaking down each project into 30-minute steps that would only take me 30 seconds to explain, and that’s how I developed my 30:30 training method. It also became easy to review 30 minutes of work and then assign the next 30 minutes. It was a method that caused a lot, and I mean a lot, of interruptions, but my cumulative time with this staff member was no more than 10 minutes in a day. The only work I really did was innovative and creative special projects, or something new that I wanted to see for myself how it could be done. A temptation was that I enjoyed the work and sometimes I hung on to something new a little longer than I should have. This method also pushed staff into higher level work sooner than if they were to develop in the ‘normal’ course of events.
Sometimes when I was supervising someone, I would follow an early morning and mid-afternoon schedule, letting them do more familiar work when I was away. It gave me the middle block of the day to do what I needed to do. I became adept at using my time efficiently and profitably. I also had time for lunch with clients about three days a week, and took care of that as best I could. Think about this: I met 12 one-on-one clients every month. A couple I met twice a month and some once every three months, but spent quality time with each interaction. I realized it eliminated the need to hang out with clients in the evenings or even have early breakfasts, so my workday was a normal workday.
Then I realized that my business couldn’t grow without me working on growing it. I attended early morning practice management programs maybe seven or eight times a year, read all the books the speakers wrote or recommended, and bought the tapes they produced. I also read all the articles on practice management in my professional journals and subscribed to and consulted journals from other professions. I started meetings with my partners where we shared what we learned and these evolved into monthly one-day meetings, out of the office. It made growing and managing the practice part of our jobs and it became part of our DNA.
I made it a point to be home for dinner with my wife and kids and sometimes had breakfast with them, but not so often since I was traveling to Manhattan. My wife delayed dinner until I got home, which was the same time every night. I have always worked on the bus and, if necessary, after the children have fallen asleep. Once in a while, I would go to my office on a Sunday morning, get there at 8:00 a.m. and leave for a bus at 12:00 p.m. So I returned in time to have lunch and start the day with my family. When my kids had a game or did something special, I organized my schedule to be there. Tax season meant very late hours for me about three days a week, but on weekends I got home at 5 p.m. We also started working the tax season weekend relatively late around mid-February, with night work a bit later. I also had a number of clients for whom I had long car journeys. I started my first meeting at 10:00 a.m. and the last at 3:00 p.m., so that I could maintain my daily routine. I grouped meetings together and sometimes had three (but usually two) meetings, one of which was a working lunch. On these players I was listening to tapes, so I made good use of that time. Occasionally I’ve hired a limo to take me to meetings so I could work on that trip, but that only happened five or six times a year.
There were always exceptions and nothing ever worked out perfectly, but generally my time and days were pretty well organized, leaving me time for staff, clients, working on my accounting business, and my family. When I moved my Manhattan office five minutes from my house, I would come home every night during tax season for dinner. The round trip from the office was about an hour.
There’s a lot more, and I’m tempted to continue my story, but I think it’s a good place to stop. Anyway, I was there and found a way to get everything I needed to be done, done. You can also. Be organized, systematize, have good training methods, delegate everything you can, make family time a priority, and recognize that developing your practice is part of your job.
PS: If you want any material mentioned here, email me at [email protected] and just put as subject: Better use of time.
Do not hesitate to contact me at [email protected] with your questions about practice management or assignments you may not be able to complete.
Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is a partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPA. He is on Accounting Today’s list of the 100 most influential people. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns”, co-authored with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition”. He also writes a blog twice a week dealing with the issues customers have with www.partners-network.com with the Pay-Less-Tax Man Blog for the bottom line. He is an adjunct professor in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MBA program and teaches end-user applications of financial statements. Art of Accounting is an ongoing series where he shares autobiographical experiences with advice he hopes his colleagues can adopt. He welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 743-4582 or [email protected]