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The Pain in Building Flexible Empowered Teams When Seeing is Believing

By Joey Havens

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This blog is the third in a four part series on how we can lead in public accounting to take advantage of some hard trends

Recently, my wife lured me into an afternoon session of Hot Yoga. Now, I don’t know if you have experienced a Yoga workout much less a Hot Yoga class where they turn up the heat to like 85 degrees, but take my word for it, it is a long, long hour. Not only are you sweating like crazy, your core is in a constant strain as you hold numerous very flexible positions.  I was literally shaking all over as I tried to hold these poses that individuals around me seemed to be enjoying. (PS, if they offer the weights, either pick the 1lb ones or just pass, the 5lb gets a little heavy around minute 12.) This Hot Yoga memory reminds me of the pain I see in our firm and our profession as we try to provide flexibility for all team members to integrate their careers with their personal lives. Empowerment of individual team members is the only way to meet the unique and complex challenges as we change our mindset around when, how and where we work. This is not simply a women’s issue or millennial issue, it’s a belonging issue, and it is our profession’s greatest challenge for relevance. People have many choices and they will choose to work in organizations and structures that empower them to integrate life as they want it.   

Talk about change, consider this: 43 percent of employees surveyed by Unify said they would take more flexibility over a pay raise. Millennial Branding Report’s recent survey revealed that 45 percent of millennials would choose flexibility over pay. Clearly, flexibility is something that is at the top of the wish list of many millennials.

Lack of flexibility has also been cited as one of the top reasons millennials quit their jobs. Lack of flexibility has certainly been one of the top reasons the accounting profession has had difficulty in retaining women leaders. It simply doesn’t work, and it is extremely short sighted when companies use the label “special case” for the working mom as their definition of flexibility.  Everyone wants and needs flexibility, and it is best defined as empowerment to manage their personal and professional lives.  

For me, this isn’t a challenge in understanding. The challenge lies in changing the way we work – with flexibility. 94 percent of CPA firms claim to offer flexibility. Surely, we all like to think we are flexible. But what’s the reality? What are our team members experiencing? If our intentions are good, yet our teams do not experience it, it is not a reality just a good corporate message. Why are we so slow to change and what is the real source of all this pain?

The biggest pain point might be “Seeing is Believing.”  Our beautiful flex policies, unlimited PTO policies, work from anywhere policies aren’t working because people do not see the entire organization adopting, embracing and living these values! This leads to a disconnect (on many levels) and causes slowness adoption and pain. People do not feel empowered when they see leaders manage and track the same success factors as in the past. 

Client service is another pain point as we fear we will fail our client’s expectations if we do not control the complete access to our team members. This is flawed thinking. Control has little to do with results when we focus on understanding deliverables and outcomes rather than when or where someone might be working. Work location is not the preeminent factor in assuring productivity or increasing individual performance. Commitment, trust and communication are all critical to each team member being empowered to integrate client service, team commitment and personal demands. It’s a discipline we have to learn and mistakes make it very painful. We must lead by giving our team members the “benefit of good intentions.” 

At HORNE, we refer to some of our pain points as “Guilt Vampires.” These Guilt Vampires prevent team members from truly experiencing flexibility in their lives and their careers. While many of these Guilt Vampires are internal, we often experience external Guilt Vampires as well. They appear when we are treated differently or talked about because we choose to experience flexibility. They rear their ugly head when we measure performance on traditional measures like chargeable hours, realization, office time rather than results and deliverables. Guilt Vampires literally suck the life out of a firm’s ability to have an abundant culture of empowered people. Guilt Vampires limit our growth – personally and organizationally.

The last pain point I will mention today is the pain of not having the capacity, bench strength or succession in place to allow team members to work towards solutions that deliver exceptional client service while experiencing exceptional life/career options. For years, we have run our firms on making sure we were as close to 100% utilization as possible. By using utilization as a major performance indicator, we have left our firms short of people and talent to be exceptional. This is made even more painful today as we realize we need more capacity and find ourselves facing a free agency market for talent. 

I think I started this blog about a painful experience and this brings me back to how important it is that we become firms composed of flexible empowered teams.  Can we embrace and live out flexibility within our firms where seeing is believing? After this, Hot Yoga doesn’t seem so intimidating.