Boomer’s Blueprint: Project management: Building your team

Cecilia Nysing

Capacity limits most firms from rapidly growing compliance services, while lack of capabilities limits the growth of advisory and consulting services. Accounting is a team sport, and one of the first hires to increase both capacity and capabilities is a project manager. Project managers play a lead role in planning, executing, controlling and completing projects. They manage the scope, resources, budget, and the success or failure of projects.

For many years as a partner in a regional firm, I watched scope creep and accountants conduct steps in the process that added little or no value. As a result, projects stalled in the review process, and many felt the need to loop projects back to the preparer for learning to occur. Many of the personal preferences have been eliminated through process improvement and standardization.

Many issues started with the aggregation of data, scope, scheduling, and then the project’s deliverables. Some CPAs believe you have to be an accountant or CPA, but a team member with the unique ability of a project manager can change all of that and more. First, the additional benefit is the client experience. Second, project management applies to transactional, compliance, advisory and consulting services and becomes more important as the value of the service increases.

The role of project manager goes well beyond technical accounting skills, which all firms should have. The role requires a strategic business mindset, conflict resolution skills, change management expertise, team building and knowledge transfer skills. The day of the rugged individualist is over if you desire to address the client’s wants and needs. It requires a team, a menu of services, and multiple service levels packaged into a subscription model.

Project managers must demonstrate leadership, motivate team members, prioritize tasks and projects, and solve problems. They must also be flexible and vested in the firm’s success. When combined with accounting technical skills, their unique abilities add value and reduce cycle time on projects, while providing increased firm capacity and capability. Here are some other traits of highly effective project managers:

  • Strategic thinker;
  • Life-long learner;
  • Integrity and accountability;
  • Motivator;
  • Great communicator; and,
  • Being able to work in “gray” or “undefined” areas.

This description and definition may sound like a senior manager or partner position in some firms, but this strategy can accelerate and allow individuals to focus on their unique abilities while building their team, improving job satisfaction, transferring knowledge, and increasing profits. Do you know your unique abilities? Does your job allow you to utilize those unique abilities?
The challenge for many firms is agreeing on the job description, targeting candidates, onboarding, training and, most important, respecting the person and position at the same level as a CPA. Most firms have been focused on attracting accounting graduates, helping them pass the exam, and then growing their skills — primarily technical skills.

There are excellent tools available to assist with designing the job description and finding the right candidates (e.g., Kolbe Indexes), but mindset is often a challenge, as many CPAs think you must be a CPA to understand what they do. This is about the “why” — adding value and building a unique-ability team.

Having project managers on your team will also cause you to think about your technology and whether it was designed to manage projects, or to track time and bill after the fact. Fortunately, there are numerous cloud-based project management tools available that integrate with workflow and accountability. You should also integrate project management with your sales pipeline and business development. As I said earlier, mindset and thinking about your thinking are critical for your continued success and the ability to remain future-ready.

Sprinting into the future

Agile project management is a newer methodology developed in the software world but important and relevant to accounting firms. Agile uses short development cycles called “sprints” to focus on continuous improvements. This is relevant and being used in numerous service lines, including tax return preparation, billing and collections, and audit engagements. Project managers trained in Lean Six Sigma methodology as it applies to an accounting firm are extremely valuable. The principles behind agile apply to an accounting firm. Some key principles are client satisfaction, continuous change and improvement, high-frequency delivery, collaboration, self-selecting team approach, and simplicity as an essential element.

The pandemic proved the value of project managers with the immediate need for change in processes due to the remote work environment. They ensured client communications were timely, data was exchanged securely, schedules were met, and clients were happy.

Here is an action plan your firm can take to accelerate and ensure success in utilizing project managers. First, I urge you to reach out to peers and other resources. Internal bias and “This is how we’ve always done this” thinking can be a trap.

  • Develop a job description. Use the Kolbe C index to guide you.
  • Post ads and use a team interview approach with all finalists. Have all finalists take the Kolbe A index. Don’t settle; accept only top-rated candidates.
  • Join a peer group to provide access to expertise and training and share what works.
  • Conduct after-job reviews to determine what worked and what didn’t work. Continuously improve.
  • Determine training requirements/curriculum.

Let us know about your experiences. We are interested in your challenges as well as your successes. Think — plan — grow!

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