What do you do when an employee is falling short on expectations? These situations are unfortunately a “when, not if.”
Employee retention is a cheaper option than starting from scratch (aka hiring new staff). About 108 years ago, Henry Ford famously doubled the wages of factory workers, in an effort to attract and retain talent. The move had a profound effect on productivity and profitability. So, when you’re looking at an employee with some rough edges, attempting to resolve the issue(s) is almost always better than hiring someone new. In short, employee retention should be your goal.
Making the best effort to resolve is two-fold—identifying the specific rough spots and creating an employee improvement plan with the potential to get things in line with expectations.
Identifying issues and root causes
At first, you really want to find out why the employee struggles in a given area. Accounting firm teams may fall short in a few areas:
Ability (even though they know a skill, they’re not great at it)
Ambition (no drive to do well, at least on the surface level)
These are the surface-level issues affecting the capacity and productivity of your accounting firm. The root causes of these problems usually (although not always) come down to two key root causes—competence and confidence.
An example lacking competence
Competence is the knowledge and ability to perform certain tasks and specific skills in your firm.
Example: You hire a fresh grad, directly out of the accounting program of a great university.
Root cause of the problem? Potentially both competence and confidence, but primarily it’s a competence issue. They don’t know what they don’t know. That said, depending on how quickly you identify and address the issue, it turns into a confidence issue, too.
If you throw new team members into software without guidance, they’ll quickly become overwhelmed, affecting their confidence. The lack of competence is due to faults in their education, not personal flaws. And here’s the thing, once you hire the fictitious person in our example—the responsibility for their education is partly on your firm.
An example lacking confidence
Confidence comes in two broad forms, trust employees have in themselves and in you/your firm.
Example: You’ve decided to focus on upmarket services (fractional CFO, forecasts, advisory, and so on). A team member has primarily focused on the more redundant accounting tasks (reconciliations, A/R, and such). You’re now asking this person to implement new automation software to free up their time to help with the higher-value offerings.
The most skilled, competent person in the world is likely intimidated by this change, even if they’re willing to make it. But it’s a common change as we move toward an accounting profession that increasingly benefits from technology.
In addition to the personal confidence challenges a member of your team may have with this change, how you introduce and implement the change may affect their confidence in your leadership. For instance, if you simply email them, give them a login to a new software, and tell them to figure it out—that’s asking for trouble.
Four potential strategies for sanding an employee’s rough edges
Now, it’s onto tackling issues that give employees rough edges. Here are four things you can give them to smooth things out.
Remember the last example of sending an email, essentially telling an employee to figure out and deal with a new change?
Imagine instead, booking a time with the employee (the one you know has the competence to complete the task). Take this person out to coffee and explain a few things:
The reason for the change: In the case of our example, where you hope implementing the new software takes your firm.
Their specific role now: Aka, “You're the champion who’s going to spearhead this effort and get the firm on this new tool.” Intimidating, yes, but this is the good kind that has your full backing.
Their future role: During change, your team wants to know how it directly affects them. Are they replacing themselves? Will their role significantly change? The better you address these changes, the fewer the rough edges.
Make a plan to spend time with your employees, with or without rough edges. And it doesn’t have to be 1:1 meetings. Maybe you have “office hours” for an hour a day. Your team knows that’s when the proverbial door is open. Bonus effect: office hours often cut down on sporadic communication.
One sure way to build competence is via training. Even if a staffer knows how to do something, it doesn’t mean they do it the way you want. And even if they do it the way you want, there is always room for improvement.
How do you get everyone in the place of working in a similar pattern while also staying up-to-date with the profession, at large?
This question strikes near the heart of every firm wanting to better itself. A good place to start is through documentation and an intentional continuing education plan for your team.
Documentation: This is every service and task you do, including how you’d prefer it done by your team written down. A good workflow software will allow you to create a digital standard operating procedure (SOP) manual. The SOPs allow you to train (current and future) employees quickly, giving them both the confidence and competence to do their jobs.
Intentional education: Some accountants just sign up for webinars that promise credit, learning who knows what from some rando on the internet (ok, so that’s an exaggeration). What if you worked with your team to get their credits in areas that help you take your firm to the next level? They’ll likely pay more attention (advancing their overall skill) and you’ll benefit directly from that skill.
No one likes to feel stuck—especially stuck in a role that feels redundant and lacks seen meaning.
People genuinely want to provide value and see the direct results of their labor, but most of us don’t know where to begin. The path from where we are to where we want to be isn’t always easy to find. It’s at this point coaching becomes very valuable.
Coaching fills the gap between training and action. Ask most people and they’ll know some great tips for health, finance, and career. But in reality they don’t execute the advice they know is right.
A coach takes the training and walks alongside you and your team to keep you moving toward the end objectives. This process creates confidence that coincides with competence gained via training.
Maybe that coach is you, for your team. Or maybe you encourage the team to find great coaches to help with their health, finance, and careers?
Modeling assumes you have your processes documented and most on the team are without those rough edges. These assumptions are important, because modeling involves taking that rough-edged employee with potential and pairing them with a model employee in the firm.
This model demonstrates appropriate behavior. Your model(s) reflect the skills, attitude, and curiosity that you wish to nurture in your firm.
However, this modeling process also requires documentation in your processes, as well as some sort of evaluation to gauge the improvement of your rough-edged staffer. It’s also important to keep an eye out for the rough edges popping up on your model employees, too.
Want to Build a Dream Team?
Employee retention is almost always better than replacing an employee, if you have the right frameworks in place to drive improvement. But building a team is as difficult as it is necessary. You have to put in the work to make it happen.
Want to go further? Botkeeper has a resource available helping you create your accounting advisory dream team.