Art of Accounting: Using time most propitiously

Accounting

Last week a young accountant called me asking if I could help him organize his time so he could get all his client work done while doing what is necessary to build a successful practice and allowing him to spend necessary and quality time with his growing family. We spoke for a while and it made me think back to how I managed this. Here are my personal reflections.

A childhood goal was to have my own accounting practice, and my father told me I could only be successful if I was able to have employees to delegate work to. He also said I needed to do it in a way that did not “take me all day” to do. That actually became my personal mission statement. From the beginning of my own practice, I hired staff to work for me. When I started, I did not 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 rate as the top of the list for client relationships and in marketing for new clients. It gave me availability. Since I wasn’t bogged down having to do the work, I provided myself with a lot of free time. I did this by bringing the staff person to a client in the morning and setting them up with a very rigid work schedule or to-do list. I stayed a while to make sure they were on track and then left to return midafternoon to review what they did and give them the next steps and for me to get the part that I needed to do done. I gave myself a big block of free time in the middle of the day, say from 11:00 to 3:30. In that time I was able to call on prospects or referral sources, have lunch with someone that could help me grow, and even do a little cold calling.

Having a staff person also made me a “firm,” and this actually helped me get fees that were perhaps a little higher than if I was pushing my own pencil. It also made me become well organized and sort of forced me to become a good supervisor giving crystal clear instructions. That led me to systemize almost everything that needed to be done.

At one point I read a Harvard Business Review article on “Managing the Monkey,” which explained how upward delegation from staff to boss could be avoided, and that was a pivotal moment for me. I assembled my staff and explained this technique. I told them that from that moment forward I would follow this method and would no longer accept work from them that they should be doing. I gave them a method to get questionable items done themselves and how to present it to me for a decision.

Along with the systemizing and not accepting my staff’s monkeys, I stopped doing any work that could be done by someone else. That was the easy part. The next part was I assumed everything could be done by someone else. However, to have something new done by a staff person required me to teach it to them. I did that by breaking down every project into 30-minute steps that would only take me 30 seconds to explain, and that is how I developed my 30:30 training method. It also became easy to review the 30 minutes of work and then assign the next 30 minutes. It was a method that caused many, and I mean many, interruptions, but my cumulative time with that staff person was not more than 10 minutes in the course of a day. The only work I really did was special innovative and creative projects, or something new that I wanted to see for myself how it could get done. A temptation was that I enjoyed the work and sometimes I held onto something new a little longer than I should have. This method also pushed staff into higher-level work sooner than if they were left to develop under the “normal” course of events.

Sometimes when supervising someone, I followed an early morning and midafternoon schedule, leaving them to do more familiar work when I wasn’t around. That gave me the middle block of the day to do what I needed to do. I became adept at using my time effectively and profitably. I also had time for lunches with clients about three days a week, and I managed this as well as could be. Think about this: I met one-on-one each month with 12 clients. A couple I met with twice a month and some once every three months, but I spent good quality time at each interaction. I realized that doing this eliminated the need to go out with clients at night or even to have early breakfasts so my workday was a normal workday.

The next thing was the realization that my firm could not grow without me working at 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 purchased the cassette tapes they produced. I also read all the practice management articles in my professional journals and subscribed to and looked through journals from other professions. I started meetings with my partners where we shared what we learned and these evolved into monthly daylong, out-of-the-office meetings. This made practice growth and management part of our jobs and it got imbued into our DNA.

I made it a point to be home for dinner with my wife and kids and occasionally I had breakfast with them, but not that often since I commuted into Manhattan. My wife delayed dinner until I got home, which was at the same time each night. I always did work on the bus and, if necessary, after the kids went to sleep. Occasionally I went into my office on a Sunday morning, getting there at 8:00 and leaving to be on a 12:00 bus so I got home in time to have lunch and start the day with my family. When my kids had a game or were doing something special, I arranged my schedule to be there. Tax season meant very late hours for me about three days a week, but the weekend day had me home by 5:00. We also started tax season weekend work relatively late around the middle of February, with night work a little later. I also had a number of clients for whom I had long car rides. I made my first meeting start at 10:00 and the last at 3:00, so I could maintain my daily routine. I bunched the meetings together and occasionally had three (but usually two) meetings, with one of them a working lunch. On those drives I listened to cassette tapes, so I made good use of that time. Occasionally I hired a limo to bring me to the meetings so I could actually work during that trip, but that only occurred five or six times a year.

There were always exceptions and nothing ever worked perfectly, but as a rule my time and days were pretty well organized, giving me time for staff, clients, working on my accounting business and family. When I moved my office from Manhattan to five minutes from my house, I went home every night during tax season for dinner. The round trip away from the office was about an hour.

There is a lot more, and I am tempted to continue my story, but I feel this is a good place to stop. In any event, I was there and found a way to get all of what I needed to get done, done. You can too. Be organized, systematize, have good training methods, delegate everything you can, make the family time a priority, and recognize that developing your practice is part of your job.

P.S.: If you want some material that is mentioned here, email me at GoodiesFromEd@withum.com and just put as subject: Using time better.

Do not hesitate to contact me at emendlowitz@withum.com with your practice management questions or about engagements you might not be able to perform.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People list. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” He also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com along with the Pay-Less-Tax Man blog for Bottom Line. He is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University teaching end user applications of financial statements. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where he shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. He welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 743-4582 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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