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How to Motivate Public Practice Accountants

The following is a chapter summary from David Maisters’ fascinating book entitled “Managing the Professional Services Firm.” The book is a nice “How to” manual that draws on his extensive experience in the professional services firm arena and is a great way of learning so you don’t need to re-invent the wheel!


The management landscape is often influenced by variables outside the physical office space of any given firm. Today more than ever professional service firms find themselves in the very unfamiliar position of needing to motivate their junior professionals. The path to partnership, the goal of many junior professionals, is not as predictable and well-defined as it was in the past. Young professionals are now realizing that partnership may be a much more complicated path and no longer worth the sacrifice. In many firms partners are more willing than ever to admit that the satisfaction of being partner doesn’t outweigh the economical or psychological cost. Clients have loftier expectations, are occasionally unrealistic in their demands and are more and more unprofessional.

Motivation is often negatively affected by this change in the rocky road to partnership. By limiting the possibilities for these junior level professionals, the reality of looking elsewhere for a clearer path to career advancement is on the rise. More and more corporations are filling the void that service firms seem to be leaving in their wake by offering junior professionals with a sense of intrinsic value and filling their emotional and psychological needs. For this reason, many junior professionals are simply leaving service firms.

This leaves service firms with competitiveness for clients on the rise and the need for solid young professionals to advance to positions held by the baby-boom generation. A simple review of demographics over the past 40 years shows that fewer children per family equates to fewer professionals to fill these advanced positions. Service firms are now in a position where they need to creatively consider new ways to confront this human resource phenomenon.


Partners now need to cultivate the development of junior professionals in new and innovative ways in order to stay competitively productive. It is important to understand that there are both internal and external motivations involved in any professional’s outlook. This link or connection between motivation and performance cannot be ignored. We refer to this phenomenon as The Motivational Spiral.

When Motivation is high, the same can be said of Productivity & Quality which positively influences Marketplace Success. The resulting Economic Success is then translated into financial rewards, possible promotions and raises; natural motivating factors that help begin the cycle again. Yet as enticing as this spiral is, it is important to recognize that it is also just as effective in the negative. Low Motivation has a domino effect on the other components of The Motivational Spiral.

Today’s professional firms need to honestly evaluate their managerial organization looking at the entire process from recruitment, work distribution, performance evaluations and feedback to promotions and the inclusion of outplacement. Partners will also step up and into a more defined role with junior professionals to maintain a positive motivational spiral. This may come as an unexpected challenge to some partners who, after evaluating the firm as a whole, come to the realization that their supervisory skills are also in need of rejuvenation.


If stimulating motivation within the structure of a service firm is considered to be a necessity, then the next question is how. The process starts ideally with recruitment. Many firms may need to look at certain characteristics such as ambition, energy and drive on an equal plane as education and technical attributes during recruitment. In the book The Soul of a New Machine, author Tracy Kidder refers to the recruitment technique in which the manager was realistic, honest and made sure that potential professionals were aware of exactly what they could expect in the office. This process easily provided a window through which to filter applicants who did not have the characteristics that the firm desired. Far too many firms misrepresent the reality of a position to quickly fill the position, yet in the end are creating a negative Motivational Spiral which may well be more costly in the long run.

Providing an applicant with a realistic view of the position is the obvious choice. Hiring the wrong professional is more costly than the additional effort required in the early stages of recruitment. True professional thrive in a busy work environment that has an adequate amount of challenge, yet rushing the recruitment process to help ease the workload is not a viable option when the goal is to overcome the motivation crisis.


The mindset of a professional may well differ from other workers in that the psyche of an individual who chooses a professional career path is someone who constantly seeks the next challenge. They tend to despise repetitive tasks and bore easily preferring variety in their workload.

Professionals see challenges as professional growth and this is what keeps them engaged and motivated during the work day. Because of this, they often require regular feedback, not much unlike an athlete and coach. Their self-concept is based on measurable “scores” of success and feedback from a partner/manager can be equated to a pat on the back by the coach or a point added to a scoreboard. Feedback, coupled with a sense that their input is valued in decision making, are significant aspects of a motivated professional.


With a better understand of the professional psyche, implementing Motivational “Maintainers” is the obvious next step in the ongoing process of motivating professionals in a service firm.

Motivational “Maintainers”

  • Provide clear goals
  • Give prompt feedback
  • Reward performance quickly
  • Treat them like winners
  • Involve in decision making
  • Seek their opinions often
  • Provide autonomy in work
  • Hold accountable for results
  • Tolerate impatience
  • Provide varied work opportunities
  • Keep them aware of upcoming challenging goals

(Source: C. Bell, “How to Create a high Performance Training Unit,” Training, October 1980, pp. 49-52)

As clear as these maintainers are, more often than not many partners/managers omit these simple principles in their interaction with junior professionals. The presence of ambiguity, lack of feedback, delayed rewards and recognition are seen as all too prevalent in far too many firms today.

One true way to maintain a motivated group of professionals is summarized in two statements; “Yeah, you’re good … but how good are you?”  Both portions of these statements play a key role in keeping a professional in a mindset of challenge. The first portion references the need to (#4 ) treat them like winners and the second portion references the need to (#11) keep them aware of upcoming challenges.

Nothing motivates a professional more than a challenge of “Bet you can’t do this.” Many partners/managers make the mistake of believing they are helping a situation by decreasing the demands of a project. Instead, they should be raising the bar with the mentality of a coach by asking a professional to reach farther to find their personal best. In the same breath, a good coach is just as supportive as he is critical of his “players” being both specific and constructive when doing so.


Successful partners/managers need to focus their energies on providing their professionals with a meaningful understanding of why they do what they do. Even the most menial of tasks, when put into the context of its importance in the overall landscape of a project or even for the firm, will intrinsically motivate a professional. When a professional’s psyche is told that a task is worthy of them, the motivation is instantly there.  Additionally, keeping in mind the need for a variety of tasks, a professional is rarely de-motivated because there is just too much to do.  Remember, they thrive on challenges and become bored when there is little if anything to do.  Maintaining the right diversity in their work and a challenging workload makes for a motivated professional.


No matter how motivated a workforce is, nothing completely takes the place of promotions. With the reality of making partner more and more elusive in many firms today, no firm can promise continued career progress for every junior professional. Understanding that part of the professional psyche is the need for career progression, the only true answer to this situation is outplacement. By offering such an opportunity, a firm can truly ask for motivation from their junior professionals with the knowledge that there is still a commitment to continuing career progression, even if it is not with their present firm. Many firms are learning that having this new feature of their managerial tool box is a key element to filling a very significant void in their management system.


Long-term success is at hand for those senior professionals willing to truly understand and embrace the important role of motivation in today’s service firms. The knowledge that the motivational incentives of the past are no longer available to today’s professionals and the willingness to positively address this fact are what will attract the desired professionals to any given firm. By improving and modifying the role of senior professionals with respect to their interaction with junior professionals and offering outplacement as an answer to fewer partnership positions, the Motivational Spiral will continue in a positive direction for the entire firm.

But there is an even better alternative: engage one of our experienced public practice Outsourced Accountants and save yourself all the headaches and aggro of looking after staff – not to mention up to 54% of the costs!

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