What scaling your firm is really about, and how to set expectations for it

You know you are the bottleneck in your accounting firm, and it’s time to scale to solve the problem. You desperately need a vacation, but you can’t seem to pull yourself away. The hamster wheel keeps spinning and you continue to run. When you take an afternoon off your phone is blowing up and the team cannot seem to function without you walking them through every step of the way.

This is not sustainable, and you know it. But what do you do about it? How can you take yourself out of the day to day decision making? How do you train your team, and your clients, that not everything has to come through you? You’re looking for that sweet spot, where you are doing what you love and delegating the rest to your very capable team. A scalable firm. Others have done it, so you know it’s possible: but how will YOU do it?

Removing yourself as the bottleneck is possible. It allows you to be who you want to be and do what you most want to do. To get there:

  • Identify and manage expectations for your clients and team
  • Create a team culture to align with your values
  • Build the team into a strong, productive unit
  • Manage transitions and client relationships in the process

Identify your expectations for scaling your firm.

Understanding what your actual expectations are about scaling will save you a lot of heartache in the long run. It will be tempting to skip this and presume you already know what you expect and where it’s coming from (i.e. I just want more time and for the business to run without me) but you need to get specific. It will be more challenging than you realize and more will be revealed than you initially realized.

One of our clients and PF Lab members, Cheryl Sharp, has been working on scaling her firm. She was excited and making progress. Recently she shared with us, “Just had a bit of a breakthrough with my coach – I’m so focused on the de-cherylising and helping the team to blossom etc that I’m not 100% sure what my role looks like!! So I need to spend some time working on that and defining where I’m going personally. This scaling lark is a lot more than I initially thought!” Scaling will reveal more about you than you first think it will: so start with your very real expectations.

Talk about these expectations with someone who can help you evaluate them. The PF team is one of your resources to do so, as are other accountants who have been in your shoes. Joining the PF lab will provide you with a community of accountants with whom you can bounce around ideas, identify problems and solutions and ask questions to learn from others further along in the journey.

A few questions to start with about your expectations in scaling are:

  • What are your first thoughts around scaling? Will it be quick and easy? Will it be difficult and treacherous?
  • What does “being done” with the transition look like?
  • After the transition happens, when would you consider your business “scaled”?
  • How are you getting in your own way right now?
  • How might you get in your own way throughout this process?

Take internal stock of how you are getting in your own way.

To really scale your business well, you’ve got to dig in and figure out how you got to this point in your business and how you want to change to move forward. What do you want in your personal and professional life? What is preventing you from getting there?

You’ll be tempted to answer question 2 with either “time” or “money.” You and I both know it’s never about the time or money, it’s about priorities. When you want something and set your mind to it, you can achieve it.

Accountants are some of the grittiest people on the planet. It’s your superpower. It can also be your kryptonite if you aren’t careful.

You’ve got to get beneath the excuse of time and money. Pay attention to your emotional and mental state and ask yourself the harder, deeper questions.

1) What blocks me from scaling?
2) What am I trying to control?
3) What prevents me from giving my team more responsibility?
4) Where am I not trusting?

When you figure out the answer to those questions, you can start to undo some of that limiting thinking and replace it with action that allows you to give up control, trust your team and give them more responsibility.

For example, you could start the scaling process, make progress and then discover you’re still wanting to attend client meetings with a certain type of client. To help scale the whole firm, you can ask, what is it about this type of client you still want to meet with? Do you need to? What training will the team need so eventually they can handle these conversations too? Do you REALLY need to be there?

Removing yourself as the bottleneck in your firm is far more than delegating all the “stuff” to other people. It’s bigger than taking yourself out of the day-to-day. It’s about brand, culture and values.

Identify your team culture and document it.

Every team has a culture, whether you’ve identified it or not. And when you are seeking to scale, you need to make sure you have not only identified this team culture, but know your whole team aligns with it. Your culture is going to be the biggest strength of, and hurdle to, your scaling process.

Your team culture flows from your firm’s brand.

Do you have a clear brand? Does your team know and understand it?

Here’s an article sharing a few points about how you can know if your accounting firm brand is clear and if your team is up to speed.

Your brand needs to match your values. If your core company values are Bravery, Efficiency and Kindness, every element of your design, content and strategy will flow back to those values.

Your team will each embody those values. It’s all very well to say you’re about Bravery: but is every member of the team brave? In what way? How do you know someone is being brave or not brave? Where do you evaluate this? How is it part of your regular team discussions?

Your brand carries a story. Is your company name just your last name typed out on a Google doc or does the name & colors come from a meaningful story? For example, Equibis Accounting was born out of a need to communicate one of their core values “Equity” and who they worked with- people in the cannabis industry. Their colors communicate a fresh and exciting brand and their imagery reflects the diverse audience they’d like to work with.

Your team understands the brand story and can communicate it to anyone asking.

Your brand delivers for your intended audience. Your brand isn’t for you, it’s for the people you are trying to reach. Good brands divide. The colors, imagery and message draw the right people in and push the wrong people away.

Your team can identify your intended audience and knows the pain points they face.

If you can’t answer in the affirmative to each of these brand statements:

-Your brand matches your values
-Your brand carries a story
-Your brand delivers for your intended audience,

Sign up for a Foundations Workshop with the PF team. We’ll spend time digging into your brand story, your values and your intended audience to make sure your brand reflects exactly who you are and who you are trying to reach. Then you can use this to help scale your firm better.

Live your values in your everyday behaviors.

When your team has the same values and are living by them, it makes the decentralization process easier. Each member trusts one another and when things get messy, they can fall back on the truth of the values.Your values give each of you a rubric to assess behavior and make changes accordingly.

At PF, one of our internal values is “Have an opinion.” This plays out practically in 2 ways: first, in team meetings we are all expected to chime in with our thoughts and share openly. Second, in client meetings, we share what we believe and coach our clients to understand the philosophy behind those beliefs.

If our MD or someone on the team consistently notices someone isn’t sharing their opinions or coaching their clients with authority, we’ll talk to one another about it and figure out what is beneath it. Is it imposter syndrome? Fear? Pride? Laziness? Digging underneath the surface action (or lack of action) helps us see what is going on and figure out how we can fix it.

The way your team members respond to questions or digging in like this will tell you if they are committed to living out the values or not, or if they even truly hold the values at all. You can’t give more responsibility to a team you can’t trust, so making sure everyone is on board is important.

Hire team members who have the necessary skills and values to achieve the firm’s goals

One of the questions to ask during the scaling process is, do you have the right people in the right seats in your firm? If so, awesome! You are already halfway to removing yourself as the bottleneck. If not, you need to reevaluate if you can train for skill or if the person simply is not a values fit and need to be exited from the business.

If you have to exit someone from your business, this isn’t a failure, it’s a learning experience. When you hired that person, they were the right team member for that time in your business. Your business has grown and changed and they may no longer be a fit. (It could also be that your hiring process has changed significantly since this person was hired, and it now reflects who you are as a firm, but it didn’t then.)

When you have the right people in the right seats, you’ll be able set scaling goals, and start cultivating the culture of trust needed to start handing over more to your team.

Set your goals for scaling your firm.

Besides wanting your business to run more efficiently and profitably, what goals do you have for yourself? Do you want a new kitchen or to take 6 weeks off during the summer? Do you want 50 new clients this year or 5? What are you hoping to achieve long term in your firm that will help you reach your long term personal goals?

Knowing what your goals are helps you come up with a plan to get there. If you don’t know what you are aiming for, you won’t be able to see the road ahead.

Your business goals are your marketing goals.

Everything you do in your marketing can help you achieve those goals. It’s about putting the intentionality behind what you are doing so you know where you are headed.

One accountant used her marketing actions to achieve her personal goals. She wanted to work less, increase her per-client revenue and get all her clients off of QB desktop.

The marketing actions tied to this were to change her contact page questionnaire, create more brand consistency to attract the clients she wanted and also collaborate with the PF content team to write copy for her website better reflecting the people she wanted to work with.

If you want to grow by 50 new clients, you’ll likely need to hire more employees. Hiring more employees means making sure your website and hiring page accurately reflect your values and brand. And when they do, then you advertise via various social channels to make sure you are getting your firm in front of the right talent.

Make sure your goals are SMART.

Your goals need to be Specific,Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time based (SMART). If they aren’t, they’ll likely fall into the ether of “things you’ll do when you get the time.” And we all know, there will never be a time if you don’t make if you don’t make it a priority.

One thing that’s helped us at PF is to create goals attainable in month-long increments. Here’s an example.

If my goal is to sign a new client on a monthly retainer, I look backwards to see what small steps I can take towards that goal in a 1 month period. These are things like checking in on where they are on a project, sharing information with them that will be helpful to make the decision to sign for a retainer, asking if they’d like a quote and following up if I’ve already sent a quote.

Each of those smaller things can be done within a month-long time frame, and are all working towards that larger goal of helping the client to get the services they need. While our goal is to have a client on retainer, our priority is to always make sure our clients are getting what they need- regardless of how it benefits PF.

Share your goals with your team.

Part of working together is being transparent about what you want, for both work and business. It’s good for your team to see what you are working towards personally. It’s a great example for them of what it looks like to be ambitious and to work for things you want.

If you are experiencing hesitancy in sharing with your team, explore that. What about it makes you nervous to share? What would you gain by not sharing? What would you lose by sharing?

Digging beneath your initial hesitation to untangle some of your own inner beliefs will help you recognize what might be stopping you from moving forward in your business.

Some hesitations accountants have expressed in the past include being worried of what their team might think of their personal goals. “Will the team think I’m being too greedy?” “Will they feel like I’m just using them to get what I want?”

If you’ve done the work to ensure you have the right team with the right values, push those hesitations away. Remember while your inner feelings are real, they aren’t always true. Your team have your best interest in mind, just as much as you do theirs. And it’s not only about your goals: it’s about theirs, too.

Encourage your team to set their own goals.

Being a part of your firm isn’t just about getting the work done and helping you, the business owner, achieve your goals. It’s about helping your team reach theirs too.

Allow each team member to set aside time to document what their goals are, both professionally and personally. You can give them a couple hours at the beginning of a quarter to spend some time with this. If they know they’ve been given time during their normal work hours, they will be more likely to prioritize it and really figure out what they want.

Goal categories to help guide them are:

Health– Are there certain fitness or nutritional goals they’d like to achieve? Perhaps they’d like to exercise more or eat less sugar. This goal could also be related to emotional or mental health. Maybe they’d like to see a therapist or spend more time reading self help books.

Finance– What do they want to buy? Do they want to pay off debt? Save for a vacation?

Relational– Do they want to spend more time with a particular family member? Make amends with someone they’ve got conflict with? Possibly they want to have less time with people and more time to themselves.

Careers– What are their ambitions for their career path? Do they want a promotion? Do they want to make more money? Do they want to be with your company in 5 years or are they hoping to move somewhere else?

Spiritual– Maybe you have a team member who wants to start a meditation practice. Perhaps they want to start reading the Bible more or attending a worship service more regularly. Yoga and regular connection to nature may also be a form of spirituality a team member would like to try.

Learning– Is there a particular topic they are interested in- personally or professionally? Maybe a new skill or hobby they’d like to try?

Each of these categories are just a starting place. Encourage your team to explore their goals either within these or in other areas as well. They list what they want to accomplish and then break those larger goals down into smaller, more attainable and measurable bite sized goals.

Work together towards a common goal.

Your team will feel more cohesive and drive when they are all focused on achieving a specific goal together.

An example of this might be to hire 2 new employees by the end of the year. The whole team can be on board to help with this goal and can execute actions to get you there. A list of actions to push everyone to work towards that goal could look like this:

1) Write job description
2) Record video for hiring page
3) Upload video to hiring page and social media channels
4) Create a listing on local hiring sites
5) Share hiring posts on social channels (each team member)
6) Review applications and take place in the interview process

Each team member can take responsibility for one or more of these actions. In your team meetings once per month you can check in on these specific goals to make sure everyone is making progress and being held accountable.

Review those longer term goals every 6 months.

While you are working on accomplishing those SMART goals, don’t lose sight of the bigger vision and larger goals you are trying to achieve.

At a minimum, take a look at these larger goals every 6 months. Assess, recalibrate and make sure you are working towards and not against them. Remember your goals are related to your marketing actions. Looking at those actions and figuring out what you can do to practically move forward is important. After all, those are the steps you can take to achieve your goals.

Build a team who trust each other.

Now you’ve got the brand, culture and goals in place to really make some progress. This is where the extra hard and really rewarding work starts to happen. You’ll have growing pains and struggles AND you’ll get to see your team flourish and grow in ways you didn’t think were possible.

Break down team barriers with vulnerability.

Everyone on the planet has some form of imposter syndrome. It doesn’t matter how good you are at your job or how many years of experience you have, we all suffer from it in some way. This is a good starting point for you and your team.

Ask them if they ever feel inferior in their position. Ask them if they are afraid to fail. Ask them if they sometimes feel like they will be “found out” and exposed as a fake.

But before asking them, share yourself. It’s particularly important as the leader of your firm that you set the example. Vulnerability begets vulnerability.

At PF this started by reading “Rising Strong” by Brene Brown. Reading this book together wasan absolutely life changing experience for our entire team. It broke down barriers and revealed things about ourselves we didn’t recognize were there. Some of it was personal and some professional. If you aren’t paying attention to those things- they can quickly and easily create complicated dynamics which break a team apart and don’t meld them together.

When it comes to matters of the heart, the professional and personal lines get quite blurred. It’s important for your team to know those things affecting their inner being, because they will always come out in the workplace somehow.

When we read and reviewed this book, we also took time to identify our own core values and shared them with one another. In Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead- you’ll find information on how to do this. Essentially you are given a list of many values and you narrow down to a core 10 and then from there a core 5 and then from there a core 2. These 2 core values are what everything in your life falls back on.

For example, my two core values are vulnerability and love. Everything I think, say and do comes back to holding these each close to my heart. They influence and encompass all of who I am.

Knowing these values helps us have conversations with one another with those things in mind. It helps us make sense of the way a person might react and observe a particular situation. It allows us to give one another grace and empathy when something is hard. It also allows us to know how to best celebrate and care for one another.

If this vulnerability practice seems too “touchy feely” for you and your team, explore that too. Is it really too much or is there something in the way? If it’s not your style, what is your style? How can you best work to invest in one another for the better of the entire team?

Every human needs to be vulnerable and open to one another if they want to have real and lasting relationships. Particularly in the workplace, where we spend the majority of our days, it’s even more important.

Sharing vulnerably allows you and your team to trust one another. It builds the foundation for a team who could take on responsibility in new and challenging ways. And when your scaling process breaks down (which it will at times), you’ll have a place from which to discuss this honestly and openly.

Ask your team what they need from you.

The best way to know what your team needs to succeed in the scaling process is to help them be upfront about their expectations, too. Where do they feel they need you to get involved and why? Where do you feel you need to be involved and why? How do those fit together? This needs to be an open conversation with each of you contributing, coming to the table with thoughts about what will work best for all.

How do they best accept feedback and challenging questions? If you’ve built a culture of trust, each team member can communicate those needs and you can talk with one another about how that will work within the greater team culture.

Where can you be present to them and figure out what they need to succeed? Does this look like regular more formal check-ins or something informal like a slack channel? Typically you’ll start out with something more formal and as the months go on, you’ll be able to move to something that is a little more casual.

Train your team for scaling intentionally.

When you’ve identified the gaps in their knowledge, work towards filling them in. You may be familiar with the training process moving from you to them: here’s how it works:

  • You lead, they watch: Start with the team member watching you perform the task.
  • You lead, they support: You’re in charge, but they contribute to portions of it
  • You both do it together: Do the task together with them, each of you contributing equally.
  • They lead, you contribute: Have them perform the task and you watch and pipe in when feedback is needed.
  • They lead, you review: Have them do the task on their own, without you watching or in the meeting, and you review it afterwards.
  • They lead, you spot check: Have them do the task without review and you can spot check as needed.
  • Task is fully scaled and someone else spot checks: Set up a rhythm within the firm to make sure the task is done according to your systems every time.

This is not a short process. It won’t happen in 2 months. Set yourself up for a long transition. It’s tempting to shortcut things so you can get on with what you are doing. But you’ll end up missing some blind spots and not catching all the necessary things needed to make sure the process runs as smoothly as when you are doing it. Oftentimes during this process you’ll recognize things you do you which you didn’t even realize you did. It will take work to figure out what those things are and put them in writing so someone else can replicate the process. Taking the time to do it properly instead of rushing will save you a lot of headache in the future.

Learn from other companies and apply the principles to your own firm.

As an accountant, you love a good business book. Take some of your favorite books and have the whole team read them, discuss and then apply things in a way that fits with your team. Ask questions like

1) How does this concept apply to my firm?
2) What culture do we need to instill some of these principles in our business?
3) How could some of these successful business principles help us scale our own business?

Some of the recent books we’ve read to help us in our scaling journey are:
Deep Work, Creativity Inc, No Rules Rules, Atomic Habits and Rising Strong

Each one of these books had different wisdom to offer which gave us perspective on how we could grow and change our own company. The beauty in something like this is you can take the pieces you want, apply them to your firm in a way that fits best with your values and culture, and discard the rest. When we read “No Rules Rules”, every team member mentioned things they liked, and also mentioned “But we aren’t Netflix”. We used our team retreat to discuss where we weren’t like Netflix and how we were different at PF, and what that meant for our scaling.

Learning from other companies helps you feel you aren’t reinventing the wheel for every single thing you are doing in your firm. People have gone before you for good reason. Learn from them.

To truly scale your firm, let go of control.

This is the hardest thing you will do. It makes sense. This company is your baby. You’ve invested so much time, money and effort in it. You’ve given sleepless nights and tears (no different than raising an actual child) and you want to make sure it survives and thrives. You set up your business so you could be in control of your life: and now, in the scaling process, you are releasing that control to your team so you can maintain that control. It feels backwards, but it must be done as you grow.

Surviving and thriving doesn’t have to look like absolute control. It looks like using wisdom and discerning when and how to give up responsibilities and place them with your team members.

That’s why investing in your culture and making sure your team has the necessary skills and talents to take on more responsibility is so important. You want to get out of being the bottleneck. They want that for you too.

And it’s only when you strike the balance of training to hand over responsibility that your team can do this in a healthy manner, both for them and for your clients.

Manage the transition with your clients by taking things slowly.

While you’ve been working on this transition diligently for months or maybe even years, the clients haven’t been privy to that information. It may come as a surprise to them to discover you won’t be as involved in their accounts as you once were. Treat this with tenderness and grace, knowing that you care deeply for these people not just as clients, but as humans.

Decide if there are some clients you don’t want to keep

Making a massive change like this is a great time to assess which clients you’d like to keep and which clients you’d like to exit from your firm. If there are some on the fence, now is the time to make the decision. If they were difficult or troublesome before the transition, it’s likely they’ll be even worse during and on the other side of it. Use this as your opportunity to help them become the best clients ever: and if they don’t, or won’t, use it as an opportunity to release them and get more of the clients you love.

Preserve client relationships with multiple reminders and reassurances

If you are still regularly involved in the day to day client interactions, you’re going to need to move things one step at a time. There is a certain security that clients feel knowing they have the owner of the company working with them. They likely have had a relationship with you from the beginning – the first phone call, the first contact, the first few years of their business. The client has an inherent trust in you because you hold the top spot at the company, and they know what it means to be the one responsible for making all the decisions. We’ve created the illusion in the business world that the heads of companies are the most important, have the highest knowledge and are therefore put on a certain pedestal in terms of working with people.

In a better world, the heads of companies have surrounded themselves with people who are collectively better than them. The company then runs more efficiently, is more profitable and serves clients better than any one owner could do single handedly.

Communicate to your clients why you are making the transition and how it benefits them

Make sure clients know you aren’t going anywhere. Like any good business owner, you want to be working on your business more than you’re working in your business. They will be doing something similar. Assure them you’ve been training your team and more people on their account equals better service not worse. One of the things we mentioned to our clients during the transition from our owner being involved in every client relationship, to being involved in leading the team as they led the client relationships, was that things would get done better and more efficiently when they communicated with their Client Marketing Manager first. Our owner Karen would say things like, “Honestly if you email me, i may miss it: but when you send it to the team email, it’s more likely it will get seen and sorted, especially if I’m away or working on a bigger project at the time.” It’s not enough to say it: you need to mean it. You need to trust your team to truly take care of the clients better than you would, and it will take time.

You are investing in your team and taking time to train them so they are already doing the work in the background before the client knows it. That way, you can tell the clients it’s being taken care of and they’ve already seen that in action.

Show them how this transition benefits them for the long term and help them to see the upside in the short term.With the power of the entire team, they are getting more service, not less. They will have a client manager dedicated specifically to their account and that client manager won’t be pulled in a thousand directions like you, the business owner are. They’ll have easier and quicker access to get their questions answered in a timely manner as well. Make sure this actually happens, too. There will be things which are dropped and which don’t happen like they used to. Express to your clients you all are human, and the transition will take time. When something is missed (and it will be), tell them to share it with the whole team so you can fix it and make it better. Use it as an opportunity to remind clients they don’t have to bring problems only to you, the business owner. They can bring it to a team member. Clients can fall into the trap of believing only the business owner has the final say in how things are done in the company. If this truly is the case, you haven’t scaled at all, and there’s progress still to be made.

If clients still want you to be engaged in their account, decide first if that’s what YOU want. You are the owner in your firm and need to be able to make the decisions you want to make and not be swayed by what the clients want. If you want to take on a couple higher level accounts, go for it. If you’d rather be pursuing other things, do that instead. You get to decide what you want. You could set a premium cost for those working only with you: but this could also backfire and result in you becoming a consultant for your own clients, running the hamster wheel of constant client interaction. Isn’t that what you set out to stop, by scaling your firm?

While you’re doing all this, don’t lose contact with your clients completely. Yes, you want to be out of the day to day work, but you’ve invested time in these relationships. You probably know some birthdays and anniversaries and favorite brewery spots to hit up. Don’t let that part of the relationship fall by the wayside. In fact, when you get yourself out of that bottleneck situation, you’ll have more time to hit up those local breweries with your favorite clients. You’ll get to enjoy the best part of the client relationship which you formerly didn’t have time for, because you were focusing on the specifics of the work.

When you’ve made the transition to your team running the business, you can move forward with new ideas and scale your firm.

You’ve got your team running like a well-oiled machine and everyone is invested in common goals, serving your clients well and being a part of a profitable business.

Now you get to have some fun. First sit back and look at what you’ve built with the help of your team. It’s beautiful isn’t it?

Next, start pursuing what you’ve dreamed of after removing yourself as the bottleneck. Maybe you want to write a book or improve a service or invest in the team in a different way. Maybe you just want to sit on a beach and relax for a hot minute. All of those things are acceptable 🙂

A few things to think about once you’ve got that machine running are:
1) What do you want to do next?
2) How are you continuing to support your team so they can support the clients?
3) What is your ultimate goal for your role in the business?

Answering these questions and setting some new goals will give you clarity about how to move forward and what part of this “taking yourself out of the bottleneck” process you might need to do again.

Inevitably, new ideas will lead to new goals and new systems. And if you aren’t careful, you’ll end up right back where you started: having built something awesome but getting stuck as the only one who knows how to do what you want done.

A strong team allows the whole firm to move forward.

When you’ve got high performers who know how to get the job done and are a values fit, the sky is really the limit to what you can accomplish in your firm.

It’s the sweet spot where the whole team is thinking of new ideas on how to improve services and serve your clients well.

Because you’ve given your team the chance to grow and excel, they will show off more of their potential. They’ll do things you never expected them to do- they might even get excited about helping you with marketing (Insert wink emoji :))

Removing yourself as the bottleneck in your firm will allow you to build a stronger team and maintain client relationships. You’ll learn how to operate as a team and not individual parts and in so doing, your firm will scale and grow in the way you’ve always dreamed it would.

To get more help on this, join the PF lab. It’s a place you can learn, grow and experiment with all the things you’ve learned in this article. You’ll have the support and coaching of the PF team alongside the comradery of other accountants around the world who are doing similar things. It’s a great place to continue the work of decentralizing yourself and scaling your firm.